TAMPA, Fla. - Wearing N95 masks and plastic face shields, John Goodman, his wife Alison McMillian and their two teenage sons navigated the crowded streets outside Raymond James Stadium and settled into their Super Bowl seats about three hours before kickoff Sunday.
They were the first ones in their section. They wanted no part of the “craziness” taking place most everywhere else.
“We were pretty nervous about it,” said Goodman, who made the trip with his family from Greensboro, North Carolina.
They arrived in Orlando on Friday and made the 90-minute drive to Tampa the following day to “check out the scene” and grab dinner. They took one look at all the maskless people and decided to drive back to Orlando.
So they weren’t surprised to see similar issues in and around the stadium Sunday. They were ready for it, though.
“Mom has us well protected,” Goodman said.
The NFL’s signature event - with the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs playing in the finale - looked nothing like any of the previous 54. About 25,000 fans were allowed to attend the game, with 7,500 of those being vaccinated healthcare workers. Another 30,000 cardboard cutouts filled empty seats to create space and meet social distancing mandates.
“The cardboard fans actually make it look like it’s full,” said Tampa native and longtime Bucs season ticket owner Matt Geer. “It feels like a real game again. It doesn’t feel programmed like many regular-season games did.”
Geer spent $9,000 to get a seat in the upper deck and said getting into the stadium was “a freaking zoo.”
“It was a pain. There was no direction,” he said. “There were only two ways to enter for fans and the signage was terrible. We lapped the stadium once before finally getting in.”
But well worth it.
“I been through a lot of downs with this team,” Geer said. “I wasn’t going to let this pass. You can’t take your money with you.”
Those in attendance were required to wear face coverings throughout the game unless they were eating or drinking. Ushers holding signs enforced the rules that, by now, should be standard operating procedure. Nonetheless, violators could be found in every direction.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor issued an executive order last month requiring masks to be worn outside in the city’s most popular entertainment and recreation areas during Super Bowl festivities and the days following the event. No tailgating was allowed, either.
That did little to dissuade thousands from gathering around the stadium. The TikTok Tailgate went off just a few hundred yards from the south end zone, with sections of singing and dancing fans separated by metal barricades.
Miley Cyrus headlined the pre-game event and donned a black and hot pink cheerleader outfit during several songs. Her playlist included Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and “Heart of Glass” by Blondie.
She was joined on stage by Billy Idol and Joan Jett for two songs.
Fans trickled into the stadium for hours, some more focused than others about COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s a great thing the NFL is doing here,” said Kelvin Walls, a EMT surgeon from Kansas City. “To invite healthcare workers to attend the game is amazing, but the NFL should have taken it a step further and done the same for support staff as well. I know they feel slighted and should be here.”
Those lucky enough to land a ticket felt grateful, especially Goodman. It was his first Super Bowl since 1969 in Miami. He was 10 at the time and attended the game with his 14-year-old brother. Their father landed two tickets to the big game and let his boys go inside while he listened to on the car radio in the parking lot.
Joe Namath and the New York Jets stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-9 in that one.
Goodman’s oldest son, Lee, fell in love with the Buccaneers while playing video games and wanting nothing more than to see them in the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years. So Goodman and McMillian made it happen - and vowed to stay as safe as possible amid the "craziness."