Commentary

Nothing quite like the first time

Overwhelming aspects of the Super Bowl can be a lot to handle for the uninitiated

Originally Published: February 6, 2011
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- There might be no equivalent in all of sports to the shrieking, searing, sensory overload of playing in the Super Bowl for the first time.

Professional athletes learn to channel their emotions, like a finely calibrated instrument, to enhance the quality of their play. But that initial Super Bowl experience can be so mind-blowing, so unnerving, that control is not always possible.

"You tell yourself the field is the same size, 100 yards by 53 yards. The quarters are still 15 minutes. There's still 53 guys on the roster," said Rod Woodson, who appeared in a Super Bowl for the Steelers (1996), Ravens (2001) and Raiders (2003). "But at some point, it gets to you. It gets to everyone."

The Pittsburgh Steelers understand this. When they take the field for Super Bowl XLV on Sunday, 25 players -- nearly half the roster, including 14 starters -- will be playing in their second Super Bowl. No fewer than 16 players already have two rings.

The Packers? This is essentially their first championship rodeo; only three of their players have played in the Super Bowl: Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett and John Kuhn -- and Kuhn, who was a non-playing fullback on the Steelers' practice squad for Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, is the only one with a ring.

That's a good thing for the Steelers, right?

"You get off the plane and you've got helicopters, you've got police and media and then this [media day]," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said this week. "If you're not used to it, it can be overwhelming. I think it helps a little bit to at least have some prior knowledge and experience with it."

Added Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, "You know the lay of the land, you know the direction some of those things are going. If that allows you to focus your energy more clearly on preparation, and ultimately play, then if there is a benefit, it's that."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy has done his homework, picking the brains of his peers on how to handle the week.

"The advantage Pittsburgh has over us, in my opinion, is today through Saturday," McCarthy said Monday. "So we'll continue to work and educate our football team. They are a dedicated and focused bunch, so I'm not really concerned about it."

Said Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a little wistfully, "Maybe ignorance is bliss for us."

Maybe. Maybe not.

Michael IrvinUS PresswirePlayers get hit with a wave of emotions when they come out of the tunnel at the Super Bowl.

The Tunnel

The Super Bowl is a lifetime of competition compressed into a single day, the ultimate pass/fail test. A career epitaph can be written in a flash of 60 minutes, a daunting realization that washes over players as they stand in the tunnel before that defining game:

• Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: "It's very surreal. I mean it's almost like 'Holy ... holy you-know-what. We're here.' For the last 10 months you've been preparing for that moment -- and there it is."

• London Fletcher, Rams linebacker: "You're making that walk down the tunnel, the final walk down the steps to play in the biggest game of your career. Tears were coming out down my eyes as I'm going on the football field. And I had to say to myself, 'I don't want to be crying as I take the football field.'"

• John Elway, Broncos quarterback: "You stand there and say, 'This is what I have dreamed about. I am living the dream. It's a feeling like no other, and it will not be matched by anything else."

• Emmitt Smith, Cowboys running back: "I have been waiting all my life to play this one game. I almost like buckled a little bit because you're just so overwhelmed with emotions. ... It is like a child reminiscing, going back and rewinding the whole season, rewinding your college years, high school years, back to Pee Wee years, back, all the way back."

• Ray Lewis, Ravens linebacker: "I treated myself as a gladiator, just truly ready to go to war. But when you walk on that field and you know all those camera bulbs are going off and they are snapping pictures of you, I mean, it's only one thing to do, and that is go do what you do best."

Super BowlJohn David Mercer/US PresswireThe Super Bowl is not a regular game, not even close.

Anything but normal

Keeping things routine can be far easier said than done. As interviews this week with first-time Super Bowl players suggested, individual results may vary:

Tiki Barber, Super Bowl XXXV
The New York Giants flogged the Vikings 41-0 in the 2000 NFC Championship Game and arrived in Tampa for their game with Lewis' Ravens with an air of invincibility. The Giants running back, coming off a 1,000-yard regular season, was carrying some advice from then-Jets coach Al Groh.

[+] EnlargeRay Charles
Jeff Haynes/Getty ImagesRay Charles' performance in Tampa moved Tiki Barber a bit too much.

"I had played at Virginia with his son [Mike], and Al called me the week before," Barber said. "He said, 'Listen, just try to win the game -- don't try to win the Super Bowl.' I thought that was pretty wise."

Barber, even with the prospect of facing one of the great defenses in NFL history, was confident ... until he took the field before kickoff.

Ray Charles sang "America the Beautiful," and by the time he reached the final verse …

    "O beautiful for patriot dream
    That sees beyond the years
    Thine alabaster cities gleam
    Undimmed by human tears.

… Barber's all-too human tears were streaming down his face.

"I was thinking how much my mother would have wanted to be there standing with me watching," Barber said. "That's Ray Charles. I mean, are you kidding me?"

In the first quarter, Barber carried the ball five times. Dogged in particular by Lewis, he gained five yards. The Ravens won the game 34-7 and the Giants' offense failed to score a point.

"The pressure is massive, overwhelming," Barber said, with feeling. "It cripples you."

Troy Aikman, Super Bowl XXVII
The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback likes to say the Super Bowl produced his finest moment in sports. He quickly adds that his first appearance, at the Rose Bowl against the Buffalo Bills, also included his most emotional moment.

When he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame a few years ago, Aikman said he tried all week long to downplay the importance of the Super Bowl and before the game actually felt a sense of peace settling upon him.

[+] EnlargeTroy Aikman
Getty ImagesTroy Aikman led Dallas to three Super Bowl victories in four seasons.

"And then they announced my name," Aikman said. "I ran out onto the field, and there was a tremendous rush, unlike anything I've ever known. I tried to tell myself to calm down, to just relax and play my game. But I was hyperventilating until the second quarter.

"I couldn't enjoy the fact that it was the Super Bowl."

Aikman, struggling to breathe, completed only three of his first six passes and Dallas trailed 7-0. A 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jay Novacek, however, evened the score and Aikman eventually settled down. He completed 22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns. The Cowboys won 52-17, defeating a Bills team that was playing in its third consecutive Super Bowl, and Aikman was the MVP.

"If you knew the outcome beforehand, then you could take time to register the surroundings, to think about the moment and to enjoy the experience," said Aikman, who would lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories in four years. "But that's not the way it works."

Marshall Faulk, Super Bowl XXXIV
The 1999 St. Louis Rams were incandescent. The "Greatest Show on Turf," featuring quarterback Kurt Warner, led the league with 526 points and 6,639 yards. Faulk set an NFL record with 2,429 yards from scrimmage (1,381 rushing and 1,048 receiving) and was the league's offensive player of the year.

But even Faulk was tight when the team arrived in Atlanta to meet the Tennessee Titans.

"Football players are creatures of routine," said Faulk, who was selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2011 on Saturday night. "You want to know where you're going to be -- and when. We were going to be on the road for an entire week. That never happens. I just wasn't sure how it was going to be."

The four official media sessions were wearing, but by Saturday's walk-through and team meetings, Faulk had found an equilibrium. Like so many things, the anticipation sometimes trumps the actual event.

"The day of the game, we got off the bus and we knew we were going to win," Faulk said. "As soon as the whistle blew, it was just football."

Faulk was limited to 17 yards rushing (on 10 carries), but caught five of Warner's passes for 90 yards. It took a goal-line tackle by linebacker Mike Jones on Titans receiver Kevin Dyson to save the game, but the Rams prevailed 23-16.

"The way it was supposed to be," Faulk said. "But barely."

Raul Allegre, Super Bowl XXI
Kicking mechanics are pretty basic; success is largely an exercise in managing your mind.

[+] EnlargeRaul Allegre
Vernon Biever/Getty ImagesRaul Allegre was brutal in warmups but solid when it mattered during the Giants' Super Bowl XXI victory.

When Giants kicker Raul Allegre trotted out onto the Rose Bowl field an hour before the game against the Broncos, he was feeling a little light-headed. Working with holder Jeff Rutledge, he lined up a PAT -- a gimme of a 20-yard kick -- and it squirted wide left. Allegre lined up again and, overcompensating, missed wide right. A third PAT attempt missed left.

"Rutledge stood up and said, 'Get out of here,'" Allegre said. "Go walk around for a few minutes, and we'll start over."

Allegre practiced some breathing exercises and focused on slowing down his racing pulse. Mentally, he said, he slapped himself a few times in the face and said, 'Don't be stupid.'"

"When I came back a few minutes later, I was fine," Allegre said.

The Giants lost the coin toss and Allegre, after warming up for a third time, kicked off to the Broncos, thinking, "Don't shank it. Don't shank it."

Allegre, who rarely reached the end zone with his kicks, summoned enough adrenaline to hit it to the 1-yard-line -- and actually piled onto the ball carrier at the end of the play. For the game, which the Giants won 39-20, Allegre had two rare touchbacks and two balls to the 1-yard-line, plus a 21-yard field goal. He made his first four PATs but missed the last one.

"We were already celebrating," he said. "I couldn't find my helmet until it was almost too late."

Trent DilferBrian Bahr/AllSportDespite a very rough start, Trent Dilfer settled down to lead the Ravens past the Giants.

Trent Dilfer, Super Bowl XXXV
Growing up, the Ravens quarterback was an "NFL Films junkie." He had heard all those Super Bowl stories of pregame anxiety. He knew all about Aikman's breathing problems. He remembered players talking about how longer pregame festivities left more time for anxiety to creep into places where it was unwelcome.

Because the Super Bowl game against the Giants was in Tampa, where he had spent six sometimes dreary seasons with the Buccaneers, Dilfer suspected he would relive the boos and the interceptions. He knew all his visual stimulation would be "bad, really bad."

So he developed a strategy. Dilfer spent most of the week in his room at the Hyatt. He left the television turned off and, although he wasn't much of a reader, knocked off two or three books, including Bob Rotella's "Golf is a Game of Confidence." He even bought a novel at a nearby bookstore and read 50 pages to kill time.

Dilfer, those tales of excitable quarterbacks in his mind's eye, made a conscious, concerted effort to keep an even emotional keel.

"We pulled into the stadium and, for me, it was like pulling into the kids' school," Dilfer said. "Walked into my old locker [at Raymond James Stadium] and ... nothing. I pulled my uniform on, thinking, 'It's coming. It's coming.'

"Nothing."

Dilfer, usually a fist-pumping, helmet-throwing competitor, was frighteningly calm and clear in his thoughts -- even after the jet fly-over and the national anthem. "Oh, my gosh," he thought. "Maybe I'm in that zone that Michael Jordan talks about."

And then ... Dilfer butchered the Ravens' first two possessions, overthrowing tight end Shannon Sharpe during the first, then missing Jamal Lewis with an easy screen pass on the second. He was 1-for-4 for 4 yards.

On the sideline, his good friend, fullback Sam Gash, grabbed him under his chest plate, leaned in and screamed, "We need the old [expletive] Trent back! We need you [expletive] back!"

Dilfer smiled. "He really got in my jar and shook me out of it. I could feel my heart rate going up, and I ran into the huddle."

On the second play of the series, Dilfer threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley -- the game's first score, but not the last. The Ravens won 34-7 and Dilfer, blessed with that magnificent defense, managed the game nicely.

"I thought I had been so prepared," Dilfer said. "But I was really overprepared. Sometimes, you can overanalyze things."

Flirting with danger?

Dilfer, who oddly enough these days makes his living as an analyst for ESPN, isn't convinced the Steelers' vast edge in experience is an advantage.

"If you've been there a couple of times, does it become old hat?" Dilfer asked rhetorically. "Mike McCarthy has been doing the details, telling the Packers that they're accountable for every moment in terms of preparation. But what gets lost if it's old hat?

"That's a danger for the Steelers."

On Monday, McCarthy said, only half-kidding, "I'm going to do as little as I possibly can to enjoy myself."

The Packers, for the most part, have followed McCarthy's killjoy lead.

The Steelers? Tomlin, who says he was wound a little too tight when Pittsburgh played two years ago in Super Bowl XLIII, has been ending practices early and encouraging players to get out and about. He and about 20 players attended the Dallas Mavericks' victory over the Washington Wizards at American Airlines Center on Monday.

That was the same night, according to the Dallas Morning News, that Hines Ward and Ike Taylor and a few teammates -- apparently unconcerned about a reported stripper shortage -- visited the Dallas Gentlemen's Club for "Make it Rain Monday." On Tuesday, according to TMZ, Roethlisberger was out singing Billy Joel tunes at a Fort Worth piano bar.

The players who have been there are divided on the subject of Super Bowl experience.

"The Steelers will not be overly impressed with the pregame show and all the festivities," Barber said. "I think that gives them an enormous advantage."

"In our first Super Bowl [XXVII], we were the youngest team in the NFL," former Cowboys fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston said. "A lot of people thought we were a year or two away. They were wrong."

Likewise, the New England Patriots entered Super Bowl XLII one victory from an unprecedented 19-0 record. The Patriots had 21 players on their roster that had played in the Super Bowl. The New York Giants had all of two.

How did that work out for New England? The Giants shocked the world and contrived a stunning 17-14 victory.

Johnston, perhaps thinking of these inexperienced Packers, smiled.

"Football, at the core, is an emotional game," he said. "I think emotion and passion -- managed properly -- trumps experience."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.