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ESPN.com: Pre-game notebook

HOUSTON -- ESPN.com is covering all the sights and sounds around Reliant Stadium leading up to gametime.

Our reporters are scattered around the stadium and ready to be your eyes and ears, bringing you closer to the action before the real action begins on the field between the Panthers and the Patriots.

The pregame notebook kicks off at 4 p.m. ET and will continue until kickoff, so check back frequently for updates as we count down to the start of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

4 p.m. ET

As Brent Musberger would say, "We're live from Houston's Reliant Stadium!"

For the next two-plus hours, we'll give you enough flavor from the scene here in Houston that you'll be able to smell the barbecued ribs cooking on someone's grill outside the stadium.

To get you started, here are a few appetizers to go along with your chips and salsa and whatever else you happen to be consuming:

  • Although the skies have been cloudy all day (and all week, for the most part, with the occasional rainstorm), the retractable roof is currently open. The sun was peeking through a bit earlier, lighting up the northeast corner of the stadium. But cloudy conditions have returned.

    The forecast for gametime is around 62 degrees with a slight chance of thunderstorms. It's enough of a chance, though, that the NFL (or Reliant or someone else who makes these important decisions) has decided to close the roof for the teams' pre-game warmups and for kickoff. However, they hope to have the roof open for approximately 30 minutes for the pre-game tributes to NASA and our Armed Forces.

  • Even though it looks more like a fluffy tent from the outside, the roof is actually 50 percent glass in order to let the sun shine through and help the grass grow. Reportedly, it takes anywhere from 7-to-12 minutes to close the roof of Reliant Stadium. Well, we'll be timing it and let you know how long it REALLY takes.

  • For those of you who've never been to Houston, Reliant Stadium is a beautiful edifice, with an exterior that includes hundreds (or maybe thousands; we didn't count) panes of glass. The Astrodome is only about a Tom Brady or Jake Delhomme throw to the east. From the outside, the Reliant roof looks softer -- more like tent material than glass.

  • For media members who arrived at Reliant on the early buses, it took about 20 minutes to get from the parking lot into the stadium. As always, the security is tight. Our crew had to go through three security checks -- one to check our bags, one to pat us down, and the other to send us through a metal detector. We're pleased to report that we all survived.

    4:02 p.m. ET
    Eddie Money (remember him?) is currently live on stag from the Astrodome, and his performance is being shown on the two scoreboards inside Reliant, one behind each end zone.

    Earlier, some other entertainers were spotted around Reliant. Beyonce was seen riding around the bowels of the stadium on the back of a golf cart ostensibly on the way to her dressing room, according to one of the security guards. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith also was spotted walking around the stadium bowels, gladhanding a few fans as he was followed by a mini-entourage. He's a man of the people -- maybe HE should run for president.

    4:20 p.m. ET
    Our reporter outside the stadium says parking within four miles of Reliant is currently going for $40.

    He also sees a number of Carolina Panthers jerseys that are personalized with "He Hate Me" on the back -- in deference to former XFLer Rod Smart.

    Apparently, the security lines outside the stadium are still quite long. And for now, the price for a single upper-deck end zone seat is going for around $1,100.

    4:22 p.m. ET
    Some players have come onto the field to run around and get used to the turf conditions. The first player siting was around 3:15 ET, when Patriots defenders Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi walked onto the field. Bruschi removed his flip-flops and then was waving his arms, getting the crowd a bit riled up.

    And the sun has come out again, but it shouldn't be here for long, if the weather reports are correct.

    4:25 p.m. ET
    By the way, the newly installed grass at Reliant is 90,000 square feet of rye turf. It was hauled in from an Arizona grass farm on a caravan of 36 trucks. The grass was dyed emerald green to deepen the color, and it was installed over a three-day period in mid-January. The usual turf at Reliant is Bermuda that is rooted in metal trays so it can easily be moved off the field for recuperation between games. But apparently, the Bermuda had taken enough of a beating that it was in no shape to be used for the Super Bowl. Then again, it's not unusual for new turf to be installed for the Super Bowl.

    4:31 p.m. ET
    Players are coming onto the field with their DVD cameras to capture the moment for posterity. For now, though, there's not a whole lot to record. Probably about five percent of the seats are occupied right now. Other than that, there's an ungodly amount of security personnel surrounding the field, and Eddie Money is playing one of his classics, "Baby Hold On To Me."

    4:35 p.m. ET
    The security line is a disaster outside of the south gate. There are literally a few thousand people out there, moving along inch by inch to get inside.

    4:37 p.m. ET
    The roof is closing! The roof is closing! As we said earlier, we are recording the time.

    4:45 p.m. ET
    And the roof is officially closed. The time? About seven minutes. It would have been earlier, but the last few feet were the slowest. I guess they don't want it to slam shut -- wouldn't be a good idea since it's mostly made up glass.

    By the way, the Panthers kickers -- John Kasay and punter Todd Sauerbrun -- are on the field, practicing their kicks toward the north end zone.

    The Patriots are the home team and are wearing their blue uniforms, while the Panthers are in white.

    4:48 p.m. ET
    Steve Smith made a lot of Panthers fans happy by coming out, walking toward them and responding to their catcalls.

    Former Falcons free safety Eugene Robinson, who's now part of the Panthers' broadcasting crew, is on the field, hugging Carolina players and team personnel. In Miami, Robinson ... nah, we won't go there.

    Carolina players are still videotaping the crowd and their teammates warming up. And our reporter also stood next to rocker Sammy Hagar as he admired the Panthers and Patriots cheerleaders while they walked by.

    4:53 p.m. ET
    Kasay moved to the south end zone to try some kicks, and just nailed a 54-yarder, with plenty of leg. Now let's see if he can do the same thing, with time expiring, and a championship on the line.

    On the loudspeaker here, they are playing Duran Duran's "The Reflex." Thought this was 2004, not 1984.

    4:57 p.m. ET
    They are getting ready to roll the stage out for the pre-game entertainment, which will include Aerosmith, Willie Nelson and, reportedly, some mystery performer. If we find out who it is, we'll let you know ASAP.

    4:58 p.m. ET
    Are the kickers trying to outdo each other? Pats kicker Adam Vinatieri is now on the field, trying to boot some long field goals from around the same spots where Kasay was just kicking. Vinatieri barely made a 50-yarder, and then just missed -- about two yards short -- on a 55-yarder.

    OK, this is definitely a pro-Patriots crowd. There were boos -- mostly -- when some Panthers ran onto the field. The sentiment was reversed when a few Patriots did the same thing. I thought Houston was in Texas, not Massachusetts.

    5:03 p.m. ET
    Tom Brady is on the field. He's warming up with backup Damon Huard near the Patriots' bench on the 30-yard line.

    Boy, more boos for the Panthers as they took the field. Forget the neutral site; it looks like the Panthers will have to win yet another road game. It didn't hurt them against St. Louis and Philadelphia, though.

    5:08 p.m. ET
    Let's give some props to Jake Delhomme as well. The Panthers QB is on the other side of the field, throwing passes with Rodney Peete. The guys catching the ball for them are receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Eugene Baker.

    5:11 p.m. ET
    Commissioner Paul Tagliabue just had his picture taken with the game's officials in the northwest corner of the end zone. The question is, will he want his picture taken with them AFTER the game? Let's hope so ...

    5:15 p.m. ET
    Brady was just trading helmet bumps and slaps with teammates. The first one he bumped was linebacker Tedy Bruschi, practically jumping into Bruschi's arms. Looks like Brady wants to play a little bit of linebacker too. The Patriots have just spread out for team warmups, and the Panthers are about to do the same.

    5:17 p.m. ET
    Delhomme's wife was just seen outside with family and friends. Meanwhile, the rest of the crowd is starting to make its way inside as well, and now probably 30-40 percent of the seats are filled.

    Our reporter just stopped and said hello to Jay-Z, who says he expects a good game. He ruefully smiled when asked if he was the mystery performer.

    5:27 p.m. ET
    Both teams are now running plays from each end zone. Something tells me, though, that they aren't giving anything away. You think?

    5:34 p.m. ET
    The Patriots are now walking off the field, to overwhelming applause. You'd think this was Gillette Stadium.

    All those involved in the pre-game entertainment are crowded behind each team's bench on the sidelines. It looks like they are getting ready to entertain us because the Panthers are leaving the field now as well.

    5:37 p.m. ET
    There are multiple stages being rolled out from the north end-zone tunnel as they prepare to get started. Everything here has been scripted to the second. For example, the coin toss is supposed to occur at 6:21 and 40 seconds ET. Even the flyovers were rehearsed ahead of time.

    Now we can see there are actually three stages, one in the middle of the field and then one on each end.

    5:40 p.m. ET
    There were a number of excited kids (maybe 14 and older) in the bowels of the stadium for the pre-game show. It looks like a full orchestra will perform at some point.

    5:42 p.m. ET
    Willlie Nelson has just begun performing on the north stage, but the real entertainment is on the rest of the field, where there are hundreds of female dancers in black outfits and white cowboy hats.

    5:47 p.m. ET
    And while Willie and also Toby Keith regale us with their country music, we were just given the list of inactives for tonight's game:

    For the Panthers:
    Chris Weinke, QB
    William Hampton, CB
    Travares Tillman, S
    Marco Battaglia, TE
    Tutan Reyes, OL
    Doug Brzenski, OG
    Eugene Baker, WR
    Kindal Moorehead, DT

    The captains for the Panthers are Rodney Peete, Muhsin Muhammad, Mike Minter and Brentson Buckner. The honorary captains are Mark Fields and Sam Mills.

    The Patriots info is coming up next. Meanwhile, Willie and Toby are done. We've moved onto the next act.

    5:50 p.m. ET
    For the Patriots:
    Rohan Davey, QB
    Antwan Harris, DB
    Fred Baxter, TE
    J.J. Stokes, WR
    Michael Cloud, RB
    Dan Klecko, DL
    Rick Lyle, DL
    Anthony Pleasant, DE

    And their captains are Tom Brady, Troy Brown, Richard Seymour, Ted Johnson, Rodney Harrison and Larry Izzo.

    And Aerosmith just made its entrance, with flames shooting up from behind them on the center stage.

    5:50 p.m. ET
    Future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice was just spotted on the Panthers' sideline. And Earl Campbell was just brought by in a cart with two of his sons. One of them had a Houston Oilers jersey on, and the other had a University of Texas jersey.

    From one classic (Campbell) to another: Aerosmith is playing "Dream On."

    5:55 p.m. ET
    Wow -- first, some fireworks went off near the roof (so now we can't hear), and then five parachuters came spiraling down to the field. Talk about an entrance, although -- in a squeaker -- we'd recommend going through security to get in.

    6:04 p.m. ET
    There was supposed to be a flyover in a salute to our Armed Forces, but they need to open the roof for the desired effect. We've seen some movement on the catwalk near the rim of the stadium, people scurrying to and fro, but the roof has yet to budge. Maybe a few more fireworks would do the trick.

    6:06 p.m. ET
    The Panthers are about to burst through a door onto the field. Still no roof movement ...

    6:07 p.m. ET
    And now here come the Patriots. Troy Brown is in front, getting everyone fired up.

    6:10 p.m. ET
    And it's believed to be the first time in Super Bowl history that BOTH teams came onto the field at the same time, with no offensive or defensive introductions. Of course, the Patriots did it two years ago against the Rams, and that seemed to work out all right.

    6:13 p.m. ET
    They are about to do the NASA/Armed Forces salute, but the roof still hasn't opened. It doesn't appear there will be a flyover. Well, if there is one, we won't see it.

    6:17 p.m. ET
    As Josh Groban sings, in honor of those who died on the Space Shuttle Columbia, many people are standing. There is definitely a different, calmer, more pensive feel within the stadium, and flashbulbs are lighting up the stadium, moreso now than at any other time during the pre-game festivities.

    And it's now it's time for Beyonce.

    6:22 p.m. ET
    Great performance of the National Anthem -- by both Beyonce and the crowd. The fans got into the act and, on queue, had the inside of the stadium looking like an unfurled American flag. Old Glory never looked better.

    6:23 p.m. ET
    Earl Campbell was originally supposed to handle the coin flip, but now it's Y.A. Tittle instead.

    And the Panthers have won the toss!

    6:26 p.m. ET
    By the way, Stephen Davis and Daniel Graham were the early favorites (at 5-1) to score the first touchdown. Looks like the odds just got better for Davis.

    And that's all from Houston. Enjoy the game!