In late January, there are very few things to look forward to in New Orleans. One time, in 2009 the Super Bowl run was the last time that there was a sense of giddiness. That was true until this past week.
This was my story. An unexpected occurrence earlier in the week opened up a small window to attend the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Until noon Wednesday, the chance to go was still up in the air. After deciding to attend, finding a rent a car seemed impossible.
My car was still in the shop and flying was simply not an option for me. Why was there not a car to rent on January 25th in New Orleans? Who knows…After about five rental companies turned me down one finally came through. The road to Mobile started around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. Packing did happen, but it wasn’t exactly luggage. With time not on my side, there was no choice but my wife’s zebra striped beach bag.
Breaking a few speed limit laws on the way, the arrival came a little after 4:30 p.m. The afternoon practices were supposed to go to around 5 p.m. that day. Incidentally, there was little time. Furthermore, there was something that happened to slip my mind that day. Eating….This was my first Senior Bowl, so really there was no way to know what laid ahead of me at the stadium. Regrettably, I thought that there would be plenty of food there. Surely, there would at least be a $5.00 nachos plate right?
After parking and running out of my car, one thing hit my nostrils immediately. The sweet smell of barbecue invaded my space. Following my nose led me to an unexpected designation. No doubt, my nostrils were accurate on the barbecue. However, there was one obstacle that met my eyes in between the pit and utter devouring was an Atlanta Falcons flag with “Rise Up” in front. Matter of fact, there were two flags. This sight of devastation irked me. The private party (so I thought) had everything there with a covered tent. They were in full Mardi Gras mode and it hurt.
Eventually, the decision was made to walk away. The time was getting close to 4:45 p.m. in the early evening. Unfortunately, practice just ended as I walked into the stadium. That hurt too.
Ultimately, I decided to go check into my hotel. The first thing that jumped out at me was the Huge Alabama banner behind the desk clerk. The banner had all the years that Bama won it. Georgia and Alabama beat me up good that day.
Thursday began. First thing on the to do list, was to pick up my media credentials at the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel. That went smoothly, as there were plenty of coaches, scouts, and journalists stalking upstairs around 9:30 a.m. Time started to fly at this point after walking around scouting the different booths upstairs. The time was now getting closer to 10:30 a.m. This time there was no way that I’d run late to practice.
So, as my enthusiasm started to gain traction, once again I parked out in the lot. And just like Groundhog’s Day, the smell of food filled the nose. This time though, the stadium was right there waiting for me. Being an hour early would get me in way before practice even started. One slight problem though. The gates were locked. Seriously? So what now?
As I turned around there was simply nowhere to go. There it was. The Atlanta Falcons flag waving in the wind. It was only fitting that this journalist was going to go in. Instead of pouting and walking away, the curiousity was killing me. To add to my dilemma was the Saints hat that sat on top of my head. The group looked lively, and I did notice there were other guys wearing Patriots, Lions, Bears, etc. stuff to name a few.
Now my curiousity turned to hope. Perhaps they wouldn’t jump me and brand a Falcon on me. The group welcomed me with open arms “take a seat man” the guy said. “The only requirement is that you talk football. Eat and drink as much as you want.” Did I go to football heaven? Are these guys for real? Most of the guys were part of radio row along with other diehard fans just enjoying the moment.
This was probably the highlight of the trip! At this point, I could have stayed there all day. However, there was work to do. The group though was just fabulous. The guys met there by tradition every year to swap stories mostly about football.
It was getting close to noon at this point. Finally the gates opened. The view was magnificient. There were big guys like Southern Cal’s OT Zach Banner at 6’9″ and little guys like PK Memphis’ Jake Elliott. Every player wore the university they represented from Tiffin University to Notre Dame’s golden helmets. My favorite part was standing behind the goal posts and watching the one on one drills with the lineman. This was pure bliss. The crunching of the pads. The man to man battles were better than Gladiator. Truly, this was one of the best sports moments of my entire life.
Practice ended and then the media frenzy ensued. Fifteen minutes were given after the North and South team finished practicing. Once the gates opened the stampede began. This was all new to me as I’ve covered events but nothing like going against ESPN, The NFL Network, and the hundreds of other journalists.
After the North practice there was a full detailed strategy that was bulletproof. The goal was to hit about three guys out of the ten that were highlighted. The best way to describe this to a New Orleanian, is to imagine an Endymion parade. Except the people in front were about six inches taller and had much lower muscle mass.
These guys were Huge. I couldn’t see much except jerseys and people with microphones. Never in my life my height seemed to kill my self esteem, and I’m no midget at 5-foot-8 and 199 lbs. Even the journalists seemed taller. It was wild and crazy yet an adrenaline rush. Meanwhile, there was no way to locate my guys that were circled and highlighted. Even worse, the clock was ticking.
So I did what anyone from New Orleans would do. I imagined a parade was about to start and went into full “Cajun Beast” mode. I zoned in on a player and darted straight over without hesitation. One player from Notre Dame, then Michigan, and Tennessee. My confidence grew as I eventually boxed out a couple of national media guys.
As a matter of fact, there was so much mojo in me, I stuck my recorder in the face of Bears’ coach John Fox. This was exhilarating. After the South practice there was little fear. Four more interviews done.
After the stampede left, I just stood on the field. ESPN was doing their show not far away. Strangely enough, the place was quiet. Being inside of an empty stadium is so relaxing. I wondered how many great players that have walked this same hallowed ground. Furthermore, the feeling was of majestic awareness. I took one more glance around the stands and the field. This was so beautiful.
It was hard to leave that place for sure. I left around 5:30 p.m. and went back over to my new pals from radio row. There were ribs, pork, and seasoned beef awaiting. Even the Falcons guy invited me once again to eat as much as desired. The moment of glory was beyond satisfying.
There were former players there and so much comradery. These guys had a bond. Some of them were coming for over a decade in Mobile. This Who Dat will NEVER miss another Senior Bowl. Some people look forward to Disneyworld. Others maybe going to Niagara Falls is their dream destination. I’m already counting the days till the next Senior Bowl.