Sunday, February 03, 2013

An NFL Experience

Stoked, that's what they were.

My boys, bound for the NFL Experience, part of Super Bowl XLVII, had only one thing on  their minds: Meeting Cam Newton.

Granted, going to the pricey event may not have been the smartest decision, given my protracted joblessness. We dropped close to a $100 before we even entered the  Convention Center on tickets and parking. But sometimes, parents rationalize, there are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The Super Bowl may never be this close to the boys again.

Little folks need those signature moments. Life as an adult is hard, so kids need joy when it can be had.

So we went.

The kids wanted to meet their hero, and they dressed for the occasion, Tucker in his Carolina Panthers Newton jersey, Griffin in an orange Auburn hat.

We were not prepared for what was to come. A sea of thousands wanted the NFL Experience. Once inside, we waited briefly in a  line several hundred deep to see the former Auburn Tiger and NFL star. It looked hopeless.

So the boys and I went to interactive exhibits, where they were timed in the 40 and tested their passing skills.

Then we hit Cam's next appearance, for a sports apparel company. The crowd was of the Cecil B. DeMille Red Sea variety. Folks wearing yellow wristbands were on line. I asked a staffer where to get the bands.

"They're gone. We've been out of them for an hour."

Then, a Super Bowl miracle.

A kind stranger with red hair and glasses tapped me on the shoulder.
"See the guy under the Under Armor sign?," the man asked, pointing to a man in a brown suit. "He's with Cam's agent. Talk to him."

I had nothing to lose.

I went to the man with my story: That I was an Auburn graduate, a former football manager for the Tigers. That my boys wanted to meet only one celebrity at the NFL Experience, Cam Newton.

The rep didn't pause.

"Come on," he said.

The crowd parted. We went right to the quarterback, faster than you can say blitz. The rep whispered in his ear, and before you knew it, Tucker, Griffin and Cam were hitting it off. He signed Tucker's jersey and Griff's hat.

Newton gave time he did not have to little guys for whom a few minutes with their favorite NFL player would be priceless.

 We talked about mutual friends in the athletic department, shook hands and our day was made.

Like I said, stoked.

But there was more.

Three San Francisco 49er fans approached us minutes later, two men and a woman.

"Are you a Cam Newton fan?," the man asked. Tucker nodded.

"I have two signed things from him, a ticket to this and a football. I want you to have this."

He handed Tucker the treasured ducat.

 Beyond the ticket, there was backstory. The woman in the group, dressed in a Niners' jersey, and a San Fran cowboy hat. Under the hat, the woman wore a red bandanna. Chemotherapy and cancer had clearly been a storyline in this lady's life.

Still, her smile never left her glowing face.

There was another blessing. In the crowd and clamor, after five hours on my feet, I began to feel lightheaded, dizzy and like life had gone into slow motion. My hips and knees throbbed.

A paramedic named Mrs. Thomas came to help, until I felt better. Then, a security officer, despite a supervisor yelling the word "liability" at him, gave us a ride to our car, which was in a lot blocks away.

All of this gave pause. As a society, we've cheapened the word hero, tossing it around like politicians do promises.

Cam Newton is a hero, not because of what he does on the field, but because of his kindness to my boys. So too, were the man in the brown suit and a red-headed stranger who made the seemingly impossible come to pass.

In a world of tragedy in Newtown, Conn. and Midland, Ala., anyone who gives joy to children is truly a hero.

The same goes for the Niner fans, who showed that generosity is not dead. Of course, in this hard season of our lives, many have shown that time and again. So too, for Mrs. Thomas and the kind security officer.

Then there was the woman in the hat and bandanna. The cancer veteran. If she is not a hero, then there are none.

Numerous times after these events, the boys said the words every parent longs to hear:

"Thank you for taking us, Dad. This is the best day ever. Better than Disney World."

Today, it is the best day ever because of autographs and football heroes.

I hope that in 20 years, long after the signatures fade, their memories of this day will be of kindness.

Priceless kindness.