SAN JOSE, California — Broncos guard Evan Mathis stood quietly at the back of Peyton Manning’s media scrum at Super Bowl Opening Night, iPhone camera raised and pointed at his quarterback.
“I’m just checking out the circus,” said Mathis, who is the only player appearing in Super Bowl 50 next week to have played for the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.
Monday night’s event at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, was indeed circus-like: a chaotic mix of the Super Bowl’s biggest stars being asked the same questions over and over, a lamé-clad cover band, and the fans who paid to watch the spectacle.
It's unclear what purpose Opening Night — formerly known as Media Day — still serves, aside from promoting the NFL’s brand on primetime television. The NFL knows fans will watch any league event with interest (the Pro Bowl excluded). Television ratings are not yet available for Opening Night, but $27 spectator seats for the event sold out ahead of time.
At Opening Night, each Super Bowl team hosted seven players and their head coach at individual podiums spread out across the stadium floor. The teams’ marquee players were introduced as if they were taking the field ahead of a game, as they walked out along a decorative “Golden Gate Bridge” to the cheers of thousands of fans.
NFL reporters mixed with people who’d obtained press credentials and came dressed in drag, spandex, and team jerseys. At the front of the crowd surrounding Manning, who is set to make his fourth Super Bowl appearance next week, a man held a puppet in front of the quarterback and mimicked the quarterback’s responses in a cartoonish voice as if the puppet were speaking.
Earlier that day, NFL Network reported that Manning had told friends that Super Bowl 50 would be the last game of his 18-year career. Manning, who rightfully expected to field dozens of questions about his possible retirement came prepared: “Yeah, I haven’t made up my mind, but I don’t see myself knowing that until after the season, like I said earlier,” Manning told reporters. “Whatever cliché you want to use, but I kind of stay in the moment and focus on the task at hand and just deal with this week; that’s what I’ve done all season.”
Meanwhile, Manning’s teammates were asked mostly about their experiences playing with the revered quarterback and if they had any clue about his plans after the Super Bowl. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders wouldn’t speculate either way on Manning’s future in the NFL, offering: “We don’t know what’s going to happen. If it is, that’s going to be awesome for him to ride off into the sunset.”
At his podium, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas held up a photo of himself as an infant that a stranger had given him that day. “I think I’m gonna keep it,” he joked.
For over an hour, Thomas answered questions about his mother, whose life sentence in prison was recently commuted by President Obama. She was able to see him play football for the first time last month when the Broncos faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional round. The second game she attends will be the Super Bowl.
“She hasn’t been around a lot of people, especially like it’ll be right now for the Super Bowl. I think she’ll be fine, but it’ll be a little different,” Thomas said. “There’s going to be so many people and she’s not used to it. I’m sure if anybody notices her, they’re probably going to try to bother her or say something to her. Hopefully nobody asks her too many questions or wants to do too much stuff. That’s the main thing.”
An announcement was made that there would be only two minutes left of Broncos media availability. Television producers riled up the spectators for camera shots while reporters strained to hear players answer their final questions. During this time, Thomas leaned in as a reporter from Mexico asked him if he liked Mexican food, likely the most unique question he’d heard all night. A bit confused, Thomas answered in the affirmative.
“What kind of Mexican food? Enchiladas?”
With Thomas still confused, the reporter changed strategies with the last seconds of availability. “Can you say anything in Spanish?”
“Um, yeah! I can say ‘hola!’” Thomas said in amusement before a Broncos staffer liberated him from the podium.
Soon, it was the Panthers’ turn. After their round of play introductions, quarterback Cam Newton, whom Manning had enthusiastically called the season MVP, took the center stage with his signature smile and Gatorade-brand towel wrapped in a du-rag around his head.
“Some people call it a bandana,” he joked.
Earlier this week, Newton told reporters he is “an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.” Newton’s proclamation was simply making clear what has been spoken of in code and criticism during his five-year NFL career.
Newton, an athletic quarterback who scored 10 rushing touchdowns himself during the 2015 season, celebrates his scores by dancing in the end zone — a longtime NFL tradition rarely seen by quarterbacks. His fun with the game is often interpreted as showmanship, much to the ire of traditionalist football fans who believe team leaders should demonstrate modesty against their opponents. The criticism against Newton was best exemplified in a November letter to the editor published by the Charlotte Observer in which a mother said Newton looked like “a spoiled brat” while celebrating a late-game touchdown over the Titans.
On Monday night Newton was repeatedly asked why his touchdown celebrations are so divisive among football fans: “I don’t know, but I guess you’ll have to get used to it, because I don’t plan on changing,” the 26-year-old responded.
Newton, an Atlanta native, spoke of his childhood aspirations to play in the NFL:
“Just to play in the Super Bowl, one, and to win a Super Bowl. That was the big dream of mine. I remember when the Super Bowl was in Atlanta and Steve McNair was there, one of my idols growing up, one of many idols. It just goes to show you that this is a game of inches. He threw the slant at the end and reached out and didn’t get it, one of my all-time favorite Super Bowl moments. Yet that just makes you prepare even more so that you’ll be on the winning side of the pendulum.”
The crowd around Newton was captivated by his answers, many of which went beyond the regular clichés often offered by players. But Newton soon made his boredom known, and made sure the crowd knew when he knew they were seeing him as just a spectacle. During his availability, Newton was asked to freestyle rap — which he did — and to dance at the podium.
“Cam, can you teach me how to Dab?” one man asked Newton repeatedly, referring to the dance Newton did during the season.
“Man, you know how to Dab,” Newton replied, not playing into the request.
The consensus among the other Panthers players, anecdotally, is that they are bored of being asked to dance.
“Everyone just wants us to Dab now,” said Panthers defensive end Wes Horton. “That’s kind of Cam’s thing, not really ours.”
“It’s like, are we here to talk, or are we here to entertain you?”
As an announcer called the two-minute warning on Panthers availability, and the spectators began to cheer on producer command, the answer to Horton’s question was not really clear.