Dreading the Super Bowl distractions
NEW ORLEANS -- One by one, down a hallway at the Marriott on Canal Street, Jim Tomsula and a security guard named Dan tapped their knuckles against a row of doors. It was Tuesday night, the San Francisco 49ers' third night in Mardi Gras City, and outside, the daiquiris and pickup lines flowed down Bourbon Street.
Inside, it was curfew time. A football player can make $7 million, have a wife and kids and a house, but he is not immune from bed checks. This is the Super Bowl, the most serious week of their lives. This is New Orleans, a city that oozes rum and guilt.
It was midnight. Nothing good happens after that, supposedly. But the 49ers' wing of the Marriott was library-shushing quiet, and finally Tomsula told the guard to stop knocking on the doors. The lumps under the covers were fast asleep, and he didn't want to wake anybody up.
"I mean, they were out," Tomsula said. "That's the God's truth. It's not an exaggeration."
Perhaps it's true, that the 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens are so focused, so singularly committed to winning a Super Bowl, that they're tucked in bed early and are avoiding the brothels, bars and a monstrosity of a casino that sits a few hundred yards from the Ravens' team hotel.
But there will be distractions. History says so. For every Justin Smith, a 49ers defensive end who packed just a duffel bag for his eight-day stay and rarely leaves the hotel, there is a Super Bowl cautionary tale about a football player, fueled by testosterone, curiosity and boredom, who ventured out of the team bubble and onto the police blotter.
It's human nature. And distractions don't come only in the form of a rabble-rousing football player. It can be a grandma who is locked out of her hotel room, a screaming toddler or a young player who says something regrettable in one of the hundreds of media interviews during Super Bowl week.
It happened Tuesday, when 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver told a shock jock that he wouldn't accept an openly gay man on his football team. Within hours, the interview went viral and the 49ers went into damage-control mode. Culliver apologized, but it never ends there during Super Bowl week. His teammates were soon peppered with questions about homophobia.
"I didn't sleep that much," Culliver said. "I tossed and turned thinking about it.
"We are trying not to have any distractions to the team."
It was only Thursday morning.
Sometimes, you think you're in the clear. You brush your teeth and put on your pajamas and it's Saturday night, and the Super Bowl is nearly here. And then the phone rings. That's where Dan Reeves was on the night of Jan. 30, 1999, in Miami.
Reeves, who was coaching the Atlanta Falcons, received word that safety Eugene Robinson had been arrested for solicitation of prostitution. It was jolting on a number of levels. Robinson was one of the team's biggest leaders, and his wife was in Miami for the game. Earlier that day, Robinson had received the Bart Starr Award for "high moral character."
Reeves, who had undergone coronary bypass surgery just a few weeks earlier, was up most of the night. He considered the team family, and one of his children was in trouble. Reeves spent most of the night trying to help Robinson and his wife hash things out.
He believed Robinson's story, that Robinson was joking when he asked an undercover cop how much she charged. Robinson played the next day against Denver, and the Broncos torched him for an 80-yard touchdown pass in a 34-19 Falcons loss.
"People ask me, 'Did that cost you the Super Bowl?'" Reeves said. "Well, it certainly didn't help.
"But he didn't play one down on offense, and we were one of the best scoring teams in the red zone and we were terrible down in the red zone in that ballgame. Certainly, it didn't help, but you never know. It's just something you wish didn't happen."
Looking back, Reeves isn't sure what he could've done differently. That week, he warned his team, repeatedly, about the trouble a man can get into in Miami. He set a curfew that didn't matter. Reeves built his team on trust. He was one of the few coaches who let the players sleep in their own beds on the Saturday nights before home games.
Robinson was possibly the last player he thought would get in trouble that Super Bowl. At 35, Robinson was one of the oldest and presumably wisest players on the team. Reeves still calls him one of the best teammates he has ever coached.
"It goes to show you that the devil doesn't sleep," Reeves said. "Any time he can bring somebody down like that, it's a big coup for him."
Minutes after the conference championship games end, it starts. Text messages arrive from long-lost cousins, acquaintances and high school friends who haven't been heard from in years.
Hey, man, the text will say. Can you hook me up with tickets?
What the ticket seekers don't know is that each player receives between 10 and 15 tickets, depending on his role on the team. They also are unaware of the fact that those tickets are not free. If a player is feeling particularly generous, he can spend upward of $15,000 so that family and friends can share in the Super Bowl experience.
By Thursday, players' families from both coasts started to stream into New Orleans. The Ravens held a reception for them Thursday night. At the Riverside Hilton, the team hotel, a beer stand with Heineken and Blue Moon was set up by the front doors.
Much like the speech coaches give in the weeks before the Super Bowl about distractions, players warn their families that their availability is low. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, anticipating the crush of calls his players will get from loved ones about the minutiae, the hotel rooms and dinner recommendations, gave them the cellphone number of a guy named Dan Parsons.
Parsons is an assistant in Baltimore's football operations, and this week, his phone is busy.
"Instead of our parents calling and bothering us about situations," DeAngelo Tyson said, "they can just call him. He's basically the yes and no guy."
On Thursday, Ravens center Matt Birk was anticipating the arrival of his brood, which in part consists of his wife and six children. He'll be at the Hilton; they'll be at a hotel designated for players' families. Birk said if it's distracting for anyone, it's his wife, who'll be the one watching their young children.
He finds comfort in the fact that they're here and they're being taken care of. When he's with them, he focuses on them. When he's back with the team, his attention shifts to football.
"It's no different than any other game in a sense that life happens," Birk said. "If you've got a big family, if you've got kids, stuff happens. Sometimes, on a Friday night at 2 in the morning, you have to end up in the emergency room with a kid.
"You have tragedies, you have celebrations, but that's life. It's a distraction, but this is obviously a very special moment for players and their families, and there's some planning that goes into it."
In the days before Super Bowl XV, the Philadelphia Eagles made sure there were no distractions. They stayed at a hotel by the airport, far removed from the clanking glasses on Bourbon Street. At 10 o'clock at night, the phone in each player's hotel room was shut off. It was 1981, before cellphones and iPads, and about the only thing cornerback Herm Edwards and his teammates could do was watch TV.
They turned on the local news. There was a live shot of the revelers on Bourbon Street, and Edwards stopped and looked twice at their faces. Their opponents that weekend, the Oakland Raiders, were among the imbibers. It was Monday, and Edwards started laughing. It was the Raiders being the Raiders.
But they didn't stop there. Oakland defensive end John Matuszak, who told reporters he was going to patrol Bourbon Street to make sure the young players didn't engage in any funny business, wound up partying there the night before the Super Bowl.
The Eagles were well rested, but it didn't seem to help the next day. Oakland clobbered them 27-10.
"It was probably one of our worst games mentally," said Edwards, who went on to be a head coach and is now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "People say, 'How can [the Raiders] do that?' Well, that's how they played. That's how they were built."
It was the Eagles' first trip to the Super Bowl. Dick Vermeil, a young coach back then, acknowledges today that he was intense and uptight that week. But he said he didn't implement any bed checks that week until Friday night, although he did strongly suggest that his players be in bed by 11 o'clock each night.
Vermeil said that, every year, the media comes up with a defining reason a Super Bowl was won or lost, and that year, the blanket assumption was that he worked them too hard and that they subsequently played too tight. But the four turnovers the Eagles committed didn't help matters.
"We had more problems with our football team that week when the families all showed up," Vermeil said. "We had a couple of wars between husbands and wives. It didn't help because a couple of them were starters."
Nearly two decades later, a more mature and relaxed Vermeil took the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl. The Rams beat the Titans 23-16.
Maybe the Eagles were cooped up too long in 1981 and had too much time to think. Maybe some teams are good enough to overcome distractions.
"It was nobody's fault," Edwards said. "We probably would've beaten the Raiders Thursday in practice. But the problem was we don't play the game until Sunday.
"We were excited. Our adrenaline was running so fast we couldn't slow down."
It has been 11 years since the Super Bowl was in New Orleans, but the city is rife with stories. There was the time in 1986 when Bears quarterback Jim McMahon mooned a helicopter and received death threats for supposedly calling the women of New Orleans "sluts" on an early-morning radio show. McMahon, in an email to ESPN.com, denied being on the show. He said there's no way he would ever get up that early because he was out on the town most of the night.
Legend has it that McMahon put a major dent in the liquor collection on Bourbon Street and spent some of his time at Pat O'Brien's, which is famous for its potent Hurricanes. On Thursday night, Pat O'Brien's had a stockroom full of rum bottles in anticipation of an intoxicating weekend. Scott Touchton, operations manager of the bar, said the proprietors on Bourbon Street are bracing for a two-week Mardi Gras. (Fat Tuesday is Feb. 12 this year).
The bar was hopping by 8:30 on Thursday night, but there were no Ravens or 49ers to be found. Touchton said they haven't been there all week. It's a different time, he said. The social media phenomenon has changed the way athletes and celebrities unwind. Today, one foolish decision or drunken moment at the piano bar can be posted on Twitter in seconds.
Back in the old days, they were just stories.
"The Super Bowl's a big deal," Touchton said. "If there's pictures of you tearing it up on Bourbon, and then you end up missing a tackle, even though you've got four days separating it, that's going to be the first thing a sportscaster says. 'Oh, he was out on Bourbon the other night. He could've gone to bed or watched more film.'
"If they're smart, those guys are laying low. From what I can tell, the players are doing what they're supposed to do."
Down the road at Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, an employee said that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was in there earlier this week, with Dennis Pitta and some trainers. They ate a casual meal in a back room. It wasn't an interesting story.
That's the way the 49ers and Ravens coaches want to keep it. Quiet and boring. They have two days to go in New Orleans. No doubt there will be two more days of speeches from team captains and coaches about staying focused and not being the guy who causes a distraction. Tomsula, who coaches the defensive line, said he wasn't worried.
On Monday night, before the curfew was enacted, some of the 49ers simply stayed in the hotel, he said. They watched film. They just enjoy being around each other, he said.
"Really, they could stay out, and the fines to them are going to be the equivalent of a $20 bill to you and I," he said.
"These guys are really focused on this game. You've got a shot, and you've worked really hard to get to a certain point. This is a huge thing for these guys."