HOUSTON -- The private elevator was crammed. The Carolina Panthers had just finished practice in Houston and players were still piling out of their buses, past heavy hotel security and into elevators, eager for some down time away from the game prep and hype of Super Bowl XXXVIII. Behind me was Steve Smith. The excitable wideout who never stands still was bouncing from foot-to-foot, the contents of his backpack shifting with each movement. To my left was gigantic defensive lineman Al Wallace, dressed in one of those Super Bowl logo letter jackets that seem to be everywhere down here, ducking his head to keep from hitting the ceiling. And up front by the shiny brass sliding doors was Stephen Davis, dressed from head to toe in red Reebok gear, poking fun of teammates stuck out in the lobby waiting for a ride.
"... And another thing, fellas ..."
"COME ON MAN!"
"OK, OK ..."
"... Let's not forget to watch film today ..."
"... anyone have the time? ..."
Finally, after everyone in the elevator had broken down in a fit of laughter, Davis let the doors shut. Then, as the car began to rise, the normally reserved running back turned to the elevator operator and asked her flatly, "Do you think I'm fat?" Again, everyone fell over on to each other with laughter. In the age of parity, emotional momentum has become the most important ingredient leading up to the final game of the season. And if this brief moment behind closed doors is any indication, these Cats are loose, confident and having a blast in Houston.
The first stop was on floor No. 4 where Smith and I got out and headed to his room for a chat. First, though, Smith had to clear the huge pile of dirty laundry off the chair in the suite section of his room. "Dude, this is nothing," I joked, "you should see my room -- I have no idea what color the carpet is."
And then, for the next hour or so, I was given a glimpse into just how hectic the days leading up to the Super Bowl can be for the players. No wonder guys like Kurt Warner and Steve McNair say that they were emotionally exhausted before the game even began.
Already this week, somewhere between practice, film study, media obligations, player parties and time with family and friends, Smith misplaced his cell phone. And when he ventured out to get another he found himself trapped outside an exact change toll booth without the correct coinage. With uptight Houston motorists backing up behind him, Smith got out and went door to door looking for change. "I don't know if they thought I was car-jacking or what, but the (first) guy was like, 'Move on,'" says Smith. "Finally, somebody helped me out."
Wednesday was just as nuts. While we talked Smith unwrapped, plugged in and began practicing for a video-game showdown with Patriots Troy Brown that night. Smith usually plays another version of video football and so he was unfamiliar and clumsy at the controls of this game. After only a few moments, Smith and his video Panthers were trailing the Pats 14-0 and he was muttering to himself while frantically scanning the instructions for help before a knock at the door shook him out of his video coma.
At the door was the outstanding rookie tackle Jordan Gross, who was fully recovered after eating some funky seafood earlier in the week. Gross moved a pile of free Reebok clothes (that Smith gets reminded daily to be sure to wear whenever he's in public) and a bottle of cornrow relaxer and sat down to listen in as Smith recalled his long, arduous trip from Santa Monica Junior College (where he had to ride the bus four hours a day to get to campus) to the Super Bowl. Gross was there to remind Smith about yet another appointment: this one to sign some pieces of memorabilia before jetting off to the video game bash.
So Smith jumped into a gray suit and the three of us headed to Gross' room where in a fury of blue ink and plastic Smith marked up about two hundred pictures and helmets while simultaneously checking on his family and taking my questions about some of the troubles he's faced in his first three years in the league.
In a moment word came that a car was waiting for Smith out front of the hotel. And we agreed to continue our chat at a later date.
"When will you be back in Charlotte?" I asked.
"That depends," Smith said with a wry grin. "If we win this game, I'll be on a little trip for a couple of days."
"Oh I get," I replied on my way out the door head back to that elevator. "Disneyland."
Super Bowl moments
Panther wideout Ricky Proehl:
Momentum is everything in the Super Bowl. And man, when I was with the Rams, we had it. Before the Patriots even ran a play on that last drive, over on our sidelines we were feeling good, confident. I had just hooked up with Kurt Warner for a 26-yard TD catch to tie the game. I ran a fade route from the slot. Isaac Bruce had run a post and we got the corners to rub off each other and that gave me room to get free. It went just like we had drawn it up in practice. I mean, it worked perfectly. So we were all feeling good. We had just scored, our defense had just stopped them and we were all thinking, 'That's it, we got it, we're gonna win this game.'
The Super Bowl is one of the few things in this game that can make you feel like a kid again. When we rode to the game that day I remember seeing what had to be a hundred thousand fans lining the streets. There were banners and flags and people in Rams stuff and Patriot stuff, everyone cheering and chanting. You don't need to stretch on Super Bowl Sunday because you feel like you're three feet off the ground. We all dream about the Super Bowl. 'Course that's what makes it even tougher to take when it slips away from you. When that happens, when you sense the game slipping away from you, you feel sick. That's the only way to describe that moment. You feel sick.
What I remember the most is not the kick or those big pass plays later in the drive but that first, first down New England made. They were definitely feeling things out at first. They were backed up pretty deep. But when they made that first play, and they got out of that hole, you could feel everything shift. It changed their whole approach. That's when they looked like they were thinking, 'Hey, what the heck, let's try and make a field goal and win this thing.' Had they not made that initial first down. I know they would of sat on the ball and went into OT.
But they made it. Then they made another. And another. That's when the pit falls in your stomach and the taste in your mouth turns sour. That's when you're like ... oh shoot.
Everything switches. And it's so hard as a player because you have no control. You just have to sit there on the sidelines and watch it unfold. You try to support your guys. Everyone was yelling 'Come on make a play! Get a stop defense!'
New England just kept making plays. Nothing great. Nothing spectacular. They just dinked and dunked, made a few guys miss and moved the chains. And then Adam Vinatieri nailed that 48-yard kick to win it. I mean, think about that. That was no easy kick either. But he killed it.
He killed us.
Super Bowl moments II
Panthers center Jeff Mitchell:
JM: Well, the only real epiphany I had when I played for the Ravens was standing on the sidelines before the game. Now, remember the time, the wait between warm-ups and kick off is ridiculous, so I got a snack and watched the pregame show. I think Styx was playing. It was so huge and over the top that when we kicked the ball off I had almost forgotten we had to play a game -- it was like a carnival.
Flem: I remember that show, the lame old farts from Styx played Come Sail Away and they had, like, 1,000 kids dancing on the field with these elaborate silk sails sewn into the backs of their unitards. It was bizarre. It was pure Super Bowl.
JM: Is that who it was? Oh yeah, that's right. That was my epiphany. It was a good show. I was so hungry, though, it felt like forever between the team meal and kickoff. I was scavenging around on the sidelines for something to eat. I found an energy bar or something. See, pre game meal is four hours before kickoff&they tell you its gonna be a while but you don't realize. It's crazy.
Flem: Styx. Huh.
JM: Yeah, Styx.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.