Miami. In town for the Super Bowl.
Even now as I sit in Hard Rock Stadium, a few hours before the 54th playing of American football – and American sport’s – single biggest game, I have to pinch myself.
Twenty-seven years I’ve been watching this great sporting spectacle from afar, with each year that passes vowing to myself that one day, by hook or by crook, whichever stops need pulling out, I’ll get there.
This year, due to a combination of a city within reach of a direct flight, a supportive wife who has taken the kids for a few days and a milestone birthday coming up, I decided it was time to pull out those stops and get myself to the Super Bowl.
The cache of HM The Yorkshire Post also helped, particularly in the offices of the NFL UK, who made securing accreditation for such a grand occasion almost as easy as obtaining a press pass for a recent FA Cup game at a League Two ground. You were late applying, Sir. We’ll have to get back to you. It’s only bloody League Two.
Anyway, back to Miami, a city buzzing with Super Bowl fever.
Each of them I think of now as I sit here looking out over the field behind the Chiefs endzone in Hard Rock Stadium, a couple of hours before kick-off.Nick Westby
It already has a reputation for being the best Super Bowl host for the sunshine, the beaches and the parties, but in hosting its first for a decade it has excelled itself.
The boardwalk across from the art deco houses along South Beach has been transformed into Super Bowl boulevard with fan experiences, shows and events.
The parties are cropping up across town, none more popular than GronkBeach.
Twelve months ago, Rob Gronkowski caught a 29-yard pass from Tom Brady that finally broke the Los Angeles Rams’ resistance in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. Running back Sony Michel punched in the resulting one-yard touchdown run and the New England Patriots had a sixth title of the Brady-Bill Belichick era.
The larger-than-life Gronkowski subsequently retired to pursue the next phase of his life, seemingly as a professional partier (only in America), and tickets to his knees up on Saturday night were the hottest in town.
Expect GronkBeach to become a regular of Super Bowl week, an event that is already about so much more than just a three-hour game.
Super Bowl Sunday is becoming known as Super Bowl Week, with the NFL in recent years striving to dominate the news agenda long before kick-off, which is customarily 6.26pm EST or 11.26pm back home in England.
The festivities begin the Sunday before when the two teams land in the host town. Twenty-four hours later, Monday night has been dubbed ‘Opening Night’ in which every player and team official is made available to the accredited media who have already set up base in Super Bowl town.
Such was the enormity of the event this year, the NFL had to stage it in a baseball park, the stadium of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins.
This year, the death of NBA legend and American sporting icon Kobe Bryant the day before meant it was reaction to that stunning event that dominated the news cycle, with thoughts on the profound impact it was having on the country being the first question reporters asked the likes of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle.
The events continued throughout the week as talk turned to how the Chiefs might beat the defensive front of the 49ers, and whether San Francisco could contain Kansas’s unpredictably brilliant Mahomes.
The final curtain is the NFL Honours Night, an awards show complete with red carpet and celebrity host to honour the best of the season just gone. As ever with these awards, votes are cast long before the biggest prize is handed out.
Baltimore Ravens had the best record in the regular season thanks largely to their own generational talent at quarterback in Lamar Jackson who was named league MVP (most valuable player).
But where he was found wanting in the play-offs, the Ravens eliminated in a shock divisional-round exit, Mahomes – his predecessor as league MVP – has come to the fore, proving prior to the Super Bowl that he is the NFL’s leading man.
Mahomes has piloted Kansas City into their first Super Bowl in 50 years, and in the NFL’s 100th season, it is fitting that the Chiefs who contested the first ever Super Bowl in January 1967 are back in the big game.
The 49ers are one of the sport’s more storied franchises, and not just in America. They have a swathe of fans back home in England because of the days of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice in the 1980s. They won four Super Bowls that decade, their dominance coinciding with the first images of American football being shown on British television.
A highlights package on Channel 4 was the birthplace of so many people’s interest in the sport, my dad’s included. It was watching it with him in the very early 90s that my own curiosity was first piqued. The vivid colours, the acrobatic plays, the tactics employed on both sides of the ball. The names as well: Montana, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason. I was hooked.
My first Super Bowl was No 27, Dallas Cowboys beating the Buffalo Bills. A 12-year-old lad with school the next morning, I only got through half of it. A year later I made it into the third quarter but with the Cowboys routing the Bills again I retired.
The first one I made it through to the very end for was Super Bowl XXIX, the 49ers beating the San Diego Chargers. It was another rout, but I lapped up everything I could about the game and the occasion; the anthems, the half-time show, the crestfallen Chargers. That game was also in Miami, 25 years ago. A neat symmetry.
All through that era of staying up til 3.30am to watch it with my dad, the NFC teams held sway over the AFC, winning 13 in a row. Which is why more than a quarter of a century on I don’t follow a team, I just always root for the AFC team.
It was the Denver Broncos who finally ended the sequence, after three painful losses of their own during that streak, defeating the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. It was also the first close game I remember, and a barnburner at that with two gunslingers at quarterback in John Elway for the Broncos and Brett Favre for the Packers.
Those late nights and early mornings in late winter would become the norm for me, first with my dad and brother and then with friends I have shared the occasion with, each of them I think of now as I sit here looking out over the field behind the Chiefs endzone in Hard Rock Stadium, a couple of hours before kick-off.
The media centre is divided as to who will win the game, just as Radio Row has been all week. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know who I’m rooting for. AFC all the way and Mahomes is just too good to watch. Great players should embrace the moment and seize it.
But more than a quarter of a century of Super Bowls has taught me that it is often the great teams that win out, which is why I’m backing the 49ers with their defensive strength, powerful run game and a quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo who is a lot more capable than the pre-game talk would have you believe.
By the time you read this in The Yorkshire Post on Monday morning the outcome will be known. I may be completely wrong. But there’s worse places to be sat with egg on your face.