By: Joe Strupp
It’s been 24 years since the Super Bowl last took place in Detroit. But for the sportswriters who experienced that week of snowdrifts, icy roads, and a game-day wind chill of -20 degrees, the memories are clear. It was miserable.
So as many of those same football scribes venture back to The Motor City for Super Bowl XL this week, few can forget what is considered one of the worst episodes in the Big Game’s 40-year history. While most believe — or at least hope — the city has learned a lesson from the 1982 event, some are less enthusiastic than they might be if the destination were Miami or San Diego.
“That was a crazy day,” recalls Gordon Forbes, who covered the first Detroit game for The Philadelphia Inquirer and plans to return as a USA Today columnist this year. “All the roads were covered with snow, getting to the game was treacherous.” Vinny Di Trani of The Record in Hackensack, N.J., agreed, calling the previous event there “a nightmare.”
“I remember a couple of guys got frostbite on the day of the game just walking from the bus to the stadium,” said Di Trani, who will be attending his 33rd Super Bowl on Feb. 5. “One [press] bus got lost and they were late for the game.”
Art Spander, who was with the San Francisco Examiner in 1982 and now writes for The Oakland Tribune, recalled going out to jog one morning days before the game and immediately turning around. “The wind chill was minus 20 or 25 and I lasted two minutes,” said Spander. “It was sub-zero.” He ended up doing his daily jog down the hallways of the hotel, which lacked a fitness room.
“I remember you couldn’t get the key in the lock of the car because it was so cold,” says Mike Downey, who was with the hometown Detroit Free Press in 1982 and will return as a Chicago Tribune columnist. “The cars wouldn’t start either because it was so cold.” Another writer recalled a monorail from a suburban hotel to a local mall breaking down because cold weather froze up the tracks, limiting outside activities even more.
But the weather was just one bad experience, the veteran writers recall. Another negative was that the game was being played at The Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. — about 40 miles from Detroit and another 20 miles from the media hotels. “It was not a place you did a lot of moving around,” notes Jerry Izenberg, a columnist with The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., and one of four newspaper writers who have covered all 39 Super Bowls. “I don’t want to remember a lot about it. It was a lousy week.”
When game day came, the worst weather of the week arrived in a bitter freeze and snow, topping off an ice storm from the previous Friday, the writers recall. The final insult came in the form of George H.W. Bush, the then-vice president who attended the game, sparking lengthy traffic delays and closed-off streets.
“I remember getting here early and getting stuck in traffic because of that idiot vice president,” said Ira Miller, a San Francisco Chronicle writer, who plans to return this week. “After the game, they wouldn’t let us out of the press box for a while because of him. He had to leave first.”
When the traffic back-up struck, some press buses were halted, forcing a few writers to run across the snow-covered parking lot to get in by kick-off. “I was in a part of the parking lot that was not shoveled and saw people having fist-fights over [limited] parking spaces,” Izenberg said. “I remember it was so cold one [writer] lost part of his ear, but I don’t remember his name.”
At least one group of writers actually missed the opening minutes after their bus driver got lost and they were delayed. “They were really unprepared for the storm,” Spander recalled. “And the writers really ripped Detroit, which was hoping for positive ink.”
What is often lost is that the game, in which the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, was among the most competitive ever, with the 49ers winning, 26-21, in what remains the highest-rated Super Bowl in television history.
Fast forward nearly a quarter-century and most of those who experienced the 1982 game, and plan to return this year, expect an easier time. “The temperature is supposed to be 41 degrees,” says Vito Stellino, a Florida Times-Union writer who covered the 1982 game for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It might not even snow.”
One improvement is location, with the battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks set for state-of-the-art Ford Field, which offers a retractable roof and more modern amenities than the Silverdome. It’s also located in downtown Detroit, less than a mile from hotels and closer to big city offerings.
“I think it will be better because the city has tried to make it better,” says Izenberg. Adds Downey, “I’m looking forward to being in Detroit.”
But don’t expect the coverage to be a pro-Detroit love-fest no matter what happens. Sportswriters who are used to a week in the sun, where they can dress down, play golf, and leave the overcoat at home during the Super Bowl historically bash the hometown if weather problems erupt. Witness recent championship games in Atlanta and Jacksonville, where some non-beach weather brought critical reviews. “That’s what writers do,” Spander said matter-of-factly.
Add to that the two-week gap between the last playoff game and the title match, in which sportswriters need to fill space with preview stories, and anything related to the Super Bowl is fair game. Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer already launched the first Detroit-bashing salvo, noting this week that the big game was set there because “Baghdad, you may have read, was booked.”
So, while the likelihood of another frozen debacle like 1982 is unlikely, veterans of that contest heading north this year are bracing a bit more for the worst. “We could have a snow storm and it would screw everything up,” says Spander. Miller’s biggest fear: “Standing in a snowstorm for an hour waiting to get in.”