This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 8 Super Bowl 50 Issue. Subscribe today!
I WOKE A few hours before kickoff with the roof of my mouth coated in a fine analgesic mist of milk chocolate and Jack Daniel's, and with the crumpled pages of a Super Bowl XXXVIII reporter's notebook stuck to my cheek. In that moment, the game itself no longer seemed like such an exciting, exclusive event. Over the past 50 years, in fact, nearly 4 million fans have attended the Super Bowl in person. By comparison, as of that 2004 morning in Houston, less than .003 percent of the U.S. population, or 7,500 people, had ever been granted access to a Playboy Super Bowl party. The night before, I had somehow become one of them, joining a club of mortals who understood, firsthand, why black-market invites to this bash go for twice the cost of a ticket to the actual game.
Rolling over on my lime-green hotel comforter, I held my notebook at arm's length, waiting for the faux-Roman game logo to come into focus, eager to relive what I was pretty sure had been the most glorious, mind-blowing bacchanal in recorded sports history. But it was a dark, antiquated time back then -- 12 entire years ago, before the ubiquitous presence of cellphone cameras and social media. So I was left, like a caveman, to root around in that notebook for clues. A frantic search revealed but a single two-word entry: Mars. Rover.
Later, as the deserted media bus rolled past the Astrodome on the way to the stadium, my brain finally rolled over like a cold engine. Astros. Space. NASA. Yes! The encrypted Fibonacci sequence I had scribbled to myself the night before suddenly made sense. In the week leading up to the Patriots-Panthers matchup, the news had been filled with incredible dispatches from the Martian surface after the arrival of NASA exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
We had always known of this alien world 141 million miles away, but until the Mars rovers made their journey, no one could say for sure what that planet was like. Now we knew. It was the same way with Playboy's party. I had always suspected that a spectacular alternate universe existed at the Super Bowl. But I never had tangible proof of what that world was like. Now I knew. Now, after selflessly volunteering to be this universe's party rover, I had proof of why every year 1 million people show up to the host city even though most stadiums have only 70,000 seats, and why the actual Super game has become ancillary to the traveling circus that is the Super bash.
All I had to do was remember it.
NO ONE IN the NFL wants to admit this, of course, but the Super Bowl owes a debt of gratitude to the late-1990s renaissance of Hugh Hefner, Playboy's silk-pajama-clad octogenarian founder. In 2000, the publication decided to celebrate its new website with an online-only Playmate halftime show during Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. In the age of dial-up modems, the show was a flop, but the corresponding party, a modest affair held on Super eve at a small club in downtown Atlanta, had fans, celebs and NFL players lined up around the block in an ice storm.
Two years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, Playboy's party at Anne Rice's mansion in New Orleans helped bring the revelry back to our national sports holiday. The party now had major sponsors, dozens of Playmates in attendance, a strong NC-17 vibe and a VIP guest list with 1,000 names on it from every corner of the sports and entertainment worlds. (Hef typically doesn't attend, but his stamp is on everything, including said guest list.) "It really is a Playboy Mansion party relocated," says former NFL wideout Johnnie Morton, who covered the Houston Super Bowl as a TV correspondent for Extra. "Once you get into that party, the game itself becomes an afterthought, a comedown."
By 2004, competition was growing from Maxim and other publications. Plus, it was Playboy's 50th anniversary. So Donna Tavoso, Playboy's creative services director at the time and the party's brainchild, was forced to step up her game. Armed with Sony PlayStation, Miller and Jack Daniel's as primary sponsors, a budget ballooning past $500,000 and a staff of 25 dubbed the Party Team, Tavoso started scouting locations in Houston nearly a year before the big day. Soon, she came across The Corinthian, a century-old neoclassical bank building in the lower downtown area. After seeing the building's 23,000-square-foot, two-story atrium, lined by 24 massive, 35-foot-high Corinthian columns, Tavoso -- a warm, straight-shooting cross between Melissa McCarthy and Pat Summitt -- dreamed up the angel-and-devil theme.
It looked like the kind of place Bruce Wayne would throw a Super Bowl party, and it was one of the last intimate, ornate locales Playboy used before the economy tanked and everyone started unironically housing their soirees in cheap, huge, homogeneous circus tents. We had no way of knowing it at the time, but we were living in the short-lived peak years of the spare-no-expense skin mag parties. Just like everything else Super Bowl-related, the original party scene has since been co-opted and transformed into a slick, comfy corporate cash cow. We'll always have Houston, though. That was a legit, off-the-rails rager.
JOEY FATONE'S MEMORY is fuzzy. "The balcony was 'heaven,' and the lower level was 'hell,'" the former 'N Sync member told me recently. "The rest of the night? Total blur." It's an aftereffect shared by nearly everyone I spoke with, and something that makes Tavoso beam.
See, if Tavoso was the Steve Jobs of those Super Bowl parties, The Corinthian was her Los Altos garage. It was there, in a space that once hosted a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, that party staples we now take for granted -- the ice luge, the chocolate fountain, body painting -- were invented, implemented and, dare I say, perfected.
Shelby Hodge, an editor at CultureMap, has been covering the social scene in Houston for 25 years. "I've never seen anything like this party before, and I haven't seen anything even remotely close to it since," she says. "Only Playboy and only the Super Bowl could get so many beautiful people to show up in one place in their underwear. It was over-the-top, completely, but somehow elegant, first-class and exclusive all at the same time."
Well, not that exclusive. A handful of us at ESPN were granted access via special media credentials. But there was no way for the general public to legitimately purchase an invitation. Which means, according to Tavoso, that "everyone who gets in is a VIP, and the people who can't will do absolutely anything to get access to this world."
At The Corinthian that night in 2004, Houston's finest were out in force; around 10:45 p.m., the fire marshal was threatening to terminate the shindig if Tavoso didn't cap the flow of guests, right then and there, around 1,500. As crazy as it sounds, moments after I had gained entrance, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler was turned away at the door. Tyler, I'm told, accepted his fate graciously, though Fatone swears that much later in the evening he spotted him at the bar. Maybe he sneaked in with the Secret Service; a little later, men with earpieces and Glocks escorted Jenna Bush, George W's daughter, in through a private entrance. It was no longer just a historic party but a matter of national security.
As far as I can tell, the last person to get in before the fire marshal made good on his promise was Jets owner Woody Johnson. A few minutes before 11, a Playboy employee who is a Jets fan and friend of the owner grabbed a security guard and ran to the edge of the barricades near the VIP entrance. A single tiny hand went up in the back. "Make a hole!" shouted Playboy security, and in Johnson went, practically crowd-surfing to the front of the barricade. "I had a terrific time," Johnson says.
Things didn't go quite as smoothly for Jerry Jones, who climbed out of a giant silver tour bus followed by 40 cowbros. The Dallas owner was on the guest list with a plus-four. It was left to Tavoso, a die-hard Eagles fan, to break the news to Jones that, alas, the Playboy Super Bowl party was going to go down just like the past 10 Super Bowls: No one from the Cowboys had a shot in hell at getting in. "It was not a happy conversation," Tavoso says. "We argued. He left."
As she walked back into the party, an athlete leaned over and congratulated her for standing her ground. It was John Rocker.
"Jerry Jones is an icon in the sports world, and we wanted him in the party," Tavoso says. "But there was no way we could take all those extra people, especially all those extra men, not after all we did to keep the party 50-50."
Important point: the ladies. See, athletes and celebs tended to leave their significant others at home for the Playboy party. Go figure. So Playboy engaged in something Tavoso calls "girl outreach." During the week, Playboy staff distributed hundreds of women-only pink tickets that instructed the bearer to be barer: Please wear your most heavenly or devilish lingerie. Playboy also reached out to college campuses around Houston with a kind of reverse Cinderella offer. Deliver 20 to 30 college coeds, 21-and-over and dressed in lingerie, to the doorstep of The Corinthian and they could also enter the party.
"When people first walk in, we want them to have that Disney moment for adults," Tavoso says. "That feeling of, 'Oh man, there are Playmates here? And video games? And chocolate? And Jack Daniel's? And models in body paint? Is that Barry Sanders talking to Cal Ripken and Duran Duran? My head's going to explode.'"
I remember walking in, being overcome by the kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and needing to grasp a handrail to steady myself. Then, before I had fully regained composure, two models brushed by wearing nothing but paint, and a waiter in a white tux stepped forward with Jack Daniel's on a tray. Not a drink, an entire bottle. Before me, DJ Shorty, using an old-school turntable and heavy doses of vintage Prince, had the hell-themed dance floor pulsating with an energy that, I'm pretty sure, inspired the Zion orgy dance scene in the final Matrix.
Terrell Owens still calls me "some kind of boring" for seeking out the PlayStation area. But upstairs, in heaven, is where I met Stacy Fuson, a lifelong Seahawks fan and Miss February 1999. She was seated on a white velvet love seat, dressed in a shiny silver bunny costume. When Fuson saw me eyeing the PlayStation console, she patted the cushion next to her, challenging me to what turned out to be an embarrassingly lopsided game of Madden. "Sorry about that," Fuson said when we caught up over the phone recently. "I try to warn guys; I'm pretty good at that game."
Before I could offer an excuse or hit the reset button, a buddy of mine walked up to the love seat and stood there with a blank look on his face. Nestled in his arms like a newborn was a giant bowl of marshmallows covered in chocolate. His voice trembled with the awe and wonder of a 1,000-angel choir when he finally gasped, "There's ... there's ... a giant chocolate fountain downstairs."
You want to know what that Playboy Super Bowl party was like? You're in the middle of playing Madden against a centerfold, and your best friend walks up and informs you that downstairs, past the Jack Daniel's ice luge and the models wearing paint, and just beyond the VIP area -- where Jerry Cantrell, Pharrell, Jeff Gordon, John Elway, Jaime Pressly and the president's daughter are all hanging out, where Simon Le Bon keeps asking everyone whether they're excited for the big "footieball" game and Run DMC's Darryl McDaniels is sporting either a Patriots or a Giants jersey, but it's hard to tell because he keeps lifting it to expose his left nipple, for some reason -- past all these bucket-list items and down a flight of stairs, there is an effing real-life Willy Wonka river of chocolate. If a unicorn carrying Bill Belichick and Paris Hilton had galloped by, I wouldn't have blinked an eye. I turned to Fuson, who'd already read my mind. "Go," she said. "Go."
"Guys turn into teenage boys at these parties -- it's very endearing, for the most part," Fuson says. "The chocolate fountain? That was honestly like the highlight of the party. I wanted to hang out there all night too."
So off I went on what can only be described as a Homeric journey through Hef's circles of heaven and hell. For the next few hours, I pinballed around the party, unable to find the fountain, distracted by the siren song of the drinks, the dance floor and the odd coupling of celebs like Jimmy Fallon, Da Brat and Bill O'Reilly mingling freely with the common folk. Finally, as the night closed in on 2 a.m., the sea of revelers began to thin out, and there, in the distance, it appeared: the giant chocolate fountain. I put my head down and wended my way through the crowd until I was close enough to smell the confectionery. But when I looked up, oh, the horror: By this late in the evening, the party people were cupping their hands and drinking from the gigantic fountain like lost desert hikers who had stumbled upon a fresh mountain stream.
"We all walked into that party, saw the chocolate fountain and thought the same thing: 'Oh, that's so cool,'" Fatone says. "But four hours later, after a few drinks, everyone's hands and fingers were in the fountain, like animals. I remember thinking, 'All control is lost.'"
I'm pretty sure I went right ahead and guzzled from it anyway. When would I ever get back to Mars?