What the Super Bowl means

January 31, 2021

My earliest Super Bowl memory — one I’m not even sure actually happened — is of going to a party at a family friend’s house in January 1990, for the 49ers-Broncos game. I didn’t care a whit about the game, or the commercials, and I don’t think there were any other kids there other than my toddler brother, so my main memory is of the adults’ mirth growing in proportion to the 49ers’ lead, and that there was a lot of beer.

Given the time frame and how young I was, I don’t think I was still licking my wounds over the Giants’ World Series loss to the A’s — if anything, I would have been still kind of freaked out about the Loma Prieta earthquake.

I remember being aware of other Super Bowls happening, and the Bills losing them, but nothing about watching the games, themselves. I’m pretty sure I was at my cousin’s house for the one at the Rose Bowl, because I have a distinct memory of watching Michael Jackson’s halftime show in his family’s living room. As nine-year-olds, we were entranced by how he seemed to appear above the large screens on the edge of the stadium, then instantly transported to the stage. I’m also pretty sure my mom got up and left in the middle of it, muttering that he was lip-syncing. Rewatching now, it’s incredible that he comes on stage and simply stands there, spending well over a minute of the most expensive airtime on American television, doing nothing.

The first Super Bowl I remember actually watching was in January 1995, the 49ers and Chargers. I’m 95% sure my family went to my classmate’s home for their annual Super Bowl party, and since they had kids in the fifth and sixth grade at the time, there were a whole bunch of kids I knew there.

I’d started to become the kind of boy who felt more comfortable talking to adults than other kids about sports, and I seem to recall having a lot of thoughts about whether the 49ers should use Deion Sanders as a receiver, then being annoyed that I missed the Niners’ attempt to hit him on a passing route because I was getting a bowl of chili.

The other big moment from that Super Bowl broadcast that I distinctly remember is the Budweiser frogs commercial. Everyone instantly got it and there was a big stir right after as everyone turned to the people next to them to talk about it.

Later in life, I would realize that being on the west coast for the Super Bowl was a bit of magic, because, with a start time of 3:00 pm, it meant that as the game got out of hand and wound down, there were still remnants of sunlight. That year, a bunch of us went out front and played touch football in the street. And after the Super Bowl finally did end, it was still early evening, so we simply stayed and ate and talked and played music and laughed.

We went to that family’s Super Bowl party the next two years, also, and we played touch football in the street both before and after the game. But I mainly remember the one in 1997, the year the Packers beat the Patriots. My classmate and I were in eighth grade by then, and his sister was in seventh grade, so you can imagine what kind of electricity 30-plus young teenagers felt gathering under one roof while the adults socialized among themselves.

Few of us were really interested in the game, but I do remember it was playing on a small television as a bunch of us gathered in a dim bedroom to play Truth or Dare. Only, it wasn’t Truth or Dare so much as You Kiss This Person, and Now You Kiss This Person. I’d never kissed anyone before, and the opportunity to kiss a girl was so exciting that when I got the chance I didn’t care that there were a bunch of other kids sitting in a circle watching.

Later, my turn came up again, and as I was kissing a new girl, I briefly opened my eyes and saw the TV was still on, showing the X-Files episode that used the Super Bowl as a lead-in. Someone called out, “He’s watching TV!” and the girl I was kissing started laughing. I didn’t kiss anyone else that night, and by the time my parents found me to say we had to leave, a bunch of us were sitting in the hot tub out back.

There was the Super Bowl in 1999, Falcons vs. Broncos, which I watched at another friend’s house, just a few of us teenaged boys, yelling “Dirty Bird!” while cackling at our cleverness, over and over again.

There was the Super Bowl in 2002, Rams vs. Patriots, which I watched in a pied-a-terre on the Upper East Side, across the street from the UN Secretary General’s residence. A fellow freshman who lived in my NYU dorm invited us to go watch the game there. This may sound like a snobby thing, but believe me when I say that while we realized her family was ultra-rich, this friend was super cool and kind, and it really was a situation of sharing this remarkable resource with her friends and definitely not showing it off.

When I arrived, I took the elevator up to the penthouse. When the elevator opened to the residence, in the hall was a painting I remembered from my previous year’s visual art class.

A couple years later, I went to a Super Bowl party for the Panthers vs. Patriots game, and on the NYU bus back to my dorm, I bumped into an acquaintance I knew was also a huge sports fan, and so we started talking about the game. But after a minute or so, he stopped me, and asked if I’d watched the halftime show.

“Not really,” I said.

“Janet Jackson showed her titty!” he said. I noticed a few people around us on the bus trying to act like they hadn’t overheard.

I’ve since all but abandoned watching football, yet have still tuned in to the Super Bowl year after year. I remember the Helmet Catch. I remember when the Super Dome lights went out. I remember the Seahawks kicking the Broncos’ asses. I remember Malcolm Butler. I remember Cam Newton not diving for a fumble. I remember the Falcons had a 28-3 lead. I didn’t watch more than a couple minutes of football all season before Super Bowl LIII, but still watched every second of Jared Goff throwing for 229 yards and Todd Gurley rushing for 35 yards. I remember fully understanding that even though the 49ers had a good defense and a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter, Patrick Mahomes would bring the Chiefs to victory.

I’ll take these memories over those of the poor souls who’ve paid their way to attend every Super Bowl live. Because the Super Bowl, as an institution, only really makes sense as a shared experience, in which going to a party and watching the commercials along with the game and talking with everyone about it and random other stuff while the game’s on is the point.

We should all quit football. The Super Bowl is a crass expression of American capitalism. But still, watching the Super Bowl rarely sucks.

(Photo: “Super Bowl XL 014” by Roger Mommaerts. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)