Soaking in an anthemic moment

When I found out a couple of months ago that I had been chosen by my employer to attend the Super Bowl, I felt honored. The trip is bestowed upon select dealers and employees the company believes has shown dedication and effort over the course of the year.

For me personally, it was a chance to witness something that I have always held among the most emotional moments in all of sports — the playing of our national anthem before the Super Bowl.

I am not talking about the song that is played before every baseball, hockey and basketball game, or the one played before high school assemblies. I am talking about the version of the star-spangled spectacle that superstars sing before the biggest football game of the year.

There are probably a lot of sports fanatics out there who, in their fervor to have their team hoist the trophy, don’t think much of “The Star Spangled Banner.” To many, it’s merely the last obstacle that stands between them and their desire to watch their favorite linebacker pummel the opposing quarterback.

For me, the song is a deeply moving moment. Not because I’m some kind of patriotic zealot, but because I believe it is the pinnacle moment for every participant in the game. To use a well-worn cliché, it is their shining moment.

Every player on both sides of the field has dedicated their entire life to reaching that singular goal of playing on the ultimate stage. There is no winner and no loser during the national anthem. They are all equal in their accomplishment. And as the camera pans across the faces of those players, I imagine what it must be like to be the one standing there thinking, “I have made it. This is exactly where I told myself I would be, and I am right here, right now.” It must be quite an incredible experience.

Never mind that this year’s version of the song was a tad botched by Christina Aguilera. Almost everyone I was standing with in that stadium knew something wasn’t quite right with one of the lyrics she was belting out. It didn’t matter. There was no group revolt. No one felt any real compulsion to express their immediate disdain with sarcastic hisses.

I’d like to believe collectively that, for one instant, the stadium in Dallas was oblivious to her human error and instead focused solely on the players’ human triumph. At least that is how I will remember it, especially as the unimaginably large TV screen above the field showed a close-up of one Pittsburgh Steeler with tears streaming down his face. The enormity of his emotional vulnerability is something I will never forget.

Earlier that day, I was at a brunch with Tony Dungy, one of the only people to win a Super Bowl as both a player and coach. He spoke eloquently on what it takes to achieve success and how important it was to have mentors. He told us of Peyton Manning’s almost incomprehensible obsession with preparation and how that attention to detail was the key to his success.

When it was time for Q&A, I quickly shot my hand up and asked if he could remember what was going through his head, either as a player or coach, while the national anthem was being played during the Super Bowls in which he was a participant. I thought this was my chance to hear first-hand from someone who had experienced it.

“The most impactful national anthem was in the game we played directly after 9/11,” Dungy replied. “It made me think about so much more than football and its place in my life. As far as my Super Bowl experiences, as a player, I was so focused on what I had to do that most of my thoughts were on the game. But as a coach, and after 9/11, I did have a great appreciation for where I was at the time.”

I guess life is like that. When you are young, you lack a sense of mortality. You want to win, win, win. Perhaps that is why veteran players who achieve ultimate success later in their careers often sound more grateful than rookies who win it all right away. The older you get, the more elusive you realize your ultimate dreams become. Gratitude comes later.

Thinking back, I suppose my take on the national anthem has not always been this sentimental. I was once the towel-waving fan who couldn’t wait for the singing to end and the hitting to begin. But now I find a real beauty of sport lies in my feeling a connection with those whose hard work helped them achieve their dream and get to the big game. That is my vicarious thrill.

GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is currently working on his second novel and the second half of his life. Gary may be reached at gh@garyhuerta.com.

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