What’s It Really Like To Play in a Super Bowl?

When you’re a young child you may dream of being an astronaut, a ballerina or another profession defined by  a high degree of difficulty. Young football players dream about being Super Bowl champions. While 106 players get that opportunity each February, to opportunity is still very much a rarity as most professional football players spend entire careers without sniffing Lombardi.

Playing in a Super Bowl is an experience simply unattainable to 99.999% of the human population. It is a special, indelible club that forever bonds those lucky to lived through this unique experience. In advance of Super Bowl XLIII, we chatted with a bevy of current and former players to try and gain a deeper understanding of what’s it like playing in a Super Bowl. For players that have played in multiple Super Bowls (i.e. most of the Patriots), we asked them to hone in on their first experience. For players who played for multiple teams, we listed the teams for which they played in the Super Bowl.

Flying to the Super Bowl

Former Bears RB Thomas Jones (played and lost in Super Bowl XLI): It’s surreal. you’re flying to go play in the Super Bowl. It’s the game you dream of as a kid. It takes so much to get to that game. So much hard word,  dedication, drive, mental toughness. All those things it takes to get to that game. It’s like the last level of a video game. You don’t know when you’re going to get back.

Former Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes (won Super Bowls XLII and XLVI): There were some nerves because we didn’t have much Super Bowl experience and didn’t know what we were getting into. Then with [ex-Giants LB] Antonio Pierce, we all wore black suits because we were going to the “Patriots funeral” as the legend grows. Media caught wind of this. It was pretty cool. Then you try and figure out your routine and get your bearings.

The Craziness of Super Bowl Week

Former Rams QB Kurt Warner (lost Super Bowl XXXVI, won Super Bowl XXXIV): I think when you’re in your first one everything is about the game and everything is about not wasting the opportunity. Now I don’t know if that’s always a good thing that you put everything into it and I remember for me being completely exhausted by the time they kicked the football off. A lot of people are like the more prep the better, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. You have to get to a point and say, ‘Ok, I’m ready for the game. I need to step away and relax.’

Former Saints RB Reggie Bush (won Super Bowl XLIV): Every day feels like two days. Every day is the longest day ever. You go to bed at night and you’re thinking about the Super Bowl, you’re thinking about your assignments. I didn’t get that much sleep the week of Super Bowl because I was so excited. I remember at practice was like the first day of school. You try and put it in perspective and to allow the moment to not be too big for you but it’s hard not to because it’s your lifelong dream to get to this moment.

Patriots S Patrick Chung (won Super Bowls XLIX and LI, lost Super Bowl, lost Super Bowls XLVI and LII): I’m just chillin’. I’m always chillin’ so I treat this game like a regular game. You have to. If you treat it like a regular game, you’ll prepare the same way you did for the lat 20 games. I tell the the young guys to be cool and prepare like normal.

Reggie Wayne (won Super Bowl XLI, lost Super Bowl XLIV): Everything was going through my head. It can be overwhelming if you let it. My first Super Bowl was in Miami. I went to school in Miami so I had family and friends. So I’m trying to take that in, get that stuff settled and enjoy the experience. Then all of a sudden – bam – the game’s up. So if you’re not cautious you can be exhausted with the extra curricular with the family, getting tickets, making sure everyone is getting there, losing friends because they didn’t get tickets.

Tynes:  The practices were odd. Pro athletes love routine and when you shake that up, its weird. We practiced at the same time but when you have different facilities, different practices different fields, different lunches. It was something you had to get used to.

Entering The Stadium On Game Day

Bill Cowher (lost Super Bowl XXX, won Super Bowl XL) : All of the sudden I walked onto the field and I think the OJs were playing and I’m just thinking, ‘wow this kid from Crafton, PA made it to the Super bowl for the first time.’  I just remember listening to the music and caught myself reflecting on how this is surreal. But we needed to play this game. I got there early, my fourth year. Sean McVay’s here in his second year. As much as they say, hey, embrace this you may never get back, you’re thinking, ‘yeah right, I’ll get back.’  When I came back 10 years later I had a much better appreciation for the game. I realized how hard it is to get here.

Wayne: I was thinking about all the OTAs. I was thinking about minicamp, training camp. I’m thinking about all the time we put in, extra hours of film study. And you made it to the point where there’s 30 other teams wanting to be in your spot. The butterflies also start to kick in. You’re feeling that rumbling.

Tynes: I went out there and I was really nervous and I’ve never been a guy who got nervous. But I went out there and there’s all these painted logos in places they shouldn’t be and they kind of bother you so as a kicker, I’m like, ‘why is this logo painted on the hashmark, why can’t they move it,” It got in my head a little bit and I was nervous.

The Playing of the National Anthem

Patriots QB Tom Brady (won Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX and LI, lost Super Bowl, lost Super Bowls XLII, XLVI and LII):  I think when you’re standing out there it reminds me so much of when I was a little kid and watched the Super Bowl and they’d have the Star Spangled Banner going and the players and it’s very surreal to be one of those players now. It was surreal then [first Super Bowl], it’s surreal now. As soon as it ends, you’re ready to go and that’s when you get into football mode.

Jones: I didn’t even hear it. I was just focused on the x’s and o’s. I was so focused on the defense and our game plan and the first 15 plays we had scripted up.

Cowher: My first one was in Phoenix and I was standing next to Vanessa Williams and I was thinking, ‘Boy, she’s really pretty.’ We came out and probably one of the rookie mistakes I made was not recognizing the time frame. In the regular season you leave the locker room and 12-13 minutes later you’re kicking off. Well this time it’s about 22 minutes. We came out all fired up and by the time we’re ready to kickoff, I see guys around and they’re deflated. Ten years later when we make it, I said to them, ‘I’m going to call you up when there’s 12 minutes to go and tell you we just left the locker room.’

Wayne: I got tears rolling thinking about that childhood dream I had since I was 7. Ironically I had a dream when I was 7-years-old that I was playing in the Super Bowl for Buffalo. I don’t know what that meant but that childhood dream is coming true. It’s an emotional moment.

Tynes: My dad’s military, I have so much respect for military people. But you made it. We all remember Whitney Houston singing the anthem. To be there in that stadium with national anthem you  think about all the people who helped you get there. Your coaches you parents, your friends. You don’t get here by yourself.

The Crowd

Chung: I don’t mean this in a bad way but the fans feel like they’re not there. It could be empty.

Tynes: It’s a corporate feel. There’s a buzz in the stadium but there’s no real advantage one way or another. It’s the rich people who can afford. Not saying they’re not real fans but it’s a corporate feel, you can tell.

Winning The Super Bowl

Tynes: Tom Coughlin said it best before the first one, ‘This will be the greatest professional experience you’ll ever have it win the Super Bowl.’ He’s right, outside of the birth of your children it’s the best moment of my life and I got to do it twice. The first one I didn’t go into the locker room. I stayed on the field and waited for someone to kick me off. I didn’t care. I was doing every interview I could do. People were putting phones in my faces saying will you talk to this radio station, that radio station and I probably did all of the, By the time I got to the locker room, it was me, Eli and maybe Antonio Peyton. Everyone else had gone off to party.

Chung: I let my guard down immediately and went to go celebrate.

Losing The Super Bowl

Patriots FB Rex Burkhead (lost Super Bowl LII): It’s sad. But you immediately have to think about a new year and new team. You have to understand that if you go out and leave everything on the field, there are no regrets.

Jones: It’s you know, you’re still stuck in this surreal place. Especially how we lost. It’s a back and forth game but we had a chance to win at the end. We’re driving, I think it’s 22-17. In one part of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to score and go up and the defense is going to hold them and we’re going to win.’ I was never thinking we were going to lose. Then all of the sudden Rex Grossman throws a slant and go into double coverage and it’s picked off and I’m playing defense and the guy scores. Suddenly we’re down 29-17 and that’s when it hits me. ‘Oh man, oh no. ‘ You start panicking, ‘Oh no. No no no. We can’t lose.’ Then before you know it, it’s over and they’re putting the ropes out, pulling the bleachers out and ushering us off the field.

In the locker room, you have so many questions, so many woulda, coulda, shoulda, Your coach is telling you you had a great season, but you’re not listening. It’s honestly one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life.  The next morning is when it really hits you because you went from being on every channel to every channel being their highlight. It’s a constant reminder. It still lingers to this day, 12 years later and I have not watched a Super Bowl since we lost.

Kailey Mizelle assisted with additional reporting for this story.