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Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Updated: February 10, 11:36 AM ET
Life of Reilly

By Rick Reilly
ESPN The Magazine

I used to think the worst jobs in sports were: 1) Thong wrangler for John Daly. 2) Mark McGwire's injector. 3) Detroit Lion.

But that was until I tried this one: Volunteer Super Bowl halftime concert "fan."

These are the folks who come running out just before the halftime concert yelling like they just won the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, even though the band isn't even on stage yet.

Let me give you some advice: Don't. Be. One.

You know how sometimes you have an idea you think will be hilarious and clever, but it ends up worse than being trapped under Kevin James in a Finnish Sauna? This is one of those ideas.

"You'll be 10 feet from Bruce Springsteen!" I said to myself. "You'll find out who all those people are we see every year! The game's going to be a blowout anyway. What'll you miss?"

So I did it.

Turns out these "fans" are real people—almost 2,000 of them. They're local teachers, nurses, and students willing to rehearse for two 10-hour days and then show up at noon for a 6 p.m. football game, of which they'll get to see none of.

Most answered an online ad from the halftime show's producers that read, in part: "We're looking for enthusiastic volunteers to be part of the on-field audience." "YOU'LL BE 10 FEET FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN! THE GAME'S GOING TO BE A BLOWOUT ANYWAY. WHAT'LL YOU MISS?"

What the 2,000 found out is: The "on-field audience" doesn't get "paid." They don't get a ticket to watch the game. They don't even get a T-shirt. They can't bring cameras or cell phones—unless they're a group leader. They'll be bussed in and bussed out. They will be on the field for 12 minutes and have to sign a release that they won't sue in case they're flattened by a forklift.

Sign me up!

I didn't even think of the idea until after the two rehearsals had happened. Thank God. "On Thursday, we stood in the rain for eight straight hours," one woman complained.

I joined Group U—about 300 people—outside the stadium with a quarter to play in the first half. Our leader was a terminally perky blonde named Cynthia, who kept chirping at us: "Keep together!" and "Energy up!" She told one woman: "No, you can't go pee! I haven't peed all day!"

Volunteers were expected to be "able to run the length of a football field twice." But I met people who couldn't have run the length of a football twice. One woman, from Lakeland, was 61 years old, and looked to be built along the lines of a Good Times hamburger stand. If she was running, it was going to be Thunder Road. "I've been practicing running up and down my street" she said, proudly.

"Really?" I asked.

"No," she laughed, "not really."

One guy had been to 97 Springsteen shows and wasn't about to miss this one. One young woman was there to get a rich husband. "I want a senator or a football player," she said.

And all of us were in the tunnel, waiting for our moment, when we heard one of the craziest sustained roars I've ever heard in a stadium. Had to be 15-20 seconds.

Turns out we'd missed the most exciting Super Bowl play in history, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison's 100-yard, no-time-left interception return for a touchdown, the game-turning moment.

Hey, what'll you miss?

Suddenly Cynthia hollered, "Everybody run!" but we couldn't. There were so many cables, cameras, and photographers on the field that it was sort of like trying to jog through a TSA checkpoint. When they finally stopped us for good, right on the 50, a woman next to me grumbled, "We were way closer in rehearsal."

Still, suddenly, there he was—standing 40 feet in front of us, Bruce Springsteen—buffed and real and smiling at me and my fellow "fans"! And I thought, when this starts, it's going to be awesome!

And that's when I realized it already had started.

I realized it because I saw thousands of fists pumping rhythmically all around me. But for the life of me, I couldn't hear a damn thing.

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"You can hear him?" I said to one rhythmic fist pumper.

"No!" he yelled.

"How do you know what he's singing?"

"Rehearsals!" he yelled.

"Ohhhh, you could hear better in rehearsals!"

"No!" he yelled. "Worse!"

Turns out the field for a Super Bowl halftime is Audio Nowhere, Springsteen Unplugged. All the speakers are set in front of the paying customers in the seats, leaving you at a Marcel Marceau concert.

Telling you: Don't. Be. One.

A friend of mine in the stands said she could hear Bruce "perfectly." And then she added, "And what about that amazing play at the end of the half!!!"

Yes, unforgettable.

Afterward, I was sullenly ignoring Cynthia's exhortation to "Run! Run people!" when I saw my favorite all-time guitarist, Nils Lofgren, Springsteen's lead, walking off the field, one arm around his mystical guitar and the other around an hourglass blonde.

"Great show, Nils!" I lied. "Was that the best stadium concert you've ever done?"

And he looked at me like I had Slinkys for eyes.

"Uh, well, every concert with Bruce is a guaranteed home-game victory," he said. "The only thing we don't know beforehand is the point spread. But this was a big win."

Speak for yourself, pal.

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