Kristian Wyatt tells the story of the trip of a lifetime – a spontaneous journey from London to New Orleans to see the Ravens claim their second Super Bowl.
I’d flown from England to Baltimore in January 2001 for Super Bowl XXXV. Not to go to Tampa for the game but to be with friends living in Charm City. I’d lived in Greektown a couple of years before that, to get back on my feet again after a bereavement, and I’d fallen in love with the place.
My main memory from that Super Bowl Sunday was not the game but the city afterward. Everyone was out, the atmosphere was surreal and there was not a hint of trouble or unrest. Baltimore is wonderfully culturally diverse and on this night everyone blended like an artist’s palette and made a masterpiece. Drums, everyone seemed to have drums with them. It’s a city with so many musicians and bands. I think every drum kit was disassembled and taken into the streets that night.
Lil’ ol’ Bal’more, Super Bowl Champions.
It was that rugged, blue-collar, port town attitude that we all loved. Win it with defense, grind it out on offense, batter them into submission, make them relieved to just get through the game and back on the plane home. The style of play matched the city perfectly. I’m sure games were won that year before the opening kick. Offenses would groan when we won the coin toss because we deferred, and after a few battering (pre-rule change) hits in an opening three-and-out (at best), they would be reminded, before even rising from the turf, that there was an hour of this coming (minus only what little time our offense took up). It was brutal but beautiful. Defenses win Championships.
Roll on to 2013: the year of the Mile High Miracle and revenge on New England for playoff defeat in the year previous.
I sat at home in London for those playoff games. Watching, like many of us do, until the early hours. At the end of the Patriots Championship game, I turned to my wife, who was still marking books, and said in disbelief: “The Ravens are going to the Super Bowl honey”. I paused a few moments before saying, “Can I go”? She turned to me, completely oblivious to the enormity of what it meant and said simply…”No”. It was going to be a long couple of weeks convincing her otherwise.
It took until the Wednesday before the game before I’d finally promised her enough IOUs to get the “OK”, which was never really an OK, but more of a “Stop going on about it and just go”. She always knew I was going and I know it gets in the way of a good story but she was happy for me to go; the NFL is just not her thing and the IOUs were worth it. I work hard and had a bit of space left on my current account and credit card.
There were, however, a few problems with booking so late. Flights, hotel, ticket. TICKET! Oh no, hadn’t thought of that! The flight I managed to book, but only leaving London on Friday, and with a one-night stopover in Las Vegas. Hotels in New Orleans were booked for miles around and anything closer than 60 miles with rooms available needed a Joe Flacco contract to pay for it. I somehow got “lucky” and found a hostel in New Orleans that was not even advertising. It was $40 per night and it was truly awful – filthy and definitely haunted. I didn’t care though. I had a place to sleep.
I was so excited on my way to Gatwick. I had my Ravens gear on and told anyone who would listen that I was going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. The flight attendants even gave me a few extra free beers. I landed in Las Vegas around 7pm after a short stop-over in Charlotte. Same story as always on arrival in Las Vegas: straight to the taxi rank as I had no hold luggage, (you won’t hear a taxi rank being called amazing very often but the one in Vegas is efficiency personified), 10-minute drive to the hotel, shower, change, bar.
Vegas was absolutely buzzing its socks off. Of course it was. It was Super Bowl weekend. “The greatest show on turf”. Steak dinner and a few Sam Adams (a Boston beer) later, I went for a few spins on the tables… and won a bit. I played a bit more… and won a bit more. And guess what? I paid for my whole trip, from start to finish and everything in between, with my winnings on the tables that night. I couldn’t believe it.
Pushing 3am and after a long day, nine-hour time difference, a long flight and enough Sam Adams beers to finally move on from “What are you doing this weekend, Boston?” jokes, I pulled back the 400-thread Egyptian cotton duvet cover of my bed at the wonderful Monte Carlo Hotel, climbed in and drifted off to sleep with a grin from ear-to-ear.
Anyone who has ever been to Vegas knows that it doesn’t matter when you go to bed, how much you had to drink, how big the suite is, how nice the bed is, how dark you can make the room – you can never sleep long. It was Super Bowl Saturday. I was up, showered, dressed and packed and just about to go to the taxi rank and I thought: one quick spin. This is not a “He lost the lot” story. Twenty-eight came dancing in. I had $40 on it. I cashed out the $1,400, grabbed a cab, checked in and I was on my way to NEW ORLEANS. Quick stopover in Nashville, a burger and a Sam Adams curer in a small but lovely airport bar and then on to New Orleans.
If Vegas was buzzing, then New Orleans was off the scale. The taxi to the hostel passed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the beautiful, magnificent Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the Saints. It lit up the night sky and carried the hopes and dreams of teams from opposite sides of the country that would battle it out for glory in less than 24 hours. Yes, at that moment the butterflies in my belly fought a pitched battle with the goosebumps from my neck to toes.
I dropped off my bag at the hostel and met my mates from Baltimore who I’d not seen for a few years. We watched “Ray Lewis – R I S E” together which, although it’s only eight minutes long, was a big mistake because at that point there was no self-containment. Find it on YouTube and watch it imagining you are in New Orleans on Super Bowl Saturday.
We headed into town. WOW! Bourbon St. was like the movies, a purple Mardi Gras. Balconies, beads, jambalaya, jazz, 52s in every direction. I’ll never forget it. I had a ‘moment’ stood there on Bourbon street where time stood still. It happened a few times on this trip. I’m experiencing this, this is real, I’m going to the Super Bowl, how lucky am I? And how grateful I am. How amazing it felt.
Super Bowl Sunday arrived and I still didn’t have a ticket. I had a hangover that could freeze the Mississippi river but that was not going to get me into the stadium. A classic American breakfast and a beer and I was in full-on ticket mode.
Here we go. My friend got a call. Face value, but way up in the nosebleeds. I’d come all this way to look up at a pass and not down. Stick or twist? Twist it was. I checked my phone which was constantly updating from a well-known online ticket exchange site. And there it was. End zone, seventh row, a bit over face value but with four hours to go, this was a fair exchange and made possible by my Vegas detour. As I picked the ticket up, I was ushered through to a big room with players and cheerleaders, lights, music, free drinks, and razzmatazz. Yes, was time for another moment. I had a quick beer and a look round but there were bigger fish to fry and Super Bowls to be won. Off to the Mercedes Dome I went.
I didn’t talk about the first Super Bowl game in 2001; you’ve all seen it. The defense didn’t allow a point all game. The only time New York scored was on a kickoff return and this play was directly sandwiched by Ravens touchdowns. The second of those was Jermaine Lewis and his #84 jersey I wore in New Orleans.
Super Bowl XLVII looked also to be one-sided. Anquan Bouldin justified my seat choice by catching a Joe Flacco pass (that I had to look up to) for the opening touchdown of the game, right in front of me. It was 21-6 at the half – double the margin that the 2001 team would have needed to win the game. And when Jacoby Jones returned the opening kick of the second half 108 yards for a touchdown surely now this was enough.
Then the lights went out.
There are enough conspiracy theories about this. I was worried Vegas wanted the money I won back. Whatever happened, it changed the game, San Francisco came back and it all came down to a final defensive stand from first-and-goal at our own seven-yard line. RISE, the General, Ray Lewis led his troops for a final showdown, in his final game, to win his second ring in the greatest game of them all.
I was running on empty, drained of energy and emotion but this was a euphoria cocktail like I’d never known. I watched the foil dance in the lights and the game was over. We won. I can’t even remember my reaction. Did I cheer, jump, dance? It could have been any or all of the above.
Kelechi Osemele’s mum, who was sat a couple of rows away came over said to me “My son just won a Super Bowl”. She hugged me, I congratulated her and thanked her. She was a proud mum and needed to tell someone, I think, like me back at Gatwick. I was happy to listen and pleased she chose me. I watched the trophy held aloft, took another look around and made my way out of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
I meandered the streets, just reflecting and taking it all in. The hostel bed covers felt like those sheets at the Monte Carlo did in what seemed so long ago. I climbed in and drifted off to sleep with a grin from ear to ear.
Lil’ ol’ Bal’more, Super Bowl Champions.