By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
An overwrought tribute to the Columbia astronauts goes awry when the stadium screens show New England QB Tom Brady, which gets a loud cheer. It goes further awry when someone dressed like Neil Armstrong rises up on stage and slowly plants a flag on a moon mock-up, although this part of the tribute is apparently planned.
At 5:28 p.m., the game begins. Teams attempt to move an oddly shaped leather spheroid up and down a green field.
Watching the setup for the halftime show is more entertaining than the first-quarter punt-fest was. A huge stage and scaffolding is wheeled in by sprinting workers, two side stages are set up, giant nettings filled with balloons float through, thousands of cheering kids pour onto the field from four tunnels and start jumping around and only then does the marching band take its place. All of this takes maybe ten minutes.
Almost no one at the stadium caught the Janet Jackson tit show that the nation saw on TV; everyone at the stadium, however, caught the streak show that didn't make it to TV.
As Carolina lined up for the second-half kickoff, the referee approached the ball as if it had fallen off the tee. Then he stripped to a jockstrap and started dancing.
And no one did anything. The guy's out there dancing for five, ten seconds, and no one's making a move to stop him. He dances some more, and still nothing. He's running out of ideas, it's taking so long for security to react. He choreographed under the assumption he'd get stopped right away; now he's being forced to do a marathon.
This is the Super Bowl, security's supposed to be tight, right? Those of us in the stadium have been subjected to a film, animated with flowing arrows, showing us how to leave "in case of an emergency evacuation."
Finally a Houston cop gingerly steps out, but he doesn't look too sure about it. Then a security team sprints out from one of the tunnels -- where they've no doubt been herding the dancers onto buses. The streaker looks relieved, frankly, to be done dancing.
He starts running toward the Patriots, none of whom looks too interested in tackling a near-naked guy. At last, linebacker Matt Chatham shoves him to the ground, ignoring the tackling fundamentals of going low and wrapping the runner up.
Another odd moment comes just after Antowain Smith, the University of Houston's own, scores to put the Pats up 21-10 early in the fourth quarter. Sporting events are filled with deadening television timeouts, and the Super Bowl takes it to a new level.
During most of them the players mill around, talking to each other, stretching or drinking water. A music video sometimes plays on the big screen; sometimes it's music without any video.
But with the players in position for the kickoff waiting through the timeout, the scoreboard shows an ad for the NFL Network that features players singing "Tomorrow" from Annie. And every player on the field is entranced by it. For 30 seconds they aren't playing the Super Bowl, they're watching TV just like the regular folks. (The ad got a big hand from the crowd.)
The teams then continue in their efforts to score what are known as "touchdowns," and the Patriots kick a "field goal" to win the game. As you might have heard. (And the stadium noise throughout the game --even during the last-minute drive -- never gets as loud as expected. Too many corporate types in the seats is the common wisdom.)
The postgame locker rooms and interview areas are like Media Day with more intensity. Intensity on the part of the players, obviously, but also for deadline-frantic reporters. (There's no cheering in the press box, but there is an audible sigh of relief when overtime is avoided.)
Asked what coach John Fox had said after the game, Carolina QB Jake Delhomme comes through with flying colors and whatnot: "He's proud of us, and whatnot, and we should feel good about this season and whatnot," he says. "But right now it's just hard."
It is hard for the Panthers, and the pain in their eyes is clear. Someone has to lose these things, though, and fans from both sides head out to celebrate or drown their sorrows.
Leaving Reliant Stadium that night brings a strange mix of feelings -- finality coupled with a sense of disbelief that all the build-up, the hype, the preparations and pregame events, the circus that camped in town for a week -- is actually over.
But it is, and Houston will never be the same.