In the end, the game itself was anticlimactic. After a week in the echo chamber of nonstop media hype, eating my way through over-the-top parties and watching a bulging Detroit population scream for the Steelers and clamor for celebrity sightings or a Lynn Swann autograph, that was probably inevitable.
Still, I left my first Super Bowl feeling slightly wiser about football, amazed and aghast at the week's excess, and more than a little envious at the cushy conditions in which my colleagues on the sports desk operate.
At this point, no more Super Bowl stories remain to be told: Every play has been analyzed like a CIA cable; the Bus has officially made his last stop. But for me - a news writer who's fuzzy on the difference between a tight end and a loose end, attending my first-ever football game - the story behind the spectacle was as interesting as the spectacle itself.
I was curious how pregame activities can fill a whole week, and what 3,500-plus credentialed reporters in the same place would find to write about (mostly, it turns out, variations on Detroit native Jerome Bettis returning home, or commentary on the midweek flare-up between Seattle tight-end Jerramy Stevens and Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter.)
And, of course, there were the perks, which grew ever more opulent as the week went on. The first indication this was a different sort of reporting assignment: the Media Day food spread.
After an hour among the hordes of journalists and entertainers shouting out absurd questions to patient Steelers players - "If you could drive any car, what would it be?" - we lined up for a buffet of subs, eggs, sausage, and fruit. And a writer tipped me off to the backup option in case I was slow with my pen: "Don't worry if you miss anything, all these quotes will be available in a few hours in the media room."
Free food? Quotes typed up? I was taught to never accept handouts as a reporter; here, you can't avoid them.
But if it seemed like easy living - a luxury hotel in the middle of the action, buses to every event, a media lounge always stocked with food - I quickly learned not to show my naiveté by expressing gratitude.
The hotel? At least one reporter complained to the NFL about not having a good enough view. Others were upset that the pretzels were missing at one point from the media lounge. The host city was a favorite target. Detroit, I learned, was no San Diego or New Orleans or, for that matter, Jack Kennedy. Even those typed-up quote-sheets weren't enough. Apparently a few were incomplete, and some private interviews hadn't been transcribed.
I was in awe of all the National Football League PR department did to coddle the press, giving us our quotes, our food, our transportation, and technical support - everything except actually writing our stories. But reporters are a tough bunch to impress. "The food isn't as good as last year," I heard more than once.
But then again, I was an unlikely reporter to cover the event. I would have been hard-pressed to name five current NFL quarterbacks before heading to Detroit. The last Super Bowl I remember being energized about was the Chicago Bears against the New England Patriots in 1986 - I was 10, and learned every lyric to the Super Bowl Shuffle.
Every year around this time I (like many other Americans) feel confused about why this is such a national obsession. Most years I dutifully go to parties or watch the game with my husband, and pretend I care what happens.
Here, surrounded by reporters who can name the shoe size of every nose tackle, that fish-out-of-water feeling was only heightened. At the media party Tuesday night, I sat at a table with writers who shouted at a trivia game being broadcast when they realized one of the "correct" answers was wrong. (It claimed that New York is the only city to win Super Bowl titles with two different teams. Baltimore, I learned from my table mates, shares the same distinction.)
I was living in a football bubble in which President Bush's State of the Union speech barely registered, but NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's State of the League address filled a ballroom.
I swallowed my pride and asked a few dumb questions (such as, "Who is John Madden, anyway?" when someone told me the former coach and Monday Night Football announcer was addressing reporters at Media Day).
The week's energy escalated as the game approached, and I regained my sense of awe at the commissioner's party - themed as a throwback to an earlier era, set amid vintage cars at the Ford Museum - and the pregame brunch: a lavish spread that included rosemary-mint leg of lamb, crab claws, applewood-smoked trout, and more variations on salmon than I knew existed.
As for the game itself: Fun to watch - perhaps because it was the first Super Bowl in which I had an inkling of what was taking place on the field. But it wasn't the world-changing event I had been led to expect by the week of hype. It might have been my colleagues' cynicism rubbing off on me (I heard one Sports Illustrated reporter ask afterward if this belonged in the top 5 worst Super Bowls) but I was expecting more.
I rushed with everyone else to the interview room, where the media elbowed each other to ask Jerome Bettis or game MVP Hines Ward how it felt to earn that coveted title (another new piece of knowledge: never get in the way of a man with a camera) and heard reporters scream for quotes sheets, even if the player had just finished speaking.
Mostly, I was looking forward to the post-game dinner I knew was waiting at the Renaissance Center and the calm that I hoped would prevail once ESPN packed up their miniature football field and Radio Row left the hotel.
Still, as I drive back to Chicago, I may need to contemplate a career shift. It would take a bit of studying - I'm still fuzzy on that 3-4 defense - but there are aspects to football coverage I never fully appreciated, especially those crab claws and complimentary hand-warmers they gave out, even though the game, in this case, was played indoors.