Nine years ago, almost to the day, I was on my way to Phoenix, AZ, for Super Bowl XLII.
It was my first Super Bowl, and my first trip to Arizona.
One thing I have learned about traveling with Bill Frakes is that no matter where in the world he is flying and who is paying for it, he will always find and book the cheapest ticket. It’s about the principal for him. So the Friday before the Super Bowl in Phoenix, we flew into Yuma on a double connect through Atlanta and Salt Lake City.
If his frugalness has taught me anything, it’s that the best way isn’t always the fastest.
Thanks to the double connect through Salt Lake, we met an Elvis impersonator on his way to Yuma for an Elvis convention. He looked more like Elvis in his later years, but the likeness was still impressive.
If we hadn’t flown into Yuma, I never would have seen Yuma. Not that Yuma is much to see. It is as flat and dusty as its name. Just north of our Mexican neighbors, it is one place where the nearly two thousand mile border is separated by a wall. As US citizens in the USA, we had to pass through border protection. There were police and border patrol everywhere. Cars and buses were pulled over on the side of the road. IDs were being checked at every stop. The immigration debate in Yuma was palpable. I could literally reach out and touch it.
The road north to Phoenix seemed to rise out of the heat with the cacti and rocky, other-worldly formations. It was hard to fathom that Arizona was part of the same world as my soggy Florida home.
The sun-bleached ground, the blue sky and the arid anonymity of being human in a place where none belonged made for an almost existential experience. Arizona was the first place that made me start to question my place in the world. Not in a “what am I doing with my life” kind of way, but more of a “life is amazing and I want to see and do as much as I can while I’m here” kind of way.
For the trip to Arizona, Bill made a surprising decision. He left his Canon equipment - the camera system that every other Sports Illustrated photographer would be using - at home and brought the new Nikon D3 and accompanying lenses. At the time, Sports Illustrated worked exclusively with Canon cameras, but Bill had been a career Nikon shooter. He had confidence in and extensive experience with the gear.
Nikon Professional Services had asked him to give their new line of cameras a test. I think most people would test a new camera with their kid in their backyard. Not Bill. Bill tested them at the Super Bowl.
To be fair we used them extensively in the days leading up to the big game. We drove through the Tonto National Forest in search of saguaros. We took them up to Sedona to see the red rocks. We shot desert sunsets, which truly are the most beautiful sunsets on Earth. Light there seems to hang on the horizon long after the sun goes down, as if it’s caught in the dust that never seems to go away.
Then there was the game itself. We got to the stadium early - or what I thought was early. I was somehow under the impression that the game didn’t start until 8pm eastern time.
We walked around outside the stadium for a while looking for fan features and munching on the lunches we packed - concession food at the Super Bowl is still concession food.
We were in no rush. Bill was shooting the elevated position, which meant we had two seats above the 50 yard line. The photographer’s shooting from field level always had to be in place early to make sure they got the spot they needed, but our spots were already set.
We went through the security checkpoint at the media entrance and were surprised that there was no line. Then, just as we got inside, an announcement came on.
“Kick-off is in 30 minutes.”
We looked at each other wide eyed, then ran to our seats.
We got to them with 10 minutes to spare and said hello to our neighbors, Jesse Jackson and his daughter Santita.
Jesse introduced himself and gave us each a warm handshake before turning back to his friends next to him. We made our way four seats in and I ended up right next to Santita. She and I chatted most of the game. She told me about her radio show in Chicago. I told her about being an SEC college kid and the unexpected turn my life took when I started following a famous photographer around the world.
I realized as we were talking that we came from vastly different worlds. She grew up in a big city as the daughter of one of our nation’s most well known civil rights activists. I grew up on the beach in Florida completely unaware of a world outside my homogenous bubble. Yet here we both were at the Super Bowl, laughing and swapping stories.
We talked about friends and family, favorite ice creams (chocolate-chip cookie dough) and pizzas (all pizza). Then, as seems to frequently happen with me, the conversation turned to politics.
Since she had a radio show in Chicago, I was curious if she had met the charming young Senator from Illinois who had recently thrown his hat into the presidential election, Barack Obama.
“Girl,” she told me, “I was one of Michelle’s bridesmaids.”
I fully confess I didn’t know who Michelle was at the time, but I guessed she was Barack’s wife.
“Is he as authentic as he seems,” I asked her?
“Oh, he is,” she told me, “but you should meet Michelle.”
Now - nine years later - we have all met Michelle, and what an introduction. We have seen the class, grace and fiery intelligence she brought to the White House as First Lady, and watched as her husband navigated the complicated waters of being the most powerful man in the world. He made history as our nation’s first black president but - more importantly - his leadership reminded us of one simple American truth: we are more alike than we are different.
As we go into Black History month, that Super Bowl conversation is on my mind. I appreciate the sacrifices made by the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s like her father, Jesse, and others like Senator John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. But I also appreciate Santita and her friend’s Michelle and Barack Obama, the history they made and the values they embody.
The game itself is still the greatest Super Bowl I have personally been to, and only partially because the Giants spoiled the Patriots perfect season.
Anyone who loves football knows what happened in the 4th quarter of that game. They know that Eli Manning and the Giants got the ball back with less than 3 minutes on the clock, trailing the undefeated Patriots 14-10. They know that on 3rd and 5 with just over a minute remaining Eli escaped a sure sack and heaved the ball downfield to a well covered David Tyree who somehow caught the pass, securing it as he fell with one hand on top of his helmut. A few plays later Eli found Plaxico Burress in the end zone with 35 seconds left.
The Giants won 17-14. It was awesome. Everyone cheered, Giants and Patriots fans alike. Games like that are why we love sport. Football, for all it’s obvious flaws, has a way of brining together the most unlikely of friends.