On Super Bowl Sunday, I woke up in Nogales, Mexico. It was pitch black and there were only a few newspaper vendors making their rounds when I dragged my roller suitcase to the border to cross back into the United States.
A young border guard glanced at my ID. “What were you doing down in Mexico, sir?”
“I was looking for a Super Bowl party,” I said cheerfully.
The guard offered a compassionate smile, as if he’d just discovered the Brandon Bostick of drug mules.
“You were looking for a Super Bowl Party,” he repeated. “Can I inspect your bag, sir?”
Sure, I thought, knock yourself out. Just don’t make me late to the Super Bowl.
Nogales, a border town of 220,000, seemed like the best possible place to start Super Bowl weekend. The endless patter of Mexican hawkers (“Mister, what can I help you with?”) was polite and demure after the corporate shock and awe in Phoenix, where everything was engineered by GMC. I crossed over on Saturday to investigate one of the last unchallenged claims of American imperialism: “The whole world watches the Super Bowl.”
“No,” said Benny Liquidano, a waitress at La Posada restaurant. “I don’t like it.”
Raul Estrada, the bellman at the venerable Hotel Fray Marcos de Niza, said, “It’s tomorrow?”
Victor Alvarado of the Silverton curio shop (motto: “The Whole Enchilada”) was pumped and picking the Seahawks. But the 65-year-old pro wrestler known as El Nocturno I — he lifted his black ski cap to reveal the razor scars on his forehead — was mostly uninterested. He might watch. Maybe, maybe not.
Joaquin Villegas was standing at the corner of Obregón Avenue and Ochoa Street with a burro named “B. Obama.” Villegas has worked the same spot for 46 years, charging tourists a few bucks to take pictures. The burro he owned before B. Obama was named George Bush. The burro before that was named Lorenzo. Villegas wasn’t going to watch the Super Bowl. “I don’t understand American football,” he said.
Nogales can’t offer complete sanctuary from El Super Tazón. The local paper, Nuevo Día, had a story about how Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll budded from the same coaching tree. A casino hard against the border (formerly the bus station) was offering parlay cards. Marco Antonio Garcia, the caretaker of the Nogales art museum, said he would project the game on a screen outside his house and serve carne asada and beer to his neighbors.
But mostly Nogales’s attitude toward the ultimate game was one of mild bemusement, a shrug. I was walking down the street when a man yelled at me, “Mister, I’ll tell you what you need to know!”
“Will you watch the Super Bowl?” I asked the man.
“I sure will,” he said. “Who’s playing?”
His name was Ruben Marrufu. He had a trimmed gray mustache and wore a blue sweatshirt that read “Los Angeles.” He had a cut on his forehead and was missing his two front teeth, the result, he said, of a fall a few days before. Marrufu had lived in Phoenix and Tucson before he was deported five or six years ago.
“Most people here watch the Super Bowl at home,” he said. “If you go to a bar, you need money. Beer costs two dollars. And our economy ain’t good.”
“Since the towers fell” — he made a cutting motion with his arms — “everything went to hell here.” Post-9/11 security created massive lines at the Nogales crossing — it can take two hours to get from Mexico into Arizona. As critics have noted, a line does not mean the border is secure. It means there is a line.
“Right now, 85 percent of you come to see the dentists,” Marrufu said. “We used to have 14, 15 strip clubs. We only have two now. How’s this town surviving? Factories. That’s the main attraction. We’ve got a dozen. But if you have any felonies, they don’t want to have you. It’s the same as in the States. They say, ‘Mister, we’ll call you next week.’ They never do.”
I asked Marrufu why he was carrying two pizza boxes from Little Caesars. He opened one and showed me dozens of pairs of cheap, plastic earrings. He bought the earrings for $1.50 a box and tried to sell a single pair for about that much. He inherited the permit to sell them from his father, who hawked jewelry beginning in 1984.
Marrufu missed living in the United States. He hoped to get back someday but didn’t quite know how. He kept up his NFL fandom by catching the stray game on television. “I’m going for the Patriots,” he said. “Have they still got the same quarterback? That dude went to a lot of Super Bowls, huh? He’s got a lot of money in his pockets.” I explained that Brady had given up guaranteed money this season. Marrufu looked at me like I was insane. I told him Brady’s wife had money, too. “There you go!”
A final test of the reach of the NFL’s tentacles: I asked Marrufu, “Do you know the name Roger Goodell?”
“Roger?” he said. “Who the hell is that dude? Over here, he’s an unknown person!”
I’ll get to the Super Bowl in a minute, but first I need to tell you about atmosphere models. I met Christine and Lexi at an event called the Jordin Sparks Experience. Now, most people who go to the Jordin Sparks Experience go to hear Sparks sing. Or to pay tribute to Larry Fitzgerald, who planted himself regally in a banquette near the door. Not me, nope. I didn’t care about that. I wanted to learn about atmosphere models.
What is an atmosphere model? She is a woman who is paid to go to a party and enliven it by her mere presence. She does not model per se; she just is. “The secret is, be friendly and personable,” Christine said. “A nice-looking mug doesn’t hurt, either.” There’s no more perfect symbol of Super Bowl XLIX. This is the smiling face the NFL would like to show the world.
The atmosphere model fulfills our expectations of big nights out. When you buy a ticket to a party like the Jordin Sparks Experience, you don’t want to see a bunch of ordinary-looking people. You want to see — as Aron Mezo, the owner of the agency staffing the event, put it — a bunch of “ringers.” So around 9 p.m., 10 women Mezo had hired appeared on the red carpet outside a Scottsdale club called Blur. Mezo had recruited from everywhere: Phoenix, L.A., New York, Houston, Las Vegas. Most of the models had day jobs working in bars or as nannies; one was a former cheerleader with the Cardinals.
The models are monitored by women, also hired by Mezo, who make sure they don’t make common atmosphere-model mistakes. Don’t drink too much. Don’t be on your phone all night. Don’t camouflage yourself in groups of other atmosphere models.
The great irony of an atmosphere model’s job is that she can’t admit to being an atmosphere model. A partygoer making chitchat about the Sun City lotto winners or the suspect in the Canal Murders should think the model happened to show up at the party just like he or she did. “It’s more of a girls night,” Lexi said. “It’s not work for us at all.”
At 10 p.m., the Jordin Sparks Experience was still in its pre-taxi/pushback phase. A video played on the TV screens that made it seem as if the whole club had been dipped in bubble bath. A dancer in a red-sequined jumpsuit did a doggerel form of Bikram yoga in an elevated cage. Christine and Lexi leaned against the bar, glasses in hand. They were working. “I really want to meet Jordin,” Christine said.
And what about Larry Fitzgerald? I asked.
“I met him twice,” she said. “The first time was at a NASCAR event. He was throwing a football with Jared from Subway.”
“I’d be more excited to meet Jared from Subway,” Lexi said.
“Jared was still wearing his big clothes,” Christine said.
“I wouldn’t know many celebrities,” Lexi said. “But if Jared from Subway would walk into our bar, I would recognize him.”
When they weren’t modeling, Christine and Lexi tended bar at a pizzeria and beer garden in Scottsdale. Their lives existed at the intersection of heavily branded promotions and Rockstar energy drinks. Lexi is 24 and a new mom. Christine is 29 and mournfully counting the days till she’s 30. There were atmosphere models all over town this week. At Jay Glazer’s party at Maya. At Beacher’s Madhouse, a party Mezo was casting the following night, which would be “insane,” he said.
I asked the models about Glendale, the home of University of Phoenix Stadium — a suburb that went almost unmentioned during Super Bowl week, while all the swell parties were elsewhere. “It’s more of an older-crowd place — a pub place,” Lexi said. “My dad likes to hang out there. I don’t want to say hippie.”
Christine agreed. “People from Denver would just fit in perfectly.”
When I left around 11 p.m., Christine and Lexi were over near the bar, just being.
Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
The Super Bowl was pretty wonderful and, moreover, seemed to be ruled by a strange hand of fate. We’re not supposed to say that stuff in the advanced-stats era. But the game selected one obscure player and made him briefly into a star, only to push him back into obscurity. And it made another obscure player briefly into a goat, only to transform him, by the end of the fourth quarter, into the kind of guy whose picture is probably already hanging on the wall of The Four’s.
There was a feeling early in the night that Seattle rookie Chris “Hardball” Matthews, who hadn’t previously caught a pass in the NFL, was not only going to win the Super Bowl for the Seahawks but would become a wildly unlikely MVP. Defensive end Michael Bennett was the smart choice for the award, but Matthews was too good a “story,” as the people who pick the MVP like to say.
It didn’t happen. And Matthews’s four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown suddenly seemed as much a footnote as Dez Bryant’s overturned catch. When the game ended, Matthews went to the locker room and put on a carefully tailored suit, a purple checked shirt, and a purple tie. He put on shiny black loafers. It was a winner’s look. But he was stuck with a bunch of losers.
“I can’t believe this!” one Seahawks player said.
“Believe it,” another said.
Shhhhh! the PR minders said. Here comes the press. Look good.
The Seattle locker room was full of barely contained fury. Marshawn Lynch belted out, “I’m in love with the Lam-bo!” Roger Goodell was clapping Seahawks president Peter McLoughlin on the back and purring, “Hell of a ballgame. … That was something, wasn’t it? … Who are they pissed at, themselves?”
“He’s going to be speaking at the podium,” a Seahawks minder said of Matthews — the sign that Matthews had done something memorable, however forgettable it may be in a week. Matthews strode out of the locker room clutching the football he caught on his 11-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Then he met maybe 20 reporters. As Matthews told me at media day, before this year’s NFC Championship Game he’d done a single interview in his entire NFL career. And the lone reporter that interviewed him was Canadian.
Matthews began to speak. What?! He was too far from the mic. Rookie mistake. “I wasn’t even expecting to get a ball,” he said, now audible. “I was expecting to go down there on special teams and make plays.”
“I’m not a selfish player,” he added. “I’m definitely a team player and I don’t care if I don’t even have one pass, one yard, one tackle. It wouldn’t have mattered to me as long as we had won the game … I would have been happy with a win with no stats.”
A win with no stats was basically Matthews’s life before the NFC Championship Game. He got elevated from the practice squad in December. He had worked offseasons, as Al Michaels noted during the telecast, at Foot Locker. Then he grabbed the onside kick misplayed by Green Bay’s Brandon Bostick and became an object of fascination. But by media day, I found Matthews alone, signing Richard Sherman jerseys that fans were handing him from the stands. He didn’t miss the media. “They keep asking about the same thing over and over again, and you keep trying to think of something else so it won’t sound repetitive.”
Scooping up that onside kick against Green Bay was half effort, half accident. But on Sunday, Matthews was probably the best receiver in the biggest football game of the year. He’s pretty thin and stands 6-foot-5. In the second quarter, when Russell Wilson had only completed one pass for 6 yards, Matthews extended both arms, rotated his body to the right, and caught a 44-yarder over Kyle Arrington, on whom he has 7 inches. He later caught a 45-yarder over Devin McCourty, on whom he also has seven inches.
After that pass, Brandon Browner, the 6-foot-4 Patriots corner, asked safeties coach Brian Flores if he could switch to Matthews. “I just match up well with big guys,” Browner said later. Flores didn’t want to do it but eventually relented. Matthews caught one more pass, for 9 yards.
Matthews stayed at the podium for more than 10 minutes, giving a long, parallel-universe version of his MVP interview. No, he didn’t know he was going to be featured in the game plan. Yes, he was a good player in high school and college and in the CFL, so why couldn’t he be a good one in the Super Bowl? I looked up and saw that Matthews was the last Seahawk left in the room, having outgabbed noted talkers Wilson and Sherman. His media minder announced that his time was up. Matthews picked up his prized football and walked back into the bowels of the stadium, and it was easy to imagine obscurity opening its maw and once again swallowing him whole.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Matthews’s opposite number in fate was a Patriots rookie cornerback named Malcolm Butler. Another Heartwarming Story Guy: Butler worked at Popeyes while looking for an NFL job. He wound up picking off Wilson’s final pass of the game, starting a celebration so joyous and pure that of course the refs threw a flag. But two plays before that, Butler was the nearest witness to the incredible catch made by Jermaine Kearse. And at that moment it was easy to see Butler in another light — as a low-grade Rahim Moore.
On that play, Butler actually timed his jump well, touching the ball in flight (as he claimed) or at least distracting Kearse enough to cause an incompletion. But the ball caromed off Kearse’s legs and never touched the ground. Butler came up on one knee around the 7-yard line. He looked over and saw that … his man was holding the ball! He shot both arms out in the defensive back’s universal gesture of futility. Just then, I thought, We will see those flailing arms on NFL Network for eternity.
But after the game, Butler was surrounded by a bunch of winners. He was still wearing his Super Bowl championship T-shirt over his pads. He’d been trying to change but nobody would let him. “Leave this guy alone — shit!” safety Patrick Chung said.
I reminded Butler what he’d done with his hands on the Kearse play.
“I really was trying to punch it out,” he said, trying to revisualize the moment. “I think I was trying to break to it and trying to punch the ball out.” He let out a long sigh: “Pffffft. I just want to play football. Glad I won. Glad everything’s over with. That’s it.”
Unlike Matthews, Butler will now become something of a minor saint. Sure, he allowed the sequel to the Helmet Catch, but everything turned out OK in the end. As I write this, I feel certain Chris Berman has already revived his “The Butler Did It” bit. But being a legend can be a rough road, too. No obscurity here. No place to hide.
“Thank you,” Butler said as waves of questions crashed upon him. “I’m done, I’m done! I gave y’all enough!”