How I Nearly Got Kicked Out Of The Super Bowl After A Long, Lonely, Insane Weekend In Indy

downtown indianapolis during the super bowl

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

Super Bowl Sunday, 9 a.m.I was still sleeping when the man from NFL security called to tell me I wouldn’t be going to the Super Bowl anymore. I violated protocol, he said, and the decision is final.

It was barely 9 a.m. By the time I was awake enough to understand the gravity of the situation, I’d long since hung up the phone without asking the questions I should have asked, without pleading as desperately as I should have.

So instead I laid there alone in a bed on the outskirts of downtown Indianapolis. Thinking, “This is it. This is how I screwed it up. And now the rest of them are going to find out my secret: I have no idea what I’m doing.”

I’ve never been on a business trip. I’ve never been on vacation alone. And I’ve hardly covered a meaningful sporting event, much less a Super Bowl.

Yet there I was at LaGuardia at 6 a.m., ready to take off for Indianapolis, tasked with making the fat wad of cash the BI higher-ups spent on my trip worthwhile.

As I waited for my flight I picked up a copy of Time magazine and skimmed the cover story, “The Power of Shyness.” Which ended up being a terrible idea because the going alone thing was the part of the trip I was most nervous about.

There’s something inherently communal about going on vacation. You aren’t just going somewhere to experience something different, you’re going there to experience something different with someone. The presence of others, I thought, was no less necessary than a plane ticket or a hotel reservation. Who the hell goes on vacation alone, anyway?

Or was I going on business?

I never quite figured it out.

When I finally landed in Indianapolis — and after my checked bag completed its detour two hours later — my nervousness had been replaced with one of those short bursts of confidence. I was in fully reporter-y mode, tweeting my every move from bus ride to the airport to downtown Indy, mentally cataloging all the clever bits of colour I’d include in my posts.

But this spell of bluster faded once I got into the impeccably organised chaos of downtown Indy.

Like many Midwestern cities, Indianapolis consists of a concentrated, circular downtown that ends abruptly and gives way to the same small neighborhoods that East Coasters call suburbs.

During Super Bowl week, downtown had been completely co-opted by the NFL and re-packaged as Super Bowl central. 20-foot tall facades of Eli Manning and Tom Brady were plastered on the sides of buildings, a sprawling amusement park of NFL apparel stands, beer tents, and zip-lines called the Super Bowl Village was constructed right in the centre of town, and even the streets themselves — the most elemental part of any city — had been renamed after NFL teams, complete with colour-specific street signs.

jw marriott super bowl hotelThe JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

After I got off the bus outside the JW Marriott to pick up my media credentials, it took me about 20 seconds to determine that I hated downtown. It reminded me of a mall at Christmas time — with endless streams of people moving quickly through tight spaces. And there was that underlying anxiety that someone will block at your path at any moment and try to sell you something.This wasn’t Indy, it was the tourist trap built on top of it.

Luckily I was staying five minutes out of downtown, in a quiet neighbourhood called Windsor Park that was a world away.

Since we here at BI kind of threw this whole Super Bowl thing together at the last minute, there were no hotels available. So long story short, we used Airbnb and I stayed with a 30-something married couple, Martha and Mark.

Mark has a beard and teaches English at a local community college while also taking classes himself. Martha smokes and has short black hair and sells hand-made necklaces at boutiques in town while also teaching part time. They’re Brooklyn-y and warm. They don’t eat meat, and bought milk just for me.

They live in a nice house with wood floors and all sorts of neat artsy things on the walls. My room was bigger than any room I’ve lived in since high school, and every time I came home I was greeted by the dogs (2) and cats (4). One of the cats was named Hot Dog.

It felt cool, something Anthony Bourdain would approve of — scoffing at the corporate ease of downtown chain hotels to live among the locals.

After I settled in I wrote a post making fun of the dumb-looking JW Marriott and the silly NFL credentialing system. I needed to vent a little. As it turned out, that would be a terrible, terrible decision.

That night I had my first assignment — covering ESPN The Magazine’s annual Next party.

espn next super bowl party drake singingDrake at the ESPN Next party

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

The party was in an abandoned warehouse in a rusted-out, industrial part of the city. When I got there, I asked a cop where the closest convenience store was and he told me he didn’t know because he doesn’t really work on this side of town.I spent most of the party on the red carpet, taking pictures of semi-celebrities and no-name athletes. I barely knew how to use a camera, which the rest of the photographers there seemed to take as a direct personal insult. They spent a lot of the three hours I was on the red carpet changing lenses and talking to each other in a wonky shorthand I couldn’t understand. But mostly they just bitched about their jobs a lot — about the late nights and the fussy wi-fi.

When the stream of celebs and athletes dried up, I walked into the party so I could grab some pictures for a slideshow, but mainly so I could watch Drake. None of the other photographers came.

Drake wasn’t all that good. This is probably because musicians can’t build a good performance without a good audience. And the audience had a few too many 55-year-old sleaze-balls to allow the atmosphere to take shape.

By this point I was bummed up by Drake being so average, and I’d been awake for 23-straight hours, so I left.

On the ride home I shared a taxi with an old man in his 60s or 70s, and two women I’d guess were in their 30s. I wanted desperately to know what their relationship was (he’s, like, their dad or something right?).

They told me they were from Virginia Beach. But when I asked why they were in Indy they said, “For the Super Bowl!” and offered no further explanation.

“Do you come every year?” I asked.

One said no.

“He comes every year,” said the other, pointing to the old man sitting quietly in the front seat.

The three of us talked for the rest of the drive, but not about anything too memorable. They trashed Indy at one point, which made me cringe for the probably Indy-born cab driver. They asked me what it was like being here all by myself. I think I said, “Weird.”

When they got out, the old man said nothing and gave the driver $50 cash.

Who were they? There’s got to be some normal familial relationship going on, right? One of them is his daughter and she’s her friend?

Or is this a thing — multiple women accompanying rich men on Super Bowl trips just, seemingly, for the hell of it? It makes you wonder just who all these people milling around downtown are, and if your story really is all that strange after all.


martha house in indianapolisMartha and Mark’s house

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

Mass Ave. is the Indianapolis Martha and Mark know. It’s all boutiques and pubs and homemade chocolate shops, and it’s filled with that “Go Local” air that turns insufferable in the wrong hands.I walked around there before going to, of all things, the DirecTV Celebrity Beach Bowl — a celebrity flag football game played on one million pounds of freshly poured sand in a tent constructed on the outfield of a minor league baseball stadium.

Snoop Dogg, Chrissy Teigen, and Terrell Owens were some of the celebrities involved.

Like a lot of Super Bowl add-on events, the Beach Bowl was made for TV. More specifically, it was made so that guys who watch Spike TV can see good-looking women run around feigning effort, playing up faux-injuries for the camera (Maria Menounos hurt, of all things, her butt), and adorably confirming that they’re no good at sports.

As a result, the in-stadium experience is severely lacking. It’s like watching a terrible co-ed game of flag football at a park and saying, “Hey that guy looks like Artie Lange.” The only difference is that it actually is Artie Lange.

So yeah, the game was kind of a snooze, and if one of the PR guys didn’t let me into the gifting suite to take some pictures, it would have been a total waste of time.

After the game, I gave downtown one more shot. Famous sports media people had been slobbering all over downtown Indy all week — praising it for being walkable and friendly and all. So I felt obligated to walk around a bit.

Once again, I wasn’t feeling it. I bought a chilli dog. But I couldn’t find a place to eat it after walking around a while so I drifted away from the Village and went back to Windsor Park.

I felt guilty about it. Why did I hate downtown when everyone else liked it?

Was it because I was alone?

Was there some essential component of the downtown scene that made it necessary for you to have company to enjoy it? Would the hoards of people be less annoying? The corporate tents less obnoxious? The urge to escape to the outer ring of the city less overwhelming?

It’s entirely possible.

The next time I was downtown was that night, when a group of teenagers outside a Steak ‘N Shake ran for cover and a lady speed-walking toward me said someone just got shot.

I saw two cops cuff someone in the middle of the street and drag him to the sidewalk. I even went so far as to type, “Someone just got shot” into Twitter before I saw one of the cops holding a large paintball gun in his hands. I quickly hit cancel on that tweet and continued walking.

I went to Victory Field — the site of the Beach Bowl earlier in the day — to go to what was supposed to be the craziest party I’ve ever been to.

Saturday Night
Mark Cuban’s invitation-only HDNet party was probably 80% of the reason that the higher ups at BI sent me to Indianapolis in the first place. It was my biggest job (if you can call it that) of the weekend. All I had to do was go to the party, take a bunch of pictures, and write up something to the effect of, “This Is What It’s Like To Go To One Of Those Insane, Invite-Only Super Bowl Parties.”

directv super bowl party gatesThe tent that served as the venue for the HDNet party

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

I eventually accomplished this. But it wasn’t as simple as it seemed.The plan was for me to be on the guest list and write a story from the perspective of a party-goer. But somewhere along the line there was a mix up, and when I got the official media alert Friday afternoon, I realised that I had actually ended up on the media list instead.

So when I got to Victory Field a little after 9 p.m., I found myself plopped on the red carpet just as I had been the night before.

Waiting for the celebrities to arrive, I had my own private meltdown inside my head.

My one job was to go to Cuban’s party and take pictures. Yet I was about to fail miserably. I was about to pretend to be a red-carpet photographer again rather than get the story I was sent here to get. I was about to waste a lot of money, and let a lot of people down.

Even worse, I left my camera battery back at Martha’s. I left, grabbed a cab, had the drivers go to Martha’s, made him wait outside, picked up the battery, and drove back.

By the time I got back to Victory Field and hurried down the stadium steps to the red carpet, my spot was gone. I stood behind the pack of photographers for a while, dazed at how terribly the night was turning out.

I don’t know when, but at some point I decided to just go into the party.

I wouldn’t call it “sneaking in” since I contend that I was supposed to be on the guest list all along. Plus, no one ever said that that media couldn’t roam around the party and report on it.

But I did have to slip past a metal barricade.

mark cuban super bowl partyThe scene inside Mark Cuban’s HDNet party

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

In retrospect I should have asked some PR person if I randomly happened to be on the guest list, or tried to explain what type of story I was trying to write so everything stayed above board.But when you’re left to make decisions on your own, sometimes you do weird stuff. Apologies, Mark Cuban.

Either way, my job was to go Cuban’s party, and I did.

Once I got inside, the pressure was off. I ordered a beer and went about my business as if there wasn’t just a minor fiasco.

The truth about these swanky Super Bowl parties it that the guest list is all over the place. It’s basically the people version of an iPod Shuffle. There were really old guys awkwardly dry-humping their wives on the periphery of the dance floor. There were scummy-looking middle-aged men in Tom Brady jerseys. There were all sorts of girls in those tiny, super-tight dresses. There were famous supermodels, frat bros, and mums all in one giant mish-mash.

But despite that quirk, it was a genuinely good time. The venue was big enough so it wasn’t too packed, there were plenty of pulled pork sliders, and there were enough dancing girls to sink a ship.

It didn’t feel like some species of social event I’ve ever seen before. It was just a super-expensive version of a normal nightclub event.

I don’t remember many of the people I met, or what they said, beyond one girl telling me that she once talked to Peyton Manning and he was “really nice.”

directv super bowl party katy perryKaty Perry performs, with blue hair

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

Katy Perry performed just before midnight.I’m one of those people who does that thing where they pretend to listen to her songs ironically so no one thinks they actually like her. But the proof is in the pudding: when Katy Perry took the stage, I instinctively surged toward her like a 12-year-old girl and ate up every second of her performance.

Am I proud of it? Not really. But I’ll blame it on the giddiness of Super Bowl week, or the catharsis of pulling off my one big assignment after nearly screwing it up so royally. It won’t happen again.

When I got home Hot Dog was on same porch chair he always sits in, awake and looking at me as I went inside to fall to sleep.

Super Bowl Sunday
When I got the call from NFL security, it was nine-something and I had no idea what was going on.

They told me I couldn’t go to the Super Bowl because I’d posted a picture of my press credential online. Apparently this is against the rules because people can print it out and makes copies and such, which makes sense.

But by that logic, a bunch of journalists, including the entire NFL Network, shouldn’t be allowed in the game because they were tweeting credential pictures all week.

So why were they singling me out?

The only thing I could think of was that post I wrote Friday, where I made fun of their stupid hotel.

Could they really be kicking me out of the Super Bowl for that? There’s no way that stuff like that happens in real life, right?

But then again the NFL did transform and entire downtown area into a bustling, football-centric society, and they have enough money to do whatever the hell they want. So, maybe?

There was about a two-hour window where I was laying in bed, partially hung over, thinking I just got kicked out of the Super Bowl for hurting someone’s feelings.

But ultimately this isn’t what happened. It turns out the vast conspiracy against BI was actually a legitimate screw up by me — and after much apologizing and a lot of help from the NFL, we got our credential back at around noon, when I was still more or less waking up.

Martha dropped me off outside an art gallery a few blocks from downtown at around 1:30. She told me the gallery had some cool installations if I had a minute, so I checked it out. There was some pretty trippy stuff going on — one installation was 10 or so computer monitors placed in a vertical line on a rocky slope showing videos of streams.

There were a lot of people there, for a small art gallery. And they weren’t just tourists like me who stumbled in like me to burn some time. They were admiring the installations, even reading the small wall placards with the brief biographies of the artists. And it legitimately threw me off.

This is Super Bowl Sunday! What could people possibly be doing going about their business?

Just the two words “Super Bowl” evokes a sense of importance. Yet in reality, that importance only exists in the minds of a very small set of people. And I was one of them.

barbecue grill at the supe rbowlBarbecue masters sell combo plates for $5

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

I snapped back into reality after I left the gallery and stumbled upon two guys selling some of the best-looking barbecue I’ve ever seen for $5 per plate. I ordered a plate of pulled pork and brisket and ate it as I milled around downtown, looking for game-day colour.For some reason I found downtown significantly more tolerable than I did earlier in the week. Maybe the giddiness of Super Bowl Sunday masked my disgust. Maybe I was getting used to the crowds. Or maybe I was finally used to travelling alone, maybe I’d gotten over the anxiety of not having a partner in crime and allowed myself to enjoy it more.

Or then again, it could have been all the crazy stuff that was happening — the drunken fans, a girl hula-hooping on a wooden barrel, a guy carving Super Bowl benches with a chainsaw.

The place buzzed. The energy came not just from anticipation, but from the sense that we’ve almost arrived, after speeding toward the spectacle so long. The thing that transformed a city was right there, within reach, ready to start at last.

The Game
The best moment of the trip was also defined by anticipation. The Giants had just scored a touchdown by accident, putting them up 21-17 with 59 seconds to play. And Tom Brady was waiting on the sidelines during a commercial break, ready to win the game.

inside lucas oil stadium at the super bowl in indianapolisThe field hours before the Super Bowl

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

Complexity is an essential component to football. It’s a game defined by decision-making and alternate scenarios. But when Brady took the ball 80 yards from the Giants endzone, a complicated game had been made simple.He just had to get the ball to the endzone, and he had one minute. The complexities of the sport conveniently disappeared, on the biggest stage, at the crucial moment.

In a strange way, it was that moment — not the final drive itself — that was the climax of the game. The Giants fans in the building could see the finish line. The Patriots fans knew that Brady could lead the Pats down the field in time. And the neutrals, like me, were filled with the expectation that something historic was about to happen right there in front of them.

A minute later, Brady’s last-gasp hail mary hit the stadium turf.


dorman street bar in indianapolisDorman Street Saloon in Indianapolis

Photo: Tony Manfred/Business Insider

All of a sudden I was working from home. I was still at Martha’s, but the air of Super Bowl weekend is gone.I check news sites I hadn’t checked in days, reengaging with the world after spending a weekend living in a closed system with its own rules and expectations.

It was Martha’s birthday. That night we went to a neighbourhood bar called Dorman Street Saloon for beer and pizza and cake. The 100-year-old bar used to be a dive, one of her friends told me, with floors that slanted.

But its exterior had been freshly painted and now flat-screens dotted the walls. You could smoke in there, and the jukebox was all Dylan and Johnny Cash.

One of Martha’s friends made baby clothes and sold them at a boutique she owned on Mass Ave. She lived in Brooklyn for a while, sharing a tiny basement apartment with a roommate. But eventually she came home to Indiana, and she said she’d only go back if the money was right.

I imagined that this is somewhere I could live — on the edge of downtown Indy in a quiet neighbourhood with bars like this right around the corner. I could afford a bigger place, maybe even a house.

We talked about all the things semi-strangers talk about in bars — TV and travel and such — but the conversation always made its way back around to the Super Bowl.

Everyone was generally pleased that the media gave Indianapolis high marks as a host city. I kept my frustrations with downtown to myself. I told them that Indy was great and much different than what I expected, which is all true.

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