‘Just Follow the Crowd’
Perhaps the least surprising storyline of Super Bowl XLVIII was the overwhelming frustration with mass transportation; shuttling thousands of out-of-towners to and from MetLife Stadium proved less than seamless. More than 33,000 fans took NJ Transit to the Meadowlands, crushing the 2009 record of 22,000 on the day of a U2 concert. And for many, the nine-mile journey from Manhattan to East Rutherford took nearly three hours. The trip home was even worse.
The MMQB experienced the logistical nightmare by following the journey of two fans on Sunday afternoon: Will DiTullio, a 33-year-old Patriots season-ticket holder who was brave enough to sport a Devin McCourty jersey, and his coworker, 23-year-old Matt McCarthy, a die-hard Broncos fan.
They drove from Boston on Saturday night and stayed at a midtown motel. I met up with them Sunday afternoon at Penn Station.
We take the elevator down from street level. It’s the last escalator we’ll take all day; the rest are deactivated for safety precautions. We soon realize why.
NJ Transit’s 50-square yard waiting room is a sea of orange, green and blue. Log-jammed fans can barely move. Some crane their necks toward the digital monitors periodically flashing train times. Most don’t bother.
“When’s our train?” Matt asks.
“Does it matter?” Will says. “Just follow the crowd.”
It begins with a rumble and soon escalates to a full-blown exodus to Track 5. In unison, the crowd pours toward two doorways on the right side of the room.
“Shall we?” Will asks, venturing into the masses. Matt and I lose him for a few minutes as we join the pilgrimage down a narrow staircase. We all reconvene by the track, a dark corridor lined by cement walls that look like paved roads. There are two trains waiting; we opt for the double-decker. Naturally, the other train leaves first.
“Insane,” Matt says. “Absolutely insane.”
“Why do you think we’re not moving?” Matt asks, checking the time on his phone. We’re still not moving.
“They told us to expect delays,” says Will, a Super Bowl veteran. When the Patriots played in XLVI, he impulsively bought a round-trip plane ticket ($800) the day before the game. He bought a game ticket, too, but no hotel: He went straight to the airport and waited out his 8 a.m. departure time for the return trip home.
“Downtown Indy was great,” Will says. “There were lines, but everything felt effortless. And you got a real feel of the city. This? I can already tell this just isn’t the same.”
Passengers keep filing on and are now spilling into the aisles. A man with an electric green-dyed beard shouts, “Sea-hawks!” Two fans siting next to him join in. Then a group of middle-aged women behind them. “Sea-hawks! “Sea-hawks!”
The train is still not moving.
It escalates more.
“I’m already getting sick of it,” Matt says, with a laugh.
The train jolts back, lurches forward and then begins rolling out of the station. People clap, the same kind of applause you would hear on the tarmac after a pilot nails a landing in difficult conditions. We cruise out of the tunnel as the swamps of New Jersey flash by: ice-crusted rivers, wind-swept grass, parking lots of one-story warehouses.
“So, this is where Tony Soprano dumped his bodies,” the man behind us deadpans.
The train rolls on at a steady pace. Looking out the window, we see some kind of police presence every 200 yards or so … an army tank parked on a service road … a state officer, with a large machine gun, patrolling the edge of the track. “Makes you really feel like you’re at the Super Bowl,” Matt says. The train slows down as a voice emanates from the overhead speakers: “Now arriving in Secaucus Junction. Change here if you’re going to the big game.”
The doors open, and we notice another train has pulled into the station across the platform. Hundreds of people from both trains plod toward three doors, a funnel that makes feel like sheep. “This is insane,” Matt says. “Absolutely insane.”
We inch and jostle our way toward the three doors, but we aren’t really moving. A group of fans begin another “Sea-hawks!” chant, but it’s muffled by an opposing response. “Let’s go Broncos!” Clap, clap, clap clap clap. “Let’s go Broncos!”
“Let’s get the eff out of this station!” a man interjects.
Matt, Will and I laugh. We still haven’t moved. We’re lucky there isn’t any kind of emergency.
“Excuse me, do we all have to wait in line?” an agitated man asks a security guard. “Even if we’re not going to the game?”
We have finally made it to the bottom of the staircase. There must be 1,000 people in this corridor, which is roughly a third of the width of a football field, and more people keep pouring in behind us. Mostly everyone looks equipped to attend a football game, except for a young couple next to us in their 20s.
Wearing a black pea coat, the man is trying to get the attention of a security guard.
“Excuse me, do we all have to wait in line?” he asks, agitation in his voice. “Even if we’re not going to the game?”
The couple is simply trying to get to North Jersey. Their connecting train leaves in three minutes.
“Everybody’s gotta go through security,” the guard responds.
“Are you effing serious?” the pea-coat man yells back.
“It’s a really sucky day to be a normal person, huh?” a random lady chimes in.
We have moved five feet over the past five minutes. It’s a balmy 75 degrees in here, maybe hotter. Matt and Will are still wearing their winter hats, but their cheeks are rosy. Most people around us are beginning to take off their coats, and there’s plenty of rumbling about the rising temperature. So much, it seems, for a cold-weather Super Bowl.
When we finally make it to the end of the hallway, we spot the holdup: the aforementioned security line.
Through a window to our right, we see another crowded room, roughly the size of ours, that is funneling even more people into the same security line.
“Look to the left,” Matt says. Another crowd, hundreds of more fans.
Airport security lines suddenly seem like paragons of efficiency.
Our progress in six minutes: 10 feet. “If we left any later, I don’t know if we’d make the game,” Will says.
Then, without fanfare, there’s movement. Security guards order us to divide into two sections: Fans with bags, fans without bags. We scuffle toward the bag-line, which is similar to the security setup outside NFL stadiums: empty your pockets, walk through a detector and hope for no delay.
The actual screening doesn’t take too long. We process our train tickets through machines and enter into a large atrium stuffed with fans. Many extend their arms up to take aerial photos. Even more are taking selfies. “I can only imagine the captions they are sending with them,” Matt says.
Broncos and Seahawks fans trade chants back and forth. “M-V-P!” “Let’s go Hawwwwks!”
The ceilings are nearly 50-feet high and the cheers reverberate into one jumbled echoing mess. The police presence is palpable: security guards, police dogs, state troopers with machine guns. “That’s the biggest gun I’ve ever seen in my life,” Matt says as we pass one officer.
The officer must have seen us staring because he glares right back. I freeze, then the officer starts barking at us. “Damn right, Patriots!” he shouts to Will in a thick Boston accent. Will smiles, they high-five then exchange small-talk about hometowns and whether or not Tom Brady had the flu in the postseason.
The gridlock here is prime breeding ground for such viruses. If you’re keeping score at home, we’ve gone more than 45 minutes without making a connecting train.
There’s pushing, there’s shoving, there’s plenty of jockeying for position ... there’s even a couple babies crying.
“Next train to East Rutherford on track...” announces the P.A. system, and this divided crowd responds with a unified cheer. We scoot toward the track, but first need to make it down a level, via six lanes of frozen escalator or stares. The escalators have been stopped to keep people from crashing into one another. Matt and Will haven’t talked much in the last few minutes; it’s getting stuffy. There’s pushing, there’s shoving, there’s plenty of jockeying for position. A lady next to me has folded up a game program and uses it as a fan. There’s a couple babies crying.
Finally on the bottom of the staircase, we walk onto the platform and are overwhelmed by a cool breeze. We’re outside, but in an enclosed area filled with the sound of muffling, idle trains. “This feels so refreshing,” Will says. “Open space.” We find seats on the train, next to an affable Seahawks fan (aren’t they all?) named Emmie.
And then we wait.
The train begins moving. The fans begin clapping. The ride feels very much the same as the first, with random spurts of cheers and periodic jolts.
We pull up to a platform outside the stadium, greeted by a light drizzle and a dozen volunteers (plus a half dozen police officers). They point us in the right direction and we weave toward the stadium toward following a prescribed path in a single-file line. Security lines are long, but we are told to keep moving to where the crowds are smaller. I’m not sure such a place exists. To our left, Falcons defensive end (and former Giant) Osi Umenyiora stands next to the security line while making a phone call in a navy suit. Apparently everyone needs to pick up tickets.
Volunteers hand us packets of hand warmers as we enter a large tent. There is barely a line, perhaps 30 people in front of us. For how stressful it was to navigate public transportation, moving through the on-site security is fairly easy. It’s as simple as taking everything out of your pockets, having your bag scanned and then retrieving your items.
Matt and Will make it through. Because I’m credentialed as working press and don’t have a game ticket, I’m not allowed to go with them. But we plan to meet up up after the game.
Hours … and hours … and hours later
Think it was difficult getting to the game? The Super Bowl didn’t have an exit strategy. While it took several hours for all the fans to arrive at MetLife, it was as if no one realized that everyone would be leaving when the game was over. Though I tried a half dozen times to visit or contact the duo from midway through the fourth quarter until 2 a.m., I wasn’t able to get in touch with either Will or Matt until 9 a.m. on Monday morning. Here’s Matt’s account of what happened after the game:
“We decided to stay the whole game to see the celebration, and by that point the stadium was pretty empty so we thought it would be no trouble getting out. The train couldn’t be that bad, right? Not so much.
“We walked out of the stadium and there were just people. People everywhere. We joined the mass of people but quickly realized that there was no order. It pretty much looked like a triangle of people. They wrapped all around the stadium. We waited for about 30 minutes without really moving—and then we saw the last train was leaving at 1 a.m. There was no way we were getting on that. It was probably 12:45 at that point.
“People were yelling, people were confused. State troopers started shouting orders, trying to get things structured. They squeezed everyone into a 10-foot-wide line rather than a 50-foot wide line, but even then it didn’t seem organized. All of the sudden we heard an announcement that there would be shuttle buses to the city. Luckily, Will and I were toward the back of the crowd, so we both started running toward the bus. We got on the second one. It left a bit after that, but by the time we got back to New York it was 2 a.m. I don’t know how some of those other people got home. We were lucky.”