My wife and I love professional football and are season tickets holders (STH) for the Chicago Bears. Last fall, I entered a contest that the Bears sponsored, and the prize was a pair of tickets to Super Bowl LIV (54), held in Miami on February 2, 2020. Well, not just tickets to the game. A few other things were included as well. As I wrote about previously on The Last Trombone, I entered the contest—which required entrants to compose a 100 word essay to answer the question, “Who would you take to the Super Bowl, and why?”—and I nominated my son-in-law, Chad. And my essay was selected as the winner out of thousands of entries. Wow.
Ever since Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey (son of Bears owner, Virginia Halas McCaskey) called me last November to give me this happy news, Chad and I have been preparing to go to the Super Bowl. We knew the Bears were giving us tickets to the game, three nights of lodging in a Miami hotel, and airfare to Miami. What more could we ask for?! What we didn’t know was exactly what was in store for us during those days apart from going to the game itself. Now that we are back home from what I can only describe as a remarkable experience, I’ve had a little time to reflect on all that happened thanks to the generosity of the Chicago Bears.
Friday, January 31
It was snowing as I pulled out of our driveway to pick up Chad and drive to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Fortunately, the flight to Miami was uneventful and after we landed, we navigated Miami’s terminal to rent a car.
The airport was in full blown Super Bowl host mode, with Super Bowl signage and extra staff that was happy to help the huge invasion of visiting fans. While the Chicago Bears were not in the Super Bowl, we were proud to represent the Bears in Miami on behalf of all Bears season ticket holders. For us, it was all Bears gear, all the time, as you can see in these photos of us from Super Bowl weekend.
We drove to our hotel, the Biltmore Miami/Coral Gables. This is not the kind of hotel where our family usually stays on vacation! But the Bears and the National Football League (NFL),who partnered in this experience, pulled out all the stops in booking us in a 5-star, luxury hotel. Our room’s bathroom was bigger than a lot of hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. I’m serious!
Immediately upon checking in, Chad and I headed to our first activity of the weekend, a dinner in the Biltmore’s Ahlambra Ballroom. It was a spectacular feast and it was there that we learned more about what we would be doing throughout the weekend.
As we were told, each of the NFL’s 32 teams selected a season ticket holder (along with one guest) to receive a unique Super Bowl experience. Most teams conducted a random drawing; the Bears were the only ones (as far as I could learn) who chose a fan through an essay contest. At dinner, we began to meet the fans from other teams who had been selected to share in this special Super Bowl Experience.
[NFC North table at the Biltmore. Left to right, fans from the Chicago Bears (Chad and me), Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, and Green Bay Packers. Photo by Nicole Blake.]
We were all seated at tables according to our NFL division. Our table, representing the NFC North, was in the front of the room, and we sat with fans from the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, and Green Bay Packers. We also met Nicole Blake; she works for the NFL and was our exceptionally helpful NFL representative who took great care of our division throughout the weekend.
We were all given a custom NFL jersey in the style of our team’s jersey, each with the number 54 emblazoned on the front and back (for Super Bowl LIV), and the words “Super Bowl” across the back. These are real really special jerseys, and for us, it’s nice that they bear the number 54 which was worn by Bears Hall of Fame linebacker, Brian Urlacher. We wore the jerseys to all events during the weekend which was a good way for us to visually keep up with our group (and for our NFL reps like Nicole Blake to keep up with us).
During dinner, we had a private presentation by Al Riveron, the NFL’s Sr. Vice President of Officiating. This was really interesting. Really. Interesting. Every fan is passionate about officiating—especially when calls don’t go the way you want them to go. We all learned a lot about NFL rules and how they are applied—much more than had previously known—and there was an energetic back-and-forth between all of us and Al Riveron as he explained the nuances of rules and officiating. Sorry, Cowboy fans, Dez Bryant didn’t catch the ball (as shown on the photo above). But the rule, “What is a catch?”, was changed the next season and under the current rule, it would have been a catch. It was a terrific presentation, and it made me want to read the NFL rule book, a link to it which was kindly provided to me by Nicole Blake. You can read the rule book for yourself; click HERE to see it on the NFL website as a downloadable PDF file.
We also received a booklet with information about all of the participants in the STH program, a bit of each of our story, and how we were selected. Here (photo above) is what the Bears submitted about Chad and me.
After dinner, Chad and I drove to Miami Beach to take in the Super Bowl LIV Experience. The NFL provided us with tickets to the event which mostly had interactive games and activities for fans, as well as a NFL shop of epic proportions full of Super Bowl LIV gear.
Among the many exhibits at the Super Bowl LIV Experience was a display that featured all 53 Super Bowl Champion rings. Among them was the Chicago Bears Super Bowl XX ring from 1986, when the Bears defeated the New England Patriots, 46-10. The display was really impressive, from the modest rings of early Super Bowls to the outrageously large ring made for the New England Patriots when they won Super Bowl LIII last year, their record (along with the Pittsburgh Steelers) sixth Super Bowl victory.
There were also displays that included championship trophies, including the George S. Halas Championship Trophy, given each year to the NFC Conference Champion. It was named after George S. Halas, founder, owner, player, and coach of the Bears, and the man who is considered to be the “father of the NFL’ when it was founded in 1920.
And Chad and I had a little fun, climbing up behind a model of a 6’6″ Chicago Bear. Uh, no, those are not really our bodies!
Saturday, February 1
Saturday was devoted to attending the annual NFL Honors event where players and coaches are honored with awards in various categories, including Most Valuable Player, Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, etc. Chad and I had watched the program on television in previous years so we were really interested to get a first hand, up close look at how it all came together.
After meeting in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, we all boarded two busses for the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. This was one of the great things about the weekend: for both NFL Honors and the Super Bowl, we left the driving to someone else. Traffic around Miami was truly crazy, and we were very happy to just go along for the ride. We walked along the red carpet past dozens of media outlets whose photographers and videographers were busy setting up for the arrival of NFL players, coaches, and celebrities.
Once inside, we were all positioned on risers backstage where we could watch the proceedings on huge television monitors while being up close to many of the attendees and award winners before and after they received their awards. This was, to me, much more interesting than being out in the audience in the theater, since we got to see how photos, videos, and interviews came about. [Photo above by Logan Bowles, courtesy the National Football League.]
For instance, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Tenessee Titans running back Derrick Henry were named FedEx Air and Ground Players of the Year. Before the ceremony, they came backstage to be photographed with their trophies. The photo above was taken by me from our vantage point backstage. In the somewhat chaotic scene, you can see the photographer, a man who is operating a laptop that showed each photo, and another person assisting in the setup.
The photo above shows the same moment, as the photo was post-produced for the NFL’s Twitter feed [photo courtesy of the National Football League]. No more chaos; just two happy players with their awards. I love seeing how things work and come together. While it was a long day of sitting and standing, ours was a very special view of the NFL Honors event.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came by to greet us, and Chad and I each enjoyed a brief moment of conversation with him. While it’s easy for fans to be critical of the Commissioner when he metes out discipline to a player on your team, I have to say that we have great respect for the Commissioner. He has a Herculean job and all things considered, we feel he does an excellent job of helping to steer the NFL in good directions for fans, players, and owners. It was a privilege to meet him, have a few words with him, and shake his hand. [Photo above by Logan Bowles, courtesy the National Football League.]
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh came backstage to be photographed and interviewed after he accepted the NFL Honors award for NFL Coach of the Year. He recognized our Bears jerseys and immediately came up to Chad and me. Harbaugh’s younger brother, Jim, had been a quarterback for the Bears from 1987-1993 (he is now the football coach at University of Michigan). Chad had a nice chat with Coach Harbaugh who was enthusiastic over seeing Bears fans backstage.
Chad and I also had a brief moment on camera in the NFL Honors telecast, when host Steve Harvey came through the red carpet to interview a few of us. The photo above shows Chad and me on the broadcast as we appeared on the television broadcast. Fun stuff.
A highlight of the NFL Honors experience was seeing the 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell. This annual award, named for Walter Payton, legendary running back of the Chicago Bears, is given to one NFL player each year in recognition of his exceptional volunteer and charity award. Shown above is Calais Campbell with (left to right), Brittney Payton (Walter Payton’s daughter), Connie Payton (Walter Payton’s widow), and Jarrett Payton (Walter Payton’s son). We have a lot of pride in Chicago that this award is named for one of our own Chicago Bears. I had seen Calais Campbell play many times when my wife and I lived in Arizona (for six years before we moved to the Chicago area) and we were season ticket holders with the Arizona Cardinals; Campbell was a member of the Arizona Cardinals from 2008-2016. I was delighted to see Campbell honored as the 2019 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year. He is highly deserving of this, the NFL’s highest honor.
Sunday, February 2
Super Bowl Sunday began with breakfast at the Biltmore Hotel’s Alhambra Ballroom , where NFL Vice President of Broadcast Planning, Mike North (shown in the photo above), gave a presentation on how the NFL schedule is made up each year. I’ve known it’s complicated, but Mike North let us see just HOW complicated it is. There are so many factors to take into consideration. How is THIS (below) for a list of just SOME of the factors that have to be taken into consideration when the schedule is made each year:
Mike North, like Ron Riveron on Friday night, was very engaging, and we all enjoyed interacting with him, asking questions and learning so much. Chad and I left the presentation with an even greater appreciation for all the NFL does to put the product we know as the National Football League in front of fans around the world from August into February each year.
After breakfast, Chad and I took a walk around the impressive Biltmore property and then got ready to go to the game. We all met in the lobby of the Biltmore hotel where we were given our game tickets. Our seats were to be in an end zone, section 330, row 12. While my wife and I are certainly spoiled by our incredible 50 yard line seats as season ticket holders for the Chicago Bears, it’s always interesting to sit in different locations and get a different view of the playing field and stadium. With tickets in hand, we headed for the bus and we were off to Hard Rock Stadium for Super Bowl LIV.
Once again, we were really happy someone else was doing the driving. Having our own charter bus to get to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium (the home of the Miami Dolphins) made getting to the stadium a very relaxing experience. We arrived at the stadium at 2:00 pm (kickoff would be at 6:30 pm). Once there, we began to take in the scene. From cold and snowy in Chicago two days ago, Chad and I were standing in Miami’s 70 degree sunshine. Hard Rock Stadium underwent a major renovation in 2015. Among the many changes made at that time was the addition of a canopy that covers all seats and protects fans from rain and sun, leaving a large opening in the middle so the field is exposed to sunlight. The result was a modernistic update to the stadium that was originally built in 1987.
Super Bowl LIV was to be played by the San Francisco 49ers (representing the NFC) and the Kansas City Chiefs (representing the AFC). The two teams had great seasons and we knew we were in for a terrific matchup and game. Because we didn’t have a rooting interest in either team, we were going to enjoy a game where we could just appreciate the whole experience without the stress of seeing our team losing—or the joy of seeing it winning. Chiefs and 49ers fans were out in full force (such as the funny Kansas City Chiefs fan bus in the photo above) and the fan vibe outside the stadium was raucous, enthusiastic, and fun.
When we met at the Biltmore lobby and our Super Bowl tickets were distributed, we were also given wristbands (with embedded security chips) that would allow all of us to have access to the field at Hard Rock Stadium before the game. When we passed through security at 2:50 pm and got our first view of the inside of the stadium, the “wow factor” was in full force. We were virtually alone in the stadium, and as we made our way to the field, the full impact of just how special it was to be there began to sink in.
Our on-field access was to a dedicated area only for us, next to the Kansas City bench, near the Chiefs’ end zone. As time went on, players, coaches, and others began to arrive to get set up for the game.
Chad loves sports stadiums. He’s been a passionate sports fan since he was a young boy, particularly for the Chicago Bears. He has a prodigious memory for stadium details, even down to particular plays he’s seen in different venues. It was a real joy to see him at Hard Rock Stadium, just taking in the scene.
Being on the field was a spectacular experience. The panoramic photo above gives you a sense of where we were and what we looked out and saw. It was beautiful and more.
While our Chicago Bears were not in this year’s Super Bowl, we were keenly aware that the Bears had given us this amazing experience and in a very real sense, we were representing the team at the game. Many fans recognized our jerseys and shouted out “Go Bears!” and gave us high-fives and fist pumps. While on the field, I reached into my bag and pulled out a Bears rally towel, one that was given out at a Bears game this past season at Soldier Field. The Bears, as a founding franchise of the NFL in 1920 (one of only two still in existence, along with the Arizona Cardinals), celebrated their 100th season along with the NFL. Posing with my Bears rally towel was yet another tribute we could make to the team we love, in thanks for all the joy they give to our family and to so many other fans.
From our vantage point on the field, we saw many players arrive. Shown above is Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (on the left) who, just a few hours later, would be both a Super Bowl champion and also Most Valuable Player (MVP) of Super Bowl LIV. We also saw various media outlets on the sideline conducting interviews and reporting from the scene.
The time on field was a rich one, as all of us in the STH Experience were together taking photos and taking it all in. A nice moment came when all of us representing teams from the NFC North (Lions, Packers, Vikings, and Bears) got together for a photo with Nicole Blake (center in the photo above). I have to say, Nicole took exceptionally great care of our division. She was always available to help in any way possible and was a fount of information. We could not have asked for a more competent, helpful, poised person to assist us in so many ways. You heard it here first: Don’t be surprised if some day, you hear that Nicole Blake is commissioner of the National Football League. I’m serious. She’s that good! [Photo above by Logan Bowles, courtesy the National Football League.]
Before we left the field, all of us who had been given this amazing Season Ticket Holder experience gathered for a group photo. Getting to meet and know many of these fans was a highlight of the weekend and something we will keep with us for a very long time. It was great to be with fans who were there to enjoy the game, were passionate about their team, and engaged in friendly, positive, collegial (non-“trash talk”) conversation. I’m glad to have met them. You can see Chad and me kneeling in the middle of the group in the right hand third of the photo. [Photo above by Logan Bowles, courtesy the National Football League.]
By 4:45, we decided to leave the field and head to our seats. The stadium was slowly filling up and pregame entertainment was beginning to appear on the jumbotrons. We did a little shopping for Super Bowl souvenirs for family members and then walked up the ramp to section 320.
Then an extraordinary thing happened. We had been in our seats only a few minutes when who should come up to us but George McCaskey, Chairman of the Chicago Bears (center in the photo above). It was George who called me last November to tell me that my essay had been selected as the winning entry in the Bears’ Season Ticket Holder Super Bowl Contest. We have great admiration for the McCaskey family, beginning with George’s mother, Bears owner Virginia Halas McCaskey, who is the daughter of George Halas. From our seats in section 309 at Soldier Field, we can turn around and see Virginia McCaskey and her family in her owner’s box. We are very grateful for the way the McCaskey family runs the team. They are “stand up” people, a family that loves God, loves football, loves the Bears, and is very aware of the legacy that of which they are stewards. That George took the time to come to visit us in our seats was something I never could have expected. I didn’t see any other owners or Chairmen of any other teams making their way to visit winners of their Super Bowl ticket contest. We had a great conversation with George about the Bears, the Super Bowl, and how we all looked forward to the day when we would see the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl once again. Thank you, George, for all the Chicago Bears and McCaskey family means to our family and to Bears fans around the world.
Part of the pregame entertainment was the airing of the NFL’s new commercial titled, “Next 100.” It is a continuation of the story that started at the beginning of this just past season, which was the 100th anniversary season of the NFL. Before the first game of the season (which was between two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers), the NFL aired a commercial that featured dozens of current and former players at a banquet celebrating the NFL’s centennial. What happened as Commissioner Roger Goodell was addressing the players was quite something. Have a look at the NFL’s “100-year Game” commercial (to view the commercial on YouTube, click HERE):
As a follow up, the NFL created a new commercial that aired during the Super Bowl LIV pregame show. “Next 100” features 13 year old Maxwell Bunchie and a cast of current and former NFL players as well as youngsters who are currently playing the game. The commercial ended with Bunchie running onto the field at Hard Rock Stadium with a group of young players to the cheers of the crowd at Super Bowl LIV. The commercial became real. Have a look (to view the commercial on Youtube, click HERE):
I think this commercial is terrific. It brings together the youth football movement and the NFL, and it shows something of the future of the League. Of the many exceptional moments in the film, I was deeply moved by two segments. The first is where Maxwell Bunchie stands in front of the statue of Pat Tillman (who, while a member of the Arizona Cardinals, left the team after the 9/11 attacks and joined the U. S. Army; he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004) at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, home of the Arizona Cardinals. All music and other sounds stop in the commercial for a few seconds as Bunchie considers the sacrifice Tillman made in the service of his country.
The other special moment is near the end, when Bunchie walks a gauntlet of NFL players to the end of the tunnel to a playing field. There he is met by Chicago Bears owner Virginia Halas McCaskey—now 97 years old—who gives Bunchie the game ball for the kickoff of Super Bowl LIV and says, “You know what to do.” Bunchie accepts the ball, nods his head, and runs onto the field in Hard Rock Stadium. Film to reality without missing a beat.
With the showing of the “Next 100” commercial, the pregame activities moved ahead quickly. There was the introduction of many members of the NFL 100 All-Time Team, the 100 best players and 10 best coaches in NFL history. And then here was the singing of America the Beautiful by Yolanda Adams, and the National Anthem by Demi Lovato, both done very well and respectfully. Here is the video of Lovato singing the National Anthem (to view this video on YouTube, click HERE):
The coin toss was won by the 49ers who deferred to the second half, meaning the Chiefs got the ball first.
When the 49ers kicked off (photo above), Super Bowl LIV was underway. The first half seemed evenly matched which seemed a bit of a surprise. Many fans were expecting a high scoring game, but when halftime came and the score was tied at 10-10, it seemed like the game was wide open. But before the second half began, we had the Super Bowl halftime show ahead of us.
When we arrived at our seats before the game, we found a bracelet taped to the back of the seat. As we learned, every fan in the stadium was issued a bracelet with instructions to put it on before the halftime show and hold our hand up. The halftime show, which featured singers Shakira Ripoli and Jenifer Lopez, turned out to be much more than a musical event.
The show was a technological tour de force, where each of the 62,000 bracelet lights were remotely controlled to give the audience a spectacular, ever-changing light show. In addition to the bracelet lights, fireworks were fired skyward throughout the show. While I confess the musical aspect of the halftime show was not especially interesting to me and I was disappointed in the not-exactly-family-friendly, hyper-sexualized dress and movements of the star singers, I was fascinated by the innovative use of technology that kept the audience aware of the always changing environment. When I got home and saw the halftime show on television, I realized just how unique our view of the action was.
After halftime, the game resumed. The 49ers seemed to be in control of the game, scoring 10 unanswered points after halftime, but in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Chiefs became a different team. They quickly scored 21 unanswered points and won Super Bowl LIV handily, 31-20. The game was exciting and very interesting, and kudos to the Chiefs for continuing to fight even when it looked like they were poised to lose. As soon as the game was over, confetti in Kansas City Chiefs colors was shot over the field from confetti cannons. Look in the bottom left/center of the photo above to see the moment the confetti began.
Then followed the presentation of the Vince Lombardi trophy to the Chiefs (photo above), and the Most Valuable Player trophy to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Super Bowl LIV was history, a game that was more than worthy of concluding the year-long celebration of the 100th season of the National Football League.
As we left Hard Rock Stadium to return to our bus to take us back to the Biltmore Hotel, Chad and I turned around for one more look at the Stadium. It was beautifully lit on a beautiful night, palm trees moving in a gentle breeze. It seemed like the ideal end to a weekend to remember. Given all that we received from the Chicago Bears and the NFL, it’s difficult to find words that are adequate to express our gratitude. What started with writing a 100 word essay and entering a contest culminated in a trip of a lifetime. Thank you, Chicago Bears. Thank you, McCaskey family. And thank you, National Football League. Because of all of you, Chad and I were a part of football history last weekend, and that is something for which we are very, very grateful.
Oh, and. . .