The giant white tent was there when the Cardinals arrived, and it was there when it was over.
The Super Bowl this Sunday featuring the Chiefs and the Buccaneers is back in Tampa, and the last time the NFL's biggest game was there, the Cardinals were too. As was their tent.
It was huge, set up in a back parking lot of the Hyatt where the team was staying the week of Super Bowl 43. When the team flew in Monday afternoon and bussed to the hotel, a handful of the players immediately went into the tent for their daily media availability, the world's press descending on what had become a fantastic bunch of stories.
A week later, the tent was the place players, coaches, staff and their families tried to drown out their sorrow from the painful Super Bowl loss a couple of hours earlier. In a normal Super Bowl year – i.e., one without a pandemic – both teams have a party postgame, no matter what. It's too big to wait to see if you win or lose, so the party always happens.
Except this year, in this return to Tampa, where the Bucs are already in their home city and the Chiefs fly in Saturday and leave as soon as the game is over. I'm not sure the losing team will party much this year. But this year is just a little different
"I wish our guys could have the experience of what the experience really is," said Byron Leftwich, the Bucs' offensive coordinator who spent three years on the Cardinals' coaching staff before going to the Bucs, and who, in fact, was the Steelers backup quarterback during the 2008 season. When the Cardinals had a tent behind the Hyatt.
In the year of being called at one point the worst team to ever make the playoffs, coach Ken Whisenhunt certainly used the line as personal motivation. Monday night, making an appearance on the NFL Network, Whiz pushed back hard. Given what the Cards had done in the postseason, he was coming from a place of leverage.
Media Day wasn't quite as crowded, not with the recession taking a bite out of the travel budgets of many media outlets. But it was still packed on that Tuesday on the sideline of Raymond James Stadium, where the event used to be held before the NFL made it a Monday night show (with fans) in basketball arenas.
Edgerrin James had a new Lamborghini delivered to the hotel, his new ride parked out there all week for everyone to see. Funny thing, a few years later, Edge told me he turned down a chance to test drive the car and bought it anyway. He later sold it, saying it rained too much in Miami to keep it around, but the car served as his wheels for his Super experience.
The first practice in Tampa wasn't great, Adrian Wilson once told me, and Whisenhunt actually re-started the whole thing that day.
"I haven't seen a ones-versus-ones practice, that competitive, ever," Wilson said. "It was like the switch turned out and (expletive) got real. It got real quick."
The Cardinals were ready by the end of the week. So were the fans. So was I for that matter. The night before the game, I was out late at a packed establishment that served adult beverages, when linebacker Clark Haggans – who had been on season-ending injured reserve for weeks – showed up. He good-naturedly trash-talked the Steelers fans in the place, fans who had cheered for him for so many years in Pittsburgh, before he came over and gave my wife a high-five. Life was good.
As it turned out, the game could've made life even better, until it didn't. Tampa giveth, and Tampa taketh away.
Forget Santonio Holmes. What if Kurt Warner had been able to get off that last Hail Larry attempt?
"To be honest, on the Hail Mary, I was running down the field and I thought we were going to win it," wide receiver Jerheme Urban said. "Every fiber in me, there wasn't one bit of, 'This stinks.' I thought we were going to win it. Call me crazy but we just had too many things go right up to that point."
The loss ate at Bertrand Berry so much, he ended up in tears reliving his regrets a decade later. To be so close to own the ultimate victory.
That night, it was the bus ride back to the hotel. After a detour for myself to write up a final game story, it was down to the tent, where the party – which seems like an odd moniker, given the circumstances -- was ongoing.
A celebration, maybe moreso? Of an unbelievable story that didn't quite have the storybook ending – at least for the Cardinals – the last time the Super Bowl was in Tampa.