Perhaps the lone, unifying force of 2020 was how horrible it was for everyone. And while pro sports did their best to remind us that we remain on Earth, the NFL came the closest to running a comforting thread through our lives.
It comes to a head, and an end, on Sunday. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, the NFL will give a festive farewell as only a Super Bowl can. From star players on the marquee to the million-dollar ads on TV, the Super Bowl is by far America’s most-watched TV show, and one of only a few shows people plan parties around.
It took a special game to break through the membranes of rage, sadness, and confusion that have engulfed us ever since a pandemic invaded our shores, and a most toxic political season followed. We’ve been sick, tired, and angry over the last year. And still, football has kept some of us just sane enough to fight through it all. No single sport has the narcotic power to keep us smiling for the last 12 months.
But the NFL has made a slice of our life somewhat normal.
We’ve been told not to attend Super Bowl parties, because they could morph into “super spreaders” – a new, ugly term tossed onto our lexicon courtesy of COVID-19. We’re being urged to resist our impulse to gather with our loved ones during the lone event that draws over 100 million eyes. As with every other part of our lives that is made better by human bonding – going out to dinner, to your house of worship, or even a wedding – Super Bowl Sunday is not just about how we enjoy it, but also with whom.
Still, according to the American Gaming Association, an estimated 23.2 million people plan to bet on Super Bowl LV, for a potential risk of $4.3 billion (and that’s down 37% from last year). They say 90 percent of the wagers made in New Jersey were done online (New York still doesn’t allow online betting on the NFL, for some silly reason). A Texas man is placing quite a bet on the Buccaneers: Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who owns a chain of furniture stores, just slapped $3.46 million down on Tampa Bay, getting 3 1/2 points.
Yes, it’s these kinds of excesses – betting on the coin toss, on who scores first, who scores last, who wins each quarter, or how long the national anthem or the halftime show will last – that signal the odd comforts of our ultimate game every year. Those festivities are matched only by the mountainous food we devour – around 28 million pounds of chips, 1.25 billion chicken wings, 8 million pounds of guacamole, and 12.5 million pizza pies are consumed during the Super Bowl. In 2018, Domino’s Pizza, the largest pizza chain in the world, sold enough pizza pies (roughly 2 million) to stretch across more than 5,000 football fields.
It’s this kind of heartwarming paradox – when aberrant behavior is normal – that only the Super Bowl can bring. And we haven’t even mentioned the game itself, or its participants, which, without this pandemic, may have made this the most gripping Super Bowl ever. Tom Brady demanded a divorce from his football soulmate, Bill Belichick, to migrate to a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2003. He was joining a gifted band of misfits, who were headless after letting QB Jameis Winston walk. The Buccaneers had talented players, but no purpose. And suddenly they expect a geriatric QB to come down there, without the benefit of OTAs, training camp, or preseason games, to just wave a wand and make winners out of perennial losers. Not even the NFL can squeeze such fiction into one season.
Yet, they did. And here Brady is, at 43, a gunslinger with only a few bullets left in his six-shooter, his reflexes slowed, his arm getting old. By pure grit and whatever greatness he has left, Brady was the spiritual tide that lifted Tampa to its second Super Bowl ever, to play a doomsday machine called the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that won it last year and is expected to win it this year.
But if you’re like most of us and don’t care who wins this game (unless you bet on it, of course), you’re just happy to have the game, and some reminder that life is occasionally, if not increasingly, normal.
Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel