Monday morning I felt like I woke up from a dream.

Well, technically I did. It was weird, too. I was running after the bus in my old neighborhood and my red Adidas backpack was thumping from side to side because I used to wear the straps super low before hipsters ruled that it wasn’t cool anymore. So I was running up the street as the bus was pulling away, but I never got any closer, and I was so overcome with the anxiety of missing it that I woke up. Let me know if you understand what this means.

I took a break from the local sports scene and launched into — not just the NFL — but the machine that encompasses its biggest game.

When word came down that I had secured the credentials, it never really sank in until I took off for the SAP Center in San Jose last Monday for Opening Night. I got on a courtesy shuttle for media members at the Moscone Center in San Francisco and saw Woody Paige from the Denver Post and Tim Cowlishaw from the Dallas Morning News — both regular guests on ESPN’s “Around the Horn.” Later, I saw Stephen A. Smith eating a slice of pizza and John Clayton, who I crossed paths with again after the game at the Media Center outside Levi’s Stadium. The second time we briefly discussed our favorite barbecue sides over a pulled pork sandwich by the food table.

Countless talking heads came to life like that last week. On Saturday, I put on a pair of Steve Madden dress shoes and took a friend with me to the Leigh Steinberg Super Bowl Party at the City View at Metreon and simply turned it into a drinking game. If we see someone we both recognize, we drink; if only one of us recognizes them, the other person has to drink. Troy Aikman, Chuck Liddell, T.I., current NFL players, and countless ESPN personalities were on-hand, so we were drinking often.

But, obviously, the piece de resistance was Super Bowl Sunday.

On a beautiful, breezy, 80-degree day in the South Bay, the eyes of the world descended upon Levi’s Stadium, and I found myself sitting atop section 205 behind the Panthers’ end zone with a phenomenal view.

After what seemed like a security check sponsored by Apple, I got in, crushed a roast beef sandwich, bag of chips, and a pack of Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies — like they somehow knew my go-to road trip meal — all while basking in the beauty of that empty stadium under clear afternoon skies. That was the first time it hit me.

“How the hell did I end up here?” I thought, with sunglasses and an idiotic smirk on my face.

On the Jumbotron, Sam Hunt was wrapping up his performance at the tailgate party, which meant Seal was up next. Naturally, I had to go.

I also had nothing to do for the next two hours so exploring the scene was the only option, and why not see a barely relevant, former pop icon possibly sing “Kiss From a Rose” in-person?

Spoiler: I didn’t see him play it. I couldn’t take it seriously anymore and left, passing Vince Vaughn, Robert Kraft, Tom Brady and his supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen, on the way out.

The pregame festivities dragged a little long, but seeing the Denver-dominant crowd file in and the anticipation swell over the final hour before kickoff helped feed my excitement as well. And let’s be honest, Lady Gaga and the Blue Angels flyover were amazing.

Before I touch on the game, I have to talk about the halftime show. As weak as Coldplay was, having Bruno Mars and Beyonce launched the performance into the stratosphere. Every hair flip and body pop from Queen B sent waves through the stadium and loosened up any stiffness in the crowd. Honestly, she was my Super Bowl MVP.

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The stunt cards fans were given also came together nicely, sending a message of universal love out to the world as the sunset after-burn hit the mountains in the backdrop.

The game itself was a beautiful example of how wrong popular opinion tends to be when it comes to predicting or projecting outcomes over a two-week period. The Broncos put together a fantastic game plan — like they had the entire playoffs — and used that early defensive touchdown to give Peyton Manning and the offense just enough breathing room to survive four quarters.

Watching Denver’s top-ranked defense live was like nothing I’ve ever seen. To have outside pass-rushers like Von Miller and Demarcus Ware wreaking havoc each snap, coupled with white-on-rice, man-to-man coverage from the secondary is a coordinator’s dream. Makes sense why Wade Phillips took home the Assistant Coach of the Year award the night before.

The Panthers defense was outstanding, too, and some of the hits Luke Kuechly and the guys in the defensive backfield were laying had me uncontrollably shouting “Oooh” like I had just heard a vicious freestyle. My neighbor John Devine from the Monterrey Herald laughed every time.

The real issue was Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s play-calling. He was predictable, repetitive to a fault, and did little to help Cam Newton. There’s only so long you can let your tackles get dominated or watch your receivers fail to gain separation before it’s time to adapt.

Still, untimely turnovers and wasted drives aside, the Panthers had their moment, down six with four minutes to go. Whether you believe Newton should have dove for the fumble that gifted Denver their only offensive touchdown is an opinion you’re entitled to.

After C.J. Anderson’s score put the Broncos ahead two touchdowns with three minutes to go, I took off for the interview room downstairs.

As convenient as it was for media members to hop from podium to podium as players slowly shuffled in, it’s amazing to me that they put both teams in the same area, split between an ineffective pop-up wall the NFL had quickly put together.

I was captivated watching Newton sit there, salty, shocked, and frankly zoned out by the reality of the moment. As we all know, he didn’t say much before he walked out, but when he spoke his voice was shaking and, honestly, what he did say was enough. Sometimes, you can say more with less. I’ll spare you a mini-column and just say it was pretty surreal to watch a viral moment take place.

After quickly texting my partner at HQ, Andy Wilcox, we decided to go with a story on Anderson, who’s from Vallejo, and his big night for the Broncos. So, battling our horrendously early deadlines, I threw a couple of questions at him, Emmanuel Sanders, and Owen Daniels and took off to write my story in the 30 minutes I had left.

Over a nine-day span I worked eight days in a row, covered four events, wrote seven articles (many of them long-winded), and drove almost 300 miles on the clock, which doesn’t include the mileage from the two trips out of San Francisco to San Jose and Santa Clara via the courtesy shuttle (those were clutch, so huge props to the NFL for hooking that up). We can also add the round-trip BART ride from Richmond to San Francisco on Sunday.

Point being, it was a tough effort. It was a cocktail of exhaustion, exhilaration, stress, and fast food nausea all-in-one. It was the most incredible experience of my career and one I felt honored to be a part of.

But honestly, all I want to do is go back to sleep because my mom is going to kill me if I don’t make that bus.

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Email Napa Valley Register Sports Reporter Yousef Baig at ybaig@napanews.com, follow him on Twitter @YousefBaig, or call 256-2212.


Sports Reporter

Yousef was a Napa Valley Register sports reporter from February 2015 to April 2018, and hosted the Napa Register Radio podcast. He is a proud UGA graduate and has written for the Sacramento Bee, The Advocate and the Athens Banner-Herald, among others.

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