Look, I was warned by many, many people that attending the Super Bowl in person would be a disappointment. “It’s too corporate, which means too many people aren’t rooting for anyone,” seemed to be the most popular talking point. To be fair, that’s what I assumed it would be like. But I had to go. I had no choice.
The Kansas City Chiefs were playing in their first Super Bowl in 50 years, which also means this was their first appearance of my lifetime. I won’t go through the many, many, many heartbreaking Chief playoff losses over the last few decades because Rany Jazayerli did an excellent job of that and his anguish over those years mirrors my experience. (Rany is my favorite writer on anything Chiefs related. He’s also writes brilliantly about the Kansas City Royals, a team I don’t even follow, yet I still read Rany’s stuff.)
If this was, indeed, a once every 50 years cycle, I couldn’t take my chances I’ll still be around in 2070. I decided I’d do anything to get to Miami and be at this game.
Sometimes I get asked on Twitter why I root for the Chiefs when my other allegiances are to the St. Louis teams. I was born in St. Louis, but in 1988, my dad’s job with the phone company was moved to Kansas City. So I said goodbye to all my friends and started a new school in a suburb just outside of Kansas City (about eight miles from where the Chiefs play on the Missouri side, as opposed to whatever our president thinks). As it turns out, that was the same year the St. Louis Cardinals football team packed up and moved to Phoenix.
I was never really into the Big Red — they were never good enough to have any true feelings toward, especially at my age then. But they were my default “favorite team” up into that point, based mostly on my family telling me they were my favorite team. But now I was free agent football fan. I had no team, and this new city we moved to had one. I had no friends, so I decided to get really into this Chiefs team. And they were coached by … Frank Gansz. They were awful. The year we moved to Kansas City, the Chiefs were 4-11-1. I still fell in love with them, anyway.
Fortunes changed the next season when the Chiefs hired Marty Schottenheimer. All of a sudden the Chiefs became pretty good! Led by star linebacker Derrick Thomas (still my favorite Chief of all time, though Patrick Mahomes is making that more and more difficult) the Chiefs became one of those teams that wound up sneaking into the playoffs. My first Chiefs game was Nov. 26, 1989, a 34-0 win over the Houston Oilers that I attended with my dad and my grandfather, who are both gone now but I thought about this past Sunday. In late 1991, I attended my first Chiefs playoff game, a 10-6 win over the Los Angeles Raiders (the most memorable thing from that game was that Chiefs quarterback Steve DeBerg had a broken pinkie finger, so it looked like he was wearing a large banana on his left hand). The thing I didn’t know then was that this would be the last postseason Cheifs win I’d see in person for over 28 years.
The Chiefs had some really good teams in the ’90s. There were, of course, the two Joe Montana years. (People still make fun of the fact Montana ended his career in KC, but before these two last seasons, the only other time I watched the Chiefs make the AFC Championship game was thanks to Joe Montana.) In 1997, me and my friend from high school, Chris, camped out overnight in the parking lot of a record store called Seventh Heaven — a store best known around town for records and marijuana pipes — but, strangely, they were also the only Ticketmaster broker nearby. (Yes, back then you had to camp out and wait in a line). Chris and I scored tickets to the divisional round game between the Chiefs and Broncos — a year the Chiefs went 13-3, mostly with Rich Gannon as a starter, and secured home field advantage.
Of course, injured former started Elvis Grbac returned just in time for the playoffs, and of course, they lost. That’s just the way it was. My best memory of this game is that when the kids came out at halftime for the Punt, Pass, and Kick competition, one of the contestants was named Joey Metropolis. I assume that’s not the right spelling, but it will forever be spelled that way in my mind. Chris and I concluded that with a name like Joey Metropolis, he was a can’t-miss future Hall of Fame quarterback. Then Joey Metropolis lost the competition. It was a bad omen.
In early 2019, my girlfriend and I flew from New York (my current home) to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game. I had fallen in love with Mahomes, like basically every other Chiefs fan, and I just couldn’t let that magical season go by without seeing him play in person. We lost (I could have predicted this!), but as I walked out, it didn’t feel like it did in 1997. It felt like a miracle that Chiefs squad did that well in the regular season and that a lot of breaks went our way, at least until the playoffs. But this team — the Patrick Mahomes Chiefs that just lost a crushing game in overtime to the Patriots — felt like the beginning of something. I was sad they lost, but I didn’t dread that it would be another 10 years until we were back here. I just knew this wasn’t the end.
When the Chiefs stormed back to beat the Titans in the AFC Championship game this season, I texted my friend Chris (yes, the same person from the 1997 game) and said, “Let’s go to the Super Bowl. I’m serious.” Okay, so this turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. Working in media, I maybe overestimate how easy it is to just go to something. But I don’t cover sports and we were headed down to the Super Bowl as civilians with no strings to pull. (We found a halfway reasonable hotel that wound up being basically a dorm room with two cots. We just pretended for two nights we were back at Mizzou.)
I wasn’t there as media. I was there as someone who had my heart pulled out and crushed too many times to count and I was certain that was going to happen again … but what if it didn’t this time?
(I did, admittedly, pull one string, which I’ll probably be paying off in favors forever, to get into a Lady Gaga concert-party the night before the game. At one point I looked over and Chris was just chatting it up with fellow Chiefs fan Paul Rudd. Everyone seemed like they were in a good mood.)
So I’m going to go back to my original point, that people had warned me the Super Bowl wasn’t that fun as a fan. This was not my experience. There were Chiefs fans everywhere in that stadium. It felt like Arrowhead South, everyone felt like Chris and I did, that this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance and, dammit, we weren’t going to miss it, no matter what it took to do or cost. (When people ask me what I paid for the actual tickets, my only response is to quote the original Ghostbusters, “Everyone has three mortgages these days.”) And to be fair, there were a ton of Niners fans there, too. This didn’t feel corporate. I’m sure it’s been different in the past, but this crowd was into it. It would, by the end, become the greatest experience of my life.
Oh, that’s the other thing: It’s kind of fitting the Chiefs played the 49ers in their first Super Bowl of my lifetime. All these years, the Chiefs had a weird quirk of acquiring discarded 49ers quarterbacks. Steve DeBerg was an ex-Niner. Then Joe Montana. Then Steve Bone. Then Elvis Grbac. Then Alex Smith. If the Chiefs didn’t have Mahomes, I have no doubt Jimmy Garoppolo would one day be a Chief. It’s interesting that when the Chiefs finally decided to develop a quarterback of their own, that’s when we finally made it, and of course, the 49ers were waiting for us. (I will take this time to point out what a nice bunch of people the 49ers fans are. That was a crushing loss, I know this from experience, and everyone was still so nice.)
After Mahomes’ second interception, which happened right in front of Chris and me, we looked at each other and started coming to grips with the fact that it wasn’t our night. And, yes, we’ve experienced this together before, but not at the Super Bowl. We were crushed, but not entirely surprised. This is the way it goes for Chiefs fans.
It was such a blur. I still need to watch the fourth quarter again because it all happened so fast. Minutes later, after planning our own wake, we were suddenly winning. Then Damien Williams broke loose for a game-clinching score and it didn’t seem real. Chris happened to be filming that play from our seats. I didn’t realize this and I tackled him in ecstasy. When watching the video, it looks like something from Cloverfield, like all of a sudden a giant monster attacked the stadium and the video goes out.
The Chiefs actually did it. Patrick Mahomes pulled it off. It still doesn’t seem real. My phone lit up with well-wishers like I had just accomplished something. For that night, I just pretended I had. I started to cry. I tried everything I could do to take a mental image. In the world of sports, there will be nothing better for me and it was all happening right in front of my face. I flashed back to Chris and me at Arrowhead Stadium with those dumb looks of disbelief on our face as the Broncos celebrated on the Chiefs’ home turf, a scene I’d watch many, many times on television over the years. Then again, last year with the Patriots, in person. Watching other teams celebrate at Arrowhead had become the norm.
But here I was with Chris again, watching the celebration, and this time, finally, it was for us.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.