Monday, February 13, 2017 9:36 am
By Adeleke Adeeko
Everybody knows by now that on Sunday, February 5, 2016, Atlanta Falcons allowed New England Patriots to win the final game—Superbowl—of the 2016 season of the American National Football League (NFL). I will not rehash the game details here because sports reporters and talk show hosts have covered all the angles. (Those who do not follow American sports and want to know the backstory should Google Superbowl 2017.) This piece, therefore, shares only personal experiences and reflections.
Seven days ago, Taìyeì and I had the great opportunity to watch live the ultimate match in American sports spectacle, precisely Superbowl 51, at NRG Stadium in Houston. (Estimators say that it is the most watched annual telecast anywhere in the world!) The good fortune came our way through the family of Oyewole and AdefunkeOlatoye and by the grace of their son, DejiOlatoye, who plays defense for Atlanta. The invitation came our way 9 days to the game. Despite our knowing that for such a short notice the price of flying to Houston from Columbus will be more than sky high, this IÌjeÌòbuì man and his IÌjeÌòbuì spouse (who in this wide world does not know what that means!) threw caution into the ravine, said yes, thank you, and went shopping for tickets.
From the sky, Houston, like Lagos, London, or New York, stretches as far as the eye could see. (As to how and why Houston is not like Lagos, that is for another day.) Beginning at the airport, the entire city converted itself into one massive footballing enterprise. Superbowl 51 banners festoon inside walls of jetways, they sit on top of schedule screens inside the terminals, the city installed LCD screens in every possible place where Superbowl 51 could be announced. Many, many business outfits proclaim themselves as official this or official that of Superbowl, including the South Korean auto company that proudly serves as the “luxury car” provider of the game. The only thing official hotels did not do is rename themselves: everywhere from the signage, to the check in desk, to the lobby, to the bar, to the restaurants, huge banners inform guests that they are in Superbowl territories. Private residences made tidy money for four nights by leasing rooms at premium prices to temporary lodgers, mainly through online brokerages.
Celebrities abound everywhere, especially around the million dollar hotels. Although we were far from the champagne swilling crowd, I can still boast about seeing Shaquille O’Neal in flesh and blood. (The proportion of that fellow’s body parts is far more massive than television can project accurately.) We traveled to all events in official family buses provided by the football league. If the truth must be told, the National Football League is a fabulously wealthy corporation. Among the memorable impressions are small time car dealerships and property owners that seized the advantage of their being located close to the game venue and leased parking spaces, unofficially, I presume, for prices ranging from $30 to $100. Let the eagle perch, and let the hawk perch, I told myself. (Chinua Achebe is always useful when one is short of words.) The Olatoye party, being mainly Nigerians, appreciated the many brisk, temporary, unofficial, profit seeking scenes around the stadium. We shook our heads, recalled our homeland, and said: koÌ siìbitiì a kiÌiì daìnaì aleòì (dinner is served everywhere, after all).
Our ride to the game was festive but anxious. We, all partisans of Atlanta, were decked out in red. We exchanged the talismanic greeting of our team, Rise Up! The Olatoye party, like most others on the bus, wore jerseys, shirts, blouses, and dresses that bear our Falcon family member’s name. Many shirts declared that the wearer is So and So’s Brother. Others announced So and So’s Cousin. Most surprising to me are the multiple individuals wearing Mrs So and So shirts of the same player! Our group had no such dramas; simply OLATOYE (all caps, please) and Deji’sjersey number, 30, in bold relief.
Did I say that we were all anxious? Who would not be? The other team has appeared in the championship game six times with the current head coach and has won four times. (A rather greedy bunch, I should say!) This, however, is Atlanta’s second appearance. Nonetheless, everyone one in the Atlanta bus was optimistic. The law of averages is on our side. Moreover, we believed that our team’s league best, high octane, superfast, offense will see us through.
New England fans came into close view when we got inside the stadium after the security stroll, which was less stressful than expected. (I am sure that most of the screening devices and strategies were hidden from view). But there were rules too: only transparent plastic bags (no purses) allowed, zoom lenses must not be connectible (Taìyeì stared them down when they questioned her about ours). Profit colluded with security and gave monopoly to stadium authorities who banished bottled drinks (even in clear plastics) and bagged snacks of any kind to its many stilt walkers, celebrities clowning with selfie-seeking fans, abundant face painting artists, and endless supply of beer for purchase (of course, there was an official beer of Superbowl 51!), the carnivalesque atmosphere on the stadium grounds rivals any single day, open air pageantry, I have ever seen. Scratch that. It’s an exaggeration. The post-EidOjuìde-Oòba parades in Ijebu-Ode are far more colorful and grander.
Atlanta fans took advantage of their proximity to Houston to fill up the stadium. We raised our talismanic greeting relentlessly, sending shouts of Rise Up! to all, including New England fans whose quiet confidence, perhaps cockiness, made us uneasy. They did not even bother to create a response to our Rise Up! (If they had one, I did not hear it.)
Our stadium seats cost a pretty penny. Nine of us in the Olatoye party sat together. A few rows down and closer to the field seats a group all wearing Collins on their backs. The New England fan who sat with us regretted his location; for most of the game, that is. We were close enough for a very clear view of the field to see Deji warm up with his teammates, line up and start the game, tackle and bring down big New England players, chase down every New England offensive player he is assigned to guard. Any time Deji comes up for a play, all the 9 of us in our party erupted in screams. We screamed with all Atlanta fans as the team scored, and scored, and scored, and scored. For each of the four Atlanta touchdowns, we all exchanged two-handed high fives every time. When New England advances stalled, we yelled in joy.
In the last half of the final quarter of the game, the tide turned, New England forced overtime, won the coin toss, and marched down the field to a win. Some diehard fans still managed some tepid Rise Up! We, in the Olatoye party, lamented the loss but found our own personal victory in Deji’s steady and sturdy performance. Here he is in football’s biggest game, just after three seasons in the league. More appearances, we affirmed to ourselves, will follow. We all saw the Superbowl live. Today, and for ever, only 70,798 others can make that claim.
— Adeleke Adeeko is Humanities Distinguished Professor at The Ohio State University, Columbus.