Panthers' Super Bowl a career highlight
Posted January 29
Updated January 30
Anytime I hear “Dream On” by Aerosmith, I am immediately transported to 2004 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Jeff Gravley and I were seated in the media overflow section (which was actually in the grandstand). As Steven Tyler and the boys began to crank up the pregame show, we kind of looked at each other and said “Wow!” This was as big an event as either of us had ever covered, and at that point, we were more than ready for the Panthers and Patriots to get it on.
I have to admit at the outset covering the Super Bowl was not anything that was high on my list of career goals. I had this perception that Super Bowl week was little more than mobs of reporters trying to get surly coaches and players to answer questions that were repetitive at best and often inane.
I also was concerned about how much freedom the NFL would allow the television media. As it turned out, covering the Super Bowl was one of the great experiences in my years at WRAL, for two reasons:
1. The Carolina Panthers were very accommodating
2. The NFL was pretty good to work with, much more flexible with local television than, say, the NCAA.
It’s about logistics!
I can’t think of Super Bowl XXXVIII without first thinking about all the logistics. I remember taking part in two planning meetings at the station 13 days before the big game, along with a mind-numbing 45 minute conference call with the NFL. I took extensive notes, because the NFL was going to be very exacting on credentials, parking, satellite truck access, hotels, even wireless mic frequencies. We decided to send a crew of 14, pared down from the original 20. We sent a satellite truck to Houston (it was already in the Midwest covering Sen. John Edwards’ run in the Iowa Caucuses) and most importantly, we rented a trailer that would house editing equipment and provide additional work space. Most of our work at the Super Bowl was done outside the stadium in what was known as the TV Compound. But everyone needed a credential to move around in that compound. I remember spending a couple of stressful hours on the NFL credentialing web site, sending photos and other information about all of our personnel. One credentialing mistake can lead to a very long week.
Photographer Jay Hardy and I were to be the first to arrive in Houston. Early Saturday morning, January 24, I became concerned about Raleigh weather. We moved our flight from Sunday afternoon to early Sunday morning. Good thing – a winter storm hit Raleigh Sunday afternoon. But by that time we were on the scene in Houston, ready to cover the Panthers’ arrival. I remember talking with kicker Jon Kasey that evening, and that seemed fitting. He was the last of the “Original Panthers,” and had seen more ups and downs than any of his teammates.
Monday before the big game I made it a point to talk with Mike Minter. One of the Panthers’ defensive leaders, Minter, now the head football coach at Campbell, consistently gave quality interviews. In fact, Minter found our WRAL camera on the field after the Panthers’ big win over Philadelphia in the NFL Championship and said: “I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for six years, but now I’ve found the promised land!” That’s what the Super Bowl meant to Mike Mnter.
I had heard horror stories about Media Day, but it actually turned out to be pretty civil, with both members of the Panthers and Patriots bringing a good attitude, at least from what I saw. My colleague Jeff Gravley did a funny story, with several clips of what he termed “stupid people asking bad questions.” He closed the piece with a German crew that spent several minutes trying to teach three or four Panther players to tell folks in Deutschland about the big doings in Houston Sunday – in German of course.
Those of you that know Jeff, or watch him, are aware he can be wonderfully funny. Jeff toured the great spectator attraction, the NFL Experience, and had a big time measuring his hands, biceps etc. against the NFL norm. Jeff crammed his way into an NFL helmet, threw a pass (which he did well having been a high school quarterback), and tried to kick a field goal (ugh). Jeff, it turns out, was a straight ahead kicker, and not a very good one at that! Our colleague Debra Morgan, who grew up playing soccer, chided Jeff for not having today’s conventional (and more powerful) soccer style kick.
Speaking of Debra, another Media Day memory concerns our team effort in re-uniting Deb with her college chum Suzy Kolber of ESPN. Deb had once shown me a tape of Suzy and her doing a tv show in their college days at Miami (both of them had really big hair-it was the mid-80’s). Deb had not seen Suzy in many years, and several of us were concerned she might miss this opportunity as well. Most viewers know Deb as the warm and friendly anchor, but on the road she becomes positively peripatetic chasing down stories. During Super Bowl week, Deb did stories on fans, cheerleaders, politicians, barbecue – she even interviewed George Toma, the supervisor of the field for all 38 Super Bowls (He said the grass in Houston was the best ever, by the way). Anyway, while Deb was on the field looking endlessly for stories, I tracked Suzy down doing a shot for ESPN in the grandstand. I let her know that Debra was covering the Super Bowl and would like to catch up with her. Phone numbers were exchanged, and Deb ultimately added Suzy to her lengthy list of Super Bowl week interviews – getting good perspective from one of the few women regularly covering the NFL on network television.
Media Day for me meant finding Julius Peppers. Pep was typically not enthusiastic about giving interviews, but this day was different. I began covering Julius when he was an oversized high school running back at Southern Nash. Also followed his career at Carolina, including the NFL pro-timing day, when Coach John Fox came to Chapel Hill to check Julius out. I got the opportunity to ask Julius several questions that Tuesday in Reliant Stadium. He remembered fantasizing about the Super Bowl when he was growing up in rural Nash County. It was special for him to finally be there. I also interviewed three other players with Carolina connections: Antwan Harris (Raleigh and UVA) and Troy Brown (Barnwell, South Carolina and Marshall) from the Patriots. And Kevin Donnalley (Raleigh and UNC) from the Panthers. Ironically, Kevin’s brother Rick had played football at UNC with Jerry Richardson’s son Jon.
And the chance to speak with the owner of the Carolina Panthers is another vivid Super Bowl memory. Richardson rarely talks to the media, but the Panthers made him available to a small group of us who asked. I was in Chicago in 1993, the night the Panthers (by unanimous vote) became the first expansion franchise in the NFL since the 70’s. I was also on the field in the three degree cold of Lambeau Field for the Panthers’ first deep playoff run. So I have to say it was pretty cool hearing Mr. Richardson re-tell the story of how it took six years and $5.5 million of his own money to get that franchise. The private financing model used to construct Bank of America Stadium was the first of its kind in the NFL.
Thursday was the final day for media interviews with players. I remember doing a tongue-in-cheek story with the Panther players: “Three Days no media. Won’t you miss us?” They were good sports about it – said most of us were pretty decent to work with. I closed my story with a standup walking out of the hotel and letting the doors close behind me. “That’s it”, I said. "No more player interviews until after the game.”
Of course that was just the beginning of our work. WRAL produced two one hour specials, Friday and Saturday before the game, plus a one hour newscast after the game (our crew also did live shots morning, noon, and night all during Super Bowl week). Tom Suiter and Gerald Owens anchored the shows from Raleigh, introducing Ken Smith who was live in Charlotte, plus lots of elements from North Carolina. Jeff and Debra hosted from Houston. Tom, who is one of the world’s best at giving out nicknames, began calling out to “Tex Gravley.” Gerald, by the way, is the only one who picked the Patriots to win. Everyone else predicted a Panther victory in a close, low-scoring game.
One of the truly show-stopping pieces from the specials focused on “Breaux Bridge, Louisiana,” home town of Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme. Jay Jennings showed us lots of pro-Carolina signs (“Geaux Panthers!”) along with many townspeople, and several of Jake’s relatives, including the mayor. It was amazing to see this remote colony of rabid Panther fans in far away Louisiana. The story set a WRAL record I believe for most Cajun accents in a two minute period. Everybody was wearing Panther Blue, or as they said it “Panthaa Blue.”
Security on game day was something I’ll never forget – helicopters flying overhead with armed guards at strategic locations. I received a pat-down (first in my life) as part of my security clearance for entering Reliant Stadium.
I did not see the famous Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, because of some other game day responsibilities during halftime. But the game itself is quite memorable. After about 25 minutes of domination by defense, Tom Brady threw touchdown passes to Deon Branch and David Givens. The Cats countered with Delhomme throwing long to Steve Smith, and then Kasey kicking a 50 yard field goal. After a scoreless third quarter, the Patriots took a 21-10 lead early in the fourth on a run by Antwan Smith. But lightning struck for Carolina twice, on a 33 yard run by DeShawn Foster, and a pass from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad. What happened to the defensive struggle? The Patriots re-captured the lead on a pass from Brady to linebacker Mike Vrabel. But the Panthers forced a 29-29 tie when Delhomme found Ricky Proehl. By this time, I had moved downstairs to the media center, getting ready to go to the post-game interview areas. As Kasey mishit his kickoff, giving the Patriots the ball in great field position, I remember the late Rich Brenner (local sports pioneer at several NC stations including WRAL) saying this was just like Super Bowl XXXVI, when Proehl caught the tying pass for St. Louis, only to see the Patriots get great field position on the ensuing kickoff. Rich was prophetic. As it turned out, both games ended with an Adam Vinatieri field goal.
Heavy rain began to fall during WRAL’s post-game newscast, prompting Jeff and Debra to reach for umbrellas for the first time all week. Jeff seemed to be heartened by the chance to narrate WRAL’s first ever on-field Super Bowl highlights; the NFL allowed local stations to shoot the game in that era, and photographer Brad Simmons arrived many hours before kickoff to make sure he got a good spot. For WRAL, a station that has always valued photography, this was a special night, seeing game video we shot in high definition.
My role was to talk with players. Many bemoaned this “missed opportunity,” saying astutely, “you never know if you’ll get this chance again.” Jake Delhomme simply said: “I’d love to be those guys and see what winning feels like.” He would never get that chance.
Perspective from 51 & 58
My lingering memory of Super Bowl XXXVIII surrounds two courageous men who did not take part in the battle on the field. Assistant Coach Sam Mills did his work in and around chemotherapy treatments for intestinal cancer. Panther linebacker Mark Fields was battling hodgkins disease. Mills proudly wore #51 during his outstanding playing career. Fields, who had just learned of his illness right before the 2003 season, wore #58. Panther players wore t-shirts “51 & 58” under their game uniforms in salute of their ailing heroes.
Both Mills and Fields met with the media a couple of days before Super Bowl XXXVIII, and I’ll never forget what Sam Mills told us: “I have good days and bad days, but the main thing is I’m having days.” Super Bowl XXXVIII was an incredible game. Covering it was one of the highlights of my career. It was disappointing the Panthers couldn’t win for themselves, owner Jerry Richardson, and above all for 51 & 58. But in the end, it was just one game, one really big event. Sam Mills, who would not survive his illness, helps us all understand that.