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Behind the Scenes at the Super Bowl

Clarence Dennis has seen things, things you may never see

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Above image credit: Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the site for Super Bowl LIII (Courtesy | Myles Simmons)

Editor’s Note: Flatland’s Clarence Dennis, a lifelong Kansas City Chiefs fan, has a story to tell. You see, he’s been to the Super Bowl. Not as a spectator, but as a member of the Los Angeles Rams’ media team just last year. His first-person story that follows offers a rare perspective on Super Bowl week. Enjoy!

I had two ledes ready. 

The first, “The Los Angeles Rams will face the Kansas City Chiefs…”

The second, “The Los Angeles Rams will face the five-time world champion New England Patriots…” 

As a life-long Kansas City sports fan, it was completely at odds with my superstitious sporting code to have “Chiefs” and “Super Bowl” written and ready to publish before the final whistle. It was strange enough to have those three words in the same sentence.

Just part of the job.

I sat alone in the Rams’ Agoura Hills, California, office – an editorial intern – occasionally waving an arm to keep the automatic lights on. I watched the Chiefs march down the field and send the AFC Championship game into overtime with a field goal.

The crowd was going wild. Sitting in sunny California, I could only imagine what a trip to the Super Bowl would mean to all those people clenching hand warmers at Arrowhead.

Instead, I was writing about who the Rams would face, as the rest of the office was either wrapping up a team-sponsored watch party somewhere, or on the charter flight home from New Orleans, where – amid great controversy – the 13-3 Rams clinched the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since 2001.

The Pats won the toss. Brady was Brady. Dee Ford was offsides.

A bitter winter closed in on Kansas City.

My phone rang that night as I laid down for bed. It was my girlfriend Emma, a fantastic Chiefs fan. Fueled by more than a few drinks and that Patriots derangement so many of us know, she issued a simple threat: “If you don’t beat Tom Brady and come back with a ring, I’ll kill you.”

The Rams would play the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. 

And I was going.

Clarence Dennis at the Super Bowl. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

So this is actually happening…

Many NFL talking heads predicted a Super Bowl run from the Rams well before I set out in my 2013 Honda Civic for my first job after college. They were right. I just happened to be along for the ride.

What does going to the big game even feel like? To go as a fan would be lucky, but to fly on the team charter, stay in the team hotel and be credentialed to cover a Super Bowl? 

In a word, weird. Just seven months earlier I was Googling how to write about sports. 

Who do you know here?

It began to feel real leaving the Rams practice facility the Sunday before the game. There were fans along the side of the road, cheering for the team’s police escort.

We were met on the tarmac in Atlanta to easily the most cameras I’d seen in one place in my life. Someone was handing out all-black Super Bowl LIII hats and we were shuffled to another bus, heading to the hotel. 

The team hotel was decked in Rams colors. There were photos of key moments from the season and team slogans plastered throughout the lobby and hallways — anything to make the week leading up to Sunday feel “normal”. 

Several of the players were really taking the arrival in. Phones were out, the moment shared on Facetime or Instagram. 

The vibe around the luxurious team hotel was palpable. Several players’ loved ones were in the hotel. It felt like one big, overjoyed household there to have the time of their lives and watch their guys reach the mountain top.

Guarding the Rams’ Atlanta residence was a legion of security. I’ve never been more nervous about forgetting a credential. It was like the pressure of keeping track of a passport times 10. There were bomb-sniffing dogs and credential checkpoints at the front door 24/7.

Traveling with the team to and from media sessions or practices meant being shadowed by a platoon of super bad-ass, no-smile, neck-tattoo, James Bond-looking dudes in all black. The ear piece, black-out shades-wearing posse didn’t say much. Some of them were armed with guns you typically only see on TV. Safe to say I trusted them with watching the perimeter while we got off the bus.

Distractions

One of the recurring narratives before the Super Bowl is about the “distractions” teams face leading up to the game. The team arrives a week early and pretty much does nothing but media, aside from a few incredibly closed-door practices, with strict rules about what can or cannot be filmed. 

The only blip of controversy in the week of preparation came when head coach Sean McVay flipped out after he caught wind of an offensive play mistakenly filmed in a closed practice at the Falcons facility and posted to a Rams social media channel. Whether it was a misunderstanding or miscommunication, the post was quickly removed and the scandal only resulted in a few hours of panic for my social media intern counterpart.

McVay had eyes on everything

Monday’s “Opening Night” is at the top of the list of distractions. The televised event invites 6,000 media members from around the world for one hour to pretty much ask whatever they want. My editor and I went in with some type of game plan, though I don’t really remember because we threw it out almost immediately.

I channeled my inner 13-year-old mosh pit enthusiasm and pushed past people who I’ve seen on TV my entire life, and the reporters from Germany and Japan — all while ducking under camera lenses to get within earshot of the players. This was no longer our face-to-face locker room conversations. Multiple podiums were set up for our main players. A lot of the lesser-known guys just walked around the arena floor as shell-shocked as I was.

Guillermo, Jimmy Kimmel’s late night sidekick, was there messing with Brady and Gronk. A few reporters from Mexico were asking players to try eating an assortment of insects. There wasn’t much sports journalism going on.

At the end of the session, as the Patriots were heading for the stage, we rushed to the last bus to the hotel. Navigating the crowd, I placed my hands on an older man’s shoulders and squeezed – and I mean squeezed – behind him to catch up with our group.

It was billionaire Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who, as we learned later, was dealing with a bit of a “distraction” of his own. 

“The Worst Super Bowl Ever”

On game day, I drank the biggest coffee I could find as a funk band thumped at a hotel rally around 9 a.m. I suppose if there was a time to wail on a sax during breakfast, getting friends and family members of a Super Bowl team ready to party is that time.

We had a final meeting in a hotel room that was reminiscent of an FBI stakeout setup. Our department of about 15 scrambled to get all of the cameras, memory cards, lenses, credentials and so on ready to roll and on the bus to the stadium with plenty of time to spare. 

The bus ride to the stadium was another “this feels real” moment. Atlanta was energized. We passed the “NFL Bleaux It” billboards that some Saints fan paid for, a reference to the NFC Championship Game’s pass interference no-call. Rams fans waved, a few Patriots fans responded with one-fingered salutes. 

My Super Bowl coverage was essentially the same as all of the other games, though it was eerie to be there in person to cover a game that more than 100 million people watched worldwide. 

No one in the press box predicted it would be “the worst” Super Bowl in recent memory. The game was expected to be a blow-for-blow battle between the Rams’ dynamic offense and the Pats’ stout defense. Instead, the Rams set a Super Bowl record for punting on their first seven possessions of the game.

The halftime show featuring Maroon 5 and Travis Scott was even less impressive in person.

Bill Belichick out-schemed the Rams’ 33-year-old McVay and the Pats won 13-3. What many considered the “Greatest Show on Turf 2.0” was held to three points. Brady got his sixth ring — which was actually pretty cool to witness in person.

Party On

There’s a lot of partying that goes on at the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s because everyone who isn’t playing in the game has to make up for missing out on Super Bowl parties back home. I have to give it to the Rams’ ownership for throwing nightly parties, rolling out countless meals and booking entertainment for every member of the organization — including friends and family.

The week-long work, party, work, repeat cycle peaked at the Super Bowl afterparty. 

The confetti fell, there was one last press conference whirlwind. I finished my postgame coverage on the bus back to the hotel while shoveling cold locker room food into my face. A fine base layer. 

At midnight, there were more buses waiting to take us to an undisclosed location, where a party unrivaled by any college bash raged despite the loss. In retrospect, it might be a good thing the Rams didn’t win.

We were told a cautionary tale by the Super Bowl LII champion Eagles media team, who apparently left some equipment behind in the hazy Monday morning following the Philly Special.

It was one of those blowouts that you see on TMZ in a blurry video, but for one night only it was crystal clear — kind of like the giant ice sculpture near the dance floor.

Flo Rida performing after Super Bowl LIII. (Courtesy | John Mathews)

Plenty of suits and ties and football royalty were in the house, including the man of few words himself, Marshawn Lynch, along with a sizable crew, in support of his cousin and Kansas City Chief-turned-Ram Marcus Peters.

There were surprise performances from Flo Rida and Snoop Dogg. For many, it was a celebration of arguably the greatest Los Angeles Rams season in NFL history. 

For me, it was a celebration of the end of the craziest work week of my life. 

It all ended on a particularly memorable note on the 4:30 a.m. bus ride back to the hotel, when several players, along with office, family members and I broke into the chorus of “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”

I have no idea why. I just happened to be there.

Oh, and I knew Emma wouldn’t actually kill me. She was impressed by my runner-up ring.

The NFC Championship ring. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

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