Springsteen gives fans reason to believe

1/29/2009 - NFL
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will play halftime of Sunday's Super Bowl XLIII. Sean Hintz/ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- I don't know what kind of crowd the NFL Players Association got for its 3:15 news conference Thursday afternoon, but I'm imagining the sound of crickets chirping and tumbleweeds rolling across the empty room.

That's because Bruce Springsteen was in the building. Not only in the Tampa Convention Center, where the Super Bowl Media Center is located, but available to us -- sports writers, for god's sake -- to ask ridiculously fawning questions and, who knows, maybe sing a chorus or two of "Thunder Road" with the fellas from the Newark Star-Ledger.

The NFLPA never had a chance.

Full disclosure: I'm a Boss-ophile. Who isn't? I wanted to work construction for the Johnstown Company. I wanted my parents to move to New Jersey because Springsteen lived there. When they ordered me to eat my dinner vegetables, I'd wail, "It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap."

And now here he was, sitting on a white plastic bar stool about 12 feet from me, along with the E Street Band. And you know what? It was weird, cool, but also strangely absurd that Springsteen's next gig is going to be the halftime show of Sunday night's Super Bowl XLIII.

The room was packed. SRO. I'm surprised Ticketmaster didn't try to worm in and charge a "convenience fee" for attending the presser. Faith Hill and John Legend -- two other acts for the Super Bowl, playing the pregame show -- got a decent turnout. But Springsteen filled the West Hall room to the point that people were lined two deep around the edges.

This was Springsteen's first news conference, said the NFL emcee, since 1987. Amnesty International back in the day. Super Bowl XLIII now.

First came the obligatory corporate mush talk from the tire company sponsoring the halftime show. He talked about his company's passion for excellence, then tried to link Springsteen to it all (but not before inventing a Will-Ferrell-doing-George -W.-Bush word: "epadize." Or, as the rest of us like to say, "epitomize").

Springsteen arrived on the stage a few minutes later and issued a quick dig, saying "We're here to emphasize the word 'passion.'"

Then he asked whether there was anybody in the room from New Jersey. A handful of writers behind me yelled "Yes!"

Springsteen glanced at them. "Don't give them the microphones," he said, laughing.

This isn't his first gig in Tampa. His first gig, apparently, was years ago at a local jai alai fronton.

"I remember that one," he said. Now, he's playing Raymond James Stadium for 12 minutes at halftime.

He was honest, you've got to give him that. He's been asked to do the halftime show numerous times by the NFL, but "initially it was sort of a novelty … it didn't quite feel right," he said.

It feels right now. Why?

"One, we have a new album coming out, dummy! C'mon! … It just happened to come out this week," he said, referring to the new release, "Working on a Dream." "So we have our mercenary reasons, of course. And [lowering his voice to a solemn tone] besides, my deep love of football."

"Thanks, Bruce," the NFL emcee said nervously.

So Springsteen is pushing his new CD. Makes sense. Everybody is selling something during the Super Bowl.

He doesn't follow football too closely. He said he last played the game in the summer of 1958. The scariest moment of the session is when he quoted former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Something about living like a dog likes to live.

Less than two weeks ago, Springsteen, who campaigned for Barack Obama, was playing the pre-inauguration concert on the National Mall. "The Rock Laureate" is how The New York Times described him. Compared with the inauguration concert, the Super Bowl will be a snap.

"There'll be a lot of crazy football fans," he said, "but you won't have Lincoln staring over your shoulder."

I liked it when he explained exactly how he'll present the halftime experience to viewers. Stay with him on this.

"The idea of the show is that you're going to the Meadowlands, the regulars are playing and you get lost on the way," Springsteen said. "And you're watching your clock … you stop in a bar and get some directions, and the bar gets held up while you're there. It takes another 45 minutes to get out of there. Then you come back and you miss your exit on the turnpike, see. And you drive around to get back around. And so you make it into the stadium at 2 hours and 48 minutes into the show. [Long pause] That's what you're going to see: the last 12 minutes."

A dozen minutes of Springsteen is better than nothing, even if those 12 minutes are in the middle of a football game.

"We come out and play like we're 16," he said.

Springsteen, who will turn 60 in September, was out of his element Thursday, but he was surrounded by family -- his family being wife Patti Scialfa and the rest of the E Street Band. Some of them have been playing together since high school.

"We stayed together," he said. "We stayed alive. That's hard to do for people in our business."

And then a strange thing happened at the end of the news conference. Sportswriters clapped.

After all, it's no cheering in the press box. There's no rule about the media center.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.