Focusing the night before the big game
Approximately 4,000 people have won an Oscar.
Approximately 3,300 people -- men and women -- have played in a Final Four.
I know these numbers because in 2002, the night before I played with the Colorado Buffaloes for a spot in the Final Four, I was watching the broadcast of the Academy Awards on my hotel room television. I shared the room with a teammate, and for an hour, we mindlessly absorbed the images on the screen, saying nothing. When I'd almost forgotten she was there, her voice cut through the silence.
"This time tomorrow we could be going to the Final Four," she said.
There was a long pause before I responded by asking, "I wonder how many people have ever played in a Final Four?"
She said: "I bet more people have won Oscars."
I stood, walked to the desk and opened my laptop.
"Wow," she said when I delivered the data, "we'd be in exclusive company."
Those were the last words spoken that night. We each returned to our state of mental preparation. I pictured the game, I pictured us winning, I worried about us losing and I calmed my racing heartbeat while desperately hoping to sleep.
On Sunday, a group of men -- some representing New England, others New York -- will experience a moment millions have dreamed of experiencing. They will play in the Super Bowl. Those hours inside Lucas Oil Stadium will swirl past, a mosaic of bright lights and vibrant colors.
These athletes won't need an Internet search to confirm what they instinctively know: They're about to do something few ever get to do. And that final night before the big game will be about balance, about properly sharing the gravity of the moment (phone calls and text messages to family and friends) while reserving enough time for personal focus (mental imagery, studying of the playbook, reflective reading). There will, of course, be a few players who just queue up the movie "Training Day" on their iPads and kill the lights. But those players will be the exception, not the rule.
Every Giants and Patriots player I talked with this week said he would lock himself in his hotel room Saturday night and spend hours alone. They will be studying their playbooks, visualizing the game, listening to music and distracting themselves with TV or a movie.
"I'd say first you have family members, friends, who are hitting you up the night before the game," Patriots cornerback Antwaun Molden says. "But then you have to shut that part off. I have the jitters for expectations for what's going to happen the next day. My brain just goes. I try to relax and be calm. I stay up a little later, stretching, rubbing down my muscles, but then I definitely need my moment of solitude."
In the days leading up to this game, enough time-consuming tasks exist (practices, film sessions and news conferences) that considering the game itself might feel premature. It really isn't until that final team obligation is completed -- team dinner followed by film session -- that players' minds are free for true mental preparation. Their schedules are purposefully filled until these final hours.
"It's just that feeling of closure knowing that you've prepared and done everything in your power to be successful," Giants offensive lineman Kevin Boothe says. "It builds throughout the course of the week, and by the time you get to Saturday night, you're prepared. You've gone through things in your mind, and now you have to think about the game, hang out in the room. It's a time to collect all of your thoughts."
The spectacle of the Super Bowl does not lend itself to athletes stepping outside the hotel or preparing in unorthodox ways, but I knew football players in college who needed to step outside their hotel rooms to right their minds.
On the night before games, the CU football team used to stay 10 miles north of campus at a plush Omni Hotel. In 2001, the Buffaloes won the Big 12 title and played in the Fiesta Bowl for a share of the national championship. One of the best defenders on that team, a guy who later played in the NFL, used to leave his hotel room every Friday night and take a long, slow walk around the deserted perimeter of the hotel. When we asked him why he needed to do this, he said he felt more "connected" when he was outside.
Another player on that team used to go down to the hotel's gym and do a light workout -- in the dark. He said he needed that secret, final sweat to prove to himself he was more prepared than his opponent.
Some athletes used to tell me the night before a big game could be unbearably lonely. They would try to explain why, but something was always elusive, unexplainable. Those hours are about connecting, mentally, to the life-changing moment ahead. They're about ensuring your mind is in tune with your body. Emotional and mental preparation are not like running sprints or lifting weights; you can't measure success.
"I like to talk to my mom, my brothers, because they know how I get really nervous before a game," Giants running back Da'Rel Scott says. "They know that, and they like to keep me calm. Then I relax, try to keep my mind off of things, and I listen to gospel. And then the day of the game, I keep listening to gospel music."
These guys have said all the right things -- we're treating it like any other game, staying focused on the task, sticking to what works -- but on this final night, they'll eat dinner with their teammates, watch one last round of film, and then return, each one alone, to the quiet of their hotel rooms, where they'll go about absorbing, and preparing for, The Moment.
They might say it's just another night, but they know they're about to do something approximately 4,500 men have done before. Play in a Super Bowl.