Covering your first Super Bowl is like a Mission Impossible movie. Picturesque locales. Famous people. Impersonators of those famous people (Andy Reid on radio row especially). Stunts to acquire otherwise unthinkable access. Expensive gear. And for journalists, missions that feel in the moment as if they hold life-or-death implications and require tracking down elusive targets. Add the iconic Mission Impossible theme as the soundtrack to the Super Bowl experience and the final product might be worthy to join the MI franchise in theaters.
On paper, the challenge of covering a Super Bowl felt daunting to me, even as a NFL fan for more than 15 years. And reporting about the opportunity to my full potential seemed, well, impossible. From the bizarre blitz of Media Row to stories about the most minute details to the sheer number of credentialed media all jostling for position — on top of worries about the ever-shifting schedule and Medill’s expensive equipment — I braced for the worst but prepared myself to make the most of every chance or story that I could. Insights from industry professionals and specific sessions to plan out story ideas and reporting strategies also proved vital to building a strong foundation. I also knew Super Bowl Week was notorious for its chaos, and I wanted to take advantage of that chaos to help myself and my classmates, who were students in rooms full of pros and ESPN regulars, hustle our way to great stories. This was the mission I very eagerly chose to accept.
WEDNESDAY — Arrival
Every mission needs to start somewhere. For our team of 12, Wednesday consisted of the basics, no stunts needed: the plane flight from Chicago to Phoenix, our hotel check-in and a dinner at the Los Olivos restaurant. Through conversations about Star Wars in the O’Hare airport, I met four people on the trip who I’d never talked to before (and immediately formed opinions about — all good ones), while unpacking and unwinding with my roommate Adam was a relaxing way to end the day. But the unwinding never fully happened. I couldn’t fall asleep despite knowing about my 4:30 alarm time, so I jotted down the questions I hoped to ask my interview subjects the next morning at Chiefs availability on my laptop for about 10-15 minutes, then gave the bed another try.
THURSDAY — Go Time
At 4:30 am Mountain Time sharp, my alarm clock sounded (of all tunes, the Mission Impossible theme) and, despite how incredible it might seem as a night owl college student, I actually woke up and took a shower. From there, it was into Phoenix, onto the media bus and through the security check and into the Chiefs’ hotel for media availability. My game plan was to write a story about Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo and how he was using his four Super Bowls of coaching experience to get the young KC defenders up to speed. Beyond wanting to write a football-centric story with some cool, NFL nerd angles, I wanted a story that connected to the first game that got me interested as a fan, Super Bowl XLII in Arizona in 2008, and Spagnuolo was the coaching hero of that game.
But I needed to get Spagnuolo first. I came in with a couple backup story ideas (including literally, with one focusing on the role of backup quarterbacks) but planned to go for Spags first, so that I could pivot if that fell through. My voice quivering, I slipped in a question to Chiefs head coach Andy Reid that he skirted slightly — though with some usable soundbites — then stuck around in the main press conference room as coaches filed in. I made a beeline to my target and sat down for a one-on-one conversation. Spagnuolo asked me where I was from and about my class trip, then answered every one of my questions with candor and humor. I especially appreciated his attention to little details, such as the difference in hotels between Super Bowls XLII and LVII, that played major roles in the story. With such a strong interview, I felt confident in committing to Spagnuolo as my story from the day. I then used the help of the team around me (the KC comms team) to locate secondary coach Dave Merritt, who had been a secondary coach on that XLII defense as well. For player interviews, I talked with Chris Jones, rookie corner Jaylen Watson and soon-to-be Super Bowl hero Nick Bolton.
I had a bit of time to spare afterward and hung around the Patrick Mahomes media bubble, then reconnected with classmates. Every one of us achieved our objectives and talked to the subjects we hoped to interview, no small feat given our inexperience in a Super Bowl context. We spent the rest of the day recovering from that 4:30 AM wakeup, from visiting Media Row and spotting celebrities to transcribing at the pool Joe Namath-style to finally writing and submitting my first Super Bowl article.
FRIDAY — Rogue Reporter
Aside from a Pro Football Writers of America meeting in the morning and a dinner at Majerle’s in the evening, the backdrop for Friday’s action was at the NFL Experience, a two-story attraction of interactive exhibits with NFL themes. I didn’t know that my favorite story from the week would come in the calm before the storm of fans’ arrivals at NFL Experience, but sometimes journalism doesn’t follow the script.
While I was fiddling around with my expensive Medill camera, a couple football players started touring the Wilson exhibit, where staffers taught them how to make a football. I listened in on the conversation and heard as one of the players described “how Cam liked his footballs” while the Las Vegas TV stations followed him, and after hearing the staffers call the player “Jared,” I realized (and confirmed via Google images) that the player was Jarrett Stidham, the Week 17 and 18 starter for the Las Vegas Raiders. I absorbed the distinct sounds and sights of the football making process — perfect for NAT pops and TV news packages — and in a last-second decision, I discarded my plans for the afternoon, switched my camera from “photo” to “video” mode and pursued a story I didn’t even think would count for class but was too good to pass up.
Despite my admirable awareness of my surroundings, I bumbled around enough and looked young enough to trigger an unwanted security check-in. The Wilson PR head asked if I had clearance, which I did not specifically (but no one had stopped me) and then explained that only the Vegas crews could stay inside. Without time to manufacture a disguise, I was persistent with the story and took her alternative, a spot right outside the walls of the exhibit which actually had better views of the final football-making stages. Like a sniper, I zoomed in on Stidham’s reactions and evident enthusiasm, then positioned myself for the final transition shots of the happy shopper. That night, I spent four hours hammering away at the video until everything was just right (sorry, Adam).
SATURDAY — On the Clock
Not every success has to be related to your mission as a secret agent, but there’s a job to be done. I had one article completed and one more to go, and Saturday was all about sealing the deal. I sent the Jarrett Stidham video through the chain and posted the results on my social media, then took off with our group to NFL Experience once more. One of the real highlights of the trip was wandering the premises of the empty NFL Experience with Hector Palacios, from our last-second Madden battle to our field goal attempts on an NFL-sized upright. I pride myself in understanding the fan experience in my job as a journalist, and before the public came, Hector and I went full fan mode with photo ops by the Bears, Cowboys and Ravens memorabilia and displays.
For my second article, I planned to ask Phoenix locals about their opinions on the Kevin Durant trade and whether Phoenix could be as much a diehard sports town as it is a premier title game host and destination. My methodology was simple — find fans in Suns jerseys and pepper them with questions — and actually worked like a charm. The more fun find, though, was at the Suns team store, where I tapped into my love for sports jerseys and asked the lead employee about how KD’s No. 35 jersey was already up on display at the store.
Through creativity and incisive questions, I came away with an interview that could help develop an intriguing (at least in my opinion) and substantial, outside-the-box introduction. For good measure, I talked with a group of Philly fans about whether they see Phoenix as a sports town. Like me, they just enjoyed the warm weather of Arizona after trekking out to Minneapolis for the Eagles’ last Super Bowl appearance. I drafted the article, but still needed some sourcing for the mission to be considered complete.
SUNDAY/MONDAY — Final Mission
I tied up loose ends on Sunday, using one of the rental cars to comb the minds of Suns fans at the Tempe Marketplace, before I fell prey to the seduction of a sports jersey store called Just Sports and pulled out my credit card (though I used the opportunity to tweet out an update about Super Bowl merch sales). After plugging in those quotes, my impossible complete — three Super Bowl-related articles, plenty of interviews and reporting hours and a host of NFL media contacts. My most difficult challenge of the day was attempting to outperform Max Olsan in our cannonball contest in the Comfort Inn pool (split decision). My easiest was lounging on the pool chairs and sunbathing to prepare for Valentine’s Day.
But just when you think the mission’s over, an even more important one replaces it. Sure enough, I received a WhatsApp message at 6 AM from Professor Adande to be down in the hotel room at 7:30 AM for a press conference of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. The event was the mission I never seriously anticipated, but with bags packed and camera in hand, I was ready for the moment. The assignment itself was a straightforward recap of Andy Reid’s statements, but using the Medill press credential to stand beside Mahomes and league commissioner Roger Goodell, along with later squatting at the side of the stage to take close-ups of Mahomes, Reid and their new trophies, was a riveting thrill. I typed up my transcript in the Phoenix airport and my article on the plane so that all the pieces were in place by the time I stepped off the plane.
The Super Bowl has occupied an unparalleled status in my imagination as the ultimate event. Though I didn’t attend the game and no longer have that childlike enthusiasm of seeing players and coaches I’ve seen on TV, my experience in Phoenix surpassed my measured expectations (I did think some parts might be impossible, after all). I measured the success of my mission against my potential, which can be the most difficult objective to accomplish, but I believe with certainty that I made the most of an absolute dream of a trip and thoroughly enjoyed working toward it with my team of professors and classmates.
I’m hoping there are many, many sequels for this one.