Fifth in a series looking back at the seven Super Bowls held in the Los Angeles area:
The billowy white Oxford shirt was a few sizes too large and opaque enough to hide the burgundy Washington jersey underneath.
It wasn’t an NFL jersey as we know them today, but a T-shirt with a white stripe on the elbow-length sleeves, an iron-on No. 44 on the back and RIGGINS across the shoulders. I was a 16-year-old junior at La Canada High and a devoted Washington Redskins fan who would daydream in class and draw up plays that Joe Gibbs could run — as if I’d be lucky enough to meet that legendary coach.
That year, the 1982 season, Washington had made it to Super Bowl XVII at the Rose Bowl and would play the Miami Dolphins and their famed “Killer Bees” defense.
My friends and I hatched an audacious plan: sneaking into the Super Bowl.
Pals John and Scott were more seasoned at this. They had gotten into the stadium for some type of event before — I’m assuming it was a college football game — by posing as concession workers and entering with a group of them.
The key, they explained, was knowing where and when the concessionaires would gather — the right parking lot, the right time — for morning roll call. You had to wear an unofficial uniform — dark shoes and pants, white shirt — and discreetly hop in one of the lines as workers passed through the gate in the chain-link fence. You didn’t have to be James Bond.
I had invited a fourth scoundrel, Ron, whose family my parents knew from my childhood in Maryland, when my Washington allegiances were formed. His family had moved to Colorado, and his dad and sister had Super Bowl tickets. In my bluster, I had promised I’d get him into the game too if he came with them to Los Angeles. So he did, increasing the pressure on me to make good on my promise.
We met at the prescribed parking lot and split into groups of two to improve our chances of getting in. Ron and I had figured that if we successfully breached the gate, we’d hide in a restroom until the fans were let in. John and Scott, you’re on your own.
Now, a bit on the setup. These were simpler times, and Super Bowl security was nowhere near as robust as it was a decade later, after the start of the Persian Gulf War. A decade after that, in the wake of 9/11, Super Bowls went into the equivalent of a lockdown. But in January 1983, there was no passing through metal detectors, no clear-bag policy, no bomb-sniffing dogs, no ID checks. It boiled down to getting on the other side of a chain-link fence.
President Reagan was in his first term, “Tootsie” was the country’s No. 1 movie, and only one guy playing in this Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI had been born — Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth, Methuselah in cleats. Even the current coaches of the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals hadn’t been born. The average Super Bowl ticket back then cost $40.
As a kid who had just gotten his driver’s license, I had no idea that I would become an NFL writer, not a clue that one day I would work closely with people in the league and sheepishly confess this story to them.
A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.
I swiped the white dress shirt from my dad. A physicist who spent most of his career at IBM, he had a closet full of them, so he wouldn’t miss one. I might have sweated through it if not for that jersey underneath, because my heart was pounding as Ron and I stepped into a line. We tried not to make eye contact with anyone. It was 9 a.m., four hours before they would let ticket-holders into the venue and six hours before kickoff.
I held my breath as we marched single-file through the gate, then Ron and I nervously peeled out of line as we passed by a restroom. So far, so good. Each of us stepped into a stall, latched our doors and exhaled. Inhaling was the problem. Were we really ready to stay put for hours? We were going stir crazy within minutes.
Whispering to each other like prisoners in tiny cells, we agreed we would rather be discovered than hide out in the bathroom all morning. So I took off my dad’s dress shirt, stepped up onto the toilet and tossed it into the rafters. Now I was wearing a schlocky John Riggins jersey and dress slacks. Even then I must have realized I looked ridiculous.
I can’t remember whether Ron had a different shirt to change into, only that we peered out of the restroom like bandits, scanning for anyone who might catch us. There was lots of activity in the area immediately surrounding the stadium, with people setting up merchandise stands and the like. It’s not like we were alone.
Finally, the coast was clear and we made our escape, keeping our heads down and speed-walking with purpose. We didn’t spot anyone who might recognize us as fugitives, but we weren’t going to risk it. We quickly ducked into a tunnel that led into the stadium itself.
Super Bowl LVI coverage
It was as if the heavens opened when we emerged back into daylight and got a glimpse of the field — or at least it felt that way. It was so green it was almost fluorescent, with Washington’s end zone painted gold, Miami’s teal and the NFL shield at midfield. The grounds crew had watered the grass, and a helicopter was hovering just above the field to blow it dry. In a few hours, the place would be filled to the brim with 100,000 people. We were mesmerized.
We were also nervous about getting caught. Salvation came from above. I mean directly above, where a United Press International photographer was setting up his camera from his perch on top of the tunnel’s mouth. Ron and I chatted with him, concocting some story about a parent running a merchandise stand. Honesty was not our strong suit that day.
The conversation went well and lasted long enough for the photographer to ask us to watch his equipment while he stepped away. We had been deputized. We had a job, a reason to be there in case someone asked. No one did, but we were ready.
At some point, across the stadium, we spotted a group of about 30 people emerge from a tunnel and grab seats midway up the bowl. They looked like women mostly, and perhaps glamorous ones judging by their big 1980s hair.
An announcer was testing the public-address system. “Miami Dolphins cheerleaders,” he intoned. “Let me know if you can hear me.” The faraway group leapt to its feet and cheered. This was getting more exciting by the minute.
The photographer came back, fans started to trickle into the stadium, and Ron and I decided our best chance at seats was to go it alone. We figured friends John and Scott had gotten kicked out. So Ron left in search of his dad and sister, legitimate paying customers. These were the days when the only thing resembling a cell phone was a Star Trek communicator or the shoe of Maxwell Smart.
I milled around until the place got full then walked slowly up an aisle around the 35-yard line, looking for some space at the end of a bench. If there were individual seats in those days, I might have been wandering all game.
I had a fantastic — if snug — vantage for one of the best Super Bowls in history, a 27-17 victory by Washington that included a 43-yard touchdown run by Riggins on fourth and inches. He was the game’s most valuable player. All that happened right in front of me. It was otherworldly.
Turns out, John and Scott got to see the game too. They weren’t kicked out. In fact, while Ron and I were watching that camera equipment, our teenage buddies had ingratiated themselves with that roaming group of Dolphins cheerleaders. Some guys have all the luck.
Let me be clear: I don’t recommend this today. The world is a different place. Some tickets at SoFi Stadium are reselling for more than $10,000. But some things haven’t changed since that sunny January day in 1983. The field is still luminescent, the air still crackles with excitement and anticipation. And — for the 26th time — I’ll be in attendance. But I’ll enter the proper way, like everybody else. Promise.