DON'T GET IN THE TICKET, TRIP OR PARTY BUSINESS
The quickest way to insure that we will be successful in Pasadena is not to become involved in the inevitable chaos which surrounds a trip to the Super Bowl.... Buy your tickets, airplane seats and rooms. Give them to your spouse, girlfriend, family member or trusted friend to dispense—and disappear.
That paragraph, buried deep in a five-page Super Bowl advisory the Buffalo Bills distributed to their players and coaches the day after they won the AFC championship, was a key piece of advice in helping the Bills deal with one of the major hassles leading up to the Big Game. Still, that meant somebody in every player's and coach's life had to perform the delicate juggling act of doling out Super Bowl tickets, making airline reservations, booking hotel rooms and planning meals, transportation and sightseeing trips.
For Buffalo special-teams captain Steve Tasker, that nerve-racking assignment fell on the shoulders of his wife, Sarah. An architect by training, Sarah transformed herself overnight into a hostess with the mostest. In 11 days she drew up an elaborate blueprint of a Super Bowl trip for a group of 26 family members and friends, who descended upon Los Angeles from various points across the country, arrived by many modes of transportation and ranged in age from one to 78.
Once in L.A., they slept four or five to a hotel room, sharing double beds, curling up on rollaways or sacking out on the floor in sleeping bags. In the rooms they maneuvered around piles of suitcases, duffel bags, toddlers' car seats, strollers and video-camera equipment, and they nibbled from grocery bags packed with fresh fruits, juices and graham crackers. On Friday, Sarah escaped to Disneyland with her three children—Deacon, 5, Annie, 3½, and Lucas, 2, all of whom were decked out in whirligig caps and fluorescent lime-green jackets. On Saturday, 22 members of the traveling party piled into a tour bus and spent the afternoon at Universal Studios.
"Sarah has always been an organizer," says her mother, Marcia Mehl. "That's where she shines."
"This is the pinnacle of Steve's football career, and who knows if he'll get to the Super Bowl again, but it's only another special experience that happens in your life," Sarah said. "Families all get together to share important occasions: weddings, funerals, graduations, birthdays and anniversaries. Why not throw a Super Bowl in there too?"
Even though this was the Bills' third straight trip to the Super Bowl, don't get the idea that Sarah is an experienced travel agent. On the contrary, she attended the title game in Tampa two years ago accompanied only by Lucas, then six days old; the family pediatrician, Dr. Frank Schreck, whom she had invited before Lucas was born in case she were to go into labor before the kickoff; and her oldest brother, Steele Mehl. Last year 12 members of the family went to Minneapolis for Super Bowl XXVI, but they seldom left the hotel because of the cold weather. So this year's juggling act was something new and exciting—for the most part, anyway.
"It was highly chaotic, big-time crazy," said Sarah, 30. "There were so many questions to be answered: What's the weather like in L.A.? What kinds of things will we be doing? What clothes should I bring? At one point I had to stop answering my phone, because I flat out couldn't get anything done."
And there was more than the trip to L.A. to prepare for. Sarah had to pack clothes for three different climates—Los Angeles; Honolulu, where Steve will play in his fourth Pro Bowl on Sunday; and Leoti, Kans., where the Taskers will spend much of the off-season. What's more, she had to put their 120-pound Great Dane (Yogi) in a kennel as well as instruct a neighbor about feeding their cat (Popcorn) and their fish (Kevin, Patrick, Schmooky and Kooky). She also wanted to make sure the neighbor combed their house for mice twice a day. "I'm paranoid the mice will figure out there are no pets and no people around, and they'll take over," Sarah said. "The last time we went to the Super Bowl, they gave birth."
By last Thursday morning, as Sarah was running through her checklist and closing up the house in time to catch one of the two planes chartered for the Bills' families and guests, a girlfriend was getting the kids ready, two neighbors were washing the Taskers' dishes and cleaning the house, and a friend of a friend was speeding to United Parcel Service to ship boxes of the kids' clothes to Leoti. Big-time crazy. "It's funny to think that all of this lunacy is about a football game," Sarah said.
The Sarah Tasker Magical Super Bowl XXVII Tour was set in motion the moment the Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins 29-10 for the AFC championship on Jan. 17. Her first phone calls that Sunday night were to members of her immediate family. Sarah offered all-expenses-paid trips to her parents and to Steve's parents, as well as to Steve's three brothers and her two brothers and all of their wives.
With the exception of one of Steve's brothers, everybody accepted. "If we didn't pay for them, they couldn't come," she said. "Steve has a Pro Bowl incentive bonus, and it's money you don't count on anyway, so what's the difference?"
Next, Sarah dialed her 78-year-old paternal grandmother, Pearl Mehl, in Boulder, Colo., to see if she could squeeze the Super Bowl into her busy schedule. A perpetual-motion machine, Pearl says she has set 28 masters track-and-field world records. In addition, she races around the globe as a professional registered parliamentarian for 33 different organizations, and she'll soon take over as the president of the Colorado Federation of Garden Clubs. In her spare time—spare time?—Pearl speaks to senior citizens' groups on health and nutrition, even though, according to her, most of the members of her audience are couch potatoes who fall asleep while she's talking. Said Pearl of her nonstop life-style, "Hey, 78 isn't old if you're a California sequoia tree."
Would Pearl jump off her merry-go-round long enough to go to the Super Bowl? Yes, she said, as long as she could find room in her suitcase for her running gear. In turn, Pearl asked her grandson Shane Mehl, a running back at Denver's Jefferson High, to go along on the trip as a reward for leading the Saints to the state 4A semifinals last fall and for getting straight A's last semester.
Sarah then extended an invitation to Tom Pfalzer, the Taskers' next-door neighbor who frequently comes to her rescue when she needs a handyman or the kids a surrogate father while Steve is busy with football. A few of Sarah's cousins and a couple of friends of one of her brothers also came along for the fantastic voyage to Pasadena.
The Bills made Sarah's job a little easier when they announced that each player and coach would be given two Super Bowl tickets, plus the opportunity to purchase as many as 22 additional tickets; one additional round-trip ticket on the family charter flight for a guest, plus the option to buy plane tickets for two more guests; the use of one room at the Los Angeles Hilton, plus the opportunity to pay for another room; four tickets to the Bills' pregame brunch; four round-trip bus tickets to the Rose Bowl on game day; 10 tickets to the postgame party; and four VIP passes to the NFL Experience, the league's fan-participation exhibit.
Then it became a case of who got what. "Luckily our families are easy," Sarah said. "Nobody says, 'What about me?' With us it's, 'Oh, that's O.K.' My best-laid plans usually unravel because my father starts being a nice guy and says, 'I'm not an important person; let somebody else go.' Then Steve's brothers will chime in, 'No, I don't have to go.' "
As an indication of how the Taskers' relatives and friends can roll with the punches, consider what some of them went through in order to rendezvous in Los Angeles last Friday:
•Driving a 1974 Buick Electra, with 140,000 miles on the odometer, Lanny and Marcia Mehl, Sarah's parents, left their farm in Leoti at 4:30 a.m. last Thursday. "Our son flies for Delta, and we could fly for free," says Marcia, "but we drive everywhere." Two hours later they stopped in Goodwell, Okla., to pick up Lanny's cousins Malinda and Brad Ketchersid and then drove 14 straight hours to Tucson to meet up with Sarah's brother Shad, his wife, Connie, and their one-year-old son, Matthew.
After a good night's sleep they picked up Shad's friend Mike Barker and his girlfriend, Sarah Keller, and they were on their way again. They started out for Los Angeles at 7:30 a.m. Friday, and the two-car contingent rolled into the Hyatt Regency in downtown L.A. at 5 p.m.
•Steve's parents, Rev. Gordon and JoAnn Tasker, left Kingman, Kans., at 5 a.m. Friday for the 40-mile drive to the Wichita airport, where they were joined by their son Paul, 33, and his wife, Terri. (While making flight connections in Phoenix, the Tasker clan happened to run into the father-in-law of Dallas defensive end Jim Jeffcoat and a neighbor of Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman.)
"When we finally got to the hotel and we put our key in the elevator to go to the 22nd floor, all of the lights went out in the elevator," JoAnn said. "We stood in the dark, stranded, until somebody finally walked up, pushed the button to call the elevator, and the doors opened."
•On Friday, Pearl met Shane at the Denver airport and hopped a noon flight to L.A. "I went to the back of the plane to go to the bathroom and bumped into some Bills' fans, and we got to talking football," Pearl said. "Finally a flight attendant had to come and tell us one of the bathrooms had been vacant for some time, if we still wanted to use it."
Even with so many people, there was only one small glitch in the Sarah Tasker Magical Super Bowl XXVII Tour. On Friday night, what Steve's brother Keith had promised would be a quick four-block walk from the Hyatt Regency to dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen in the Wells Fargo Center turned into a 40-minute journey through a scary, twisting maze of downtown streets, underpasses and lobbies of high-rise office buildings. "I didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel," said Pearl, "but I sure got my second wind when we came out the other side."
The group stopped and asked for directions three times and backtracked twice. "We won't have our reservations," Sarah quietly lamented. "They'll give away our tables." As 24 people were about to jaywalk across a four-lane city street to finally reach the restaurant, a calm but concerned Sarah barked out instructions to the group. "Listen, you guys," she said with a slight frown, "promise that you won't tell Steve about any of this until after the game."
After reaching L.A. via many routes, 24 of 26 Tasker relatives and pals posed for a team photo.
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Pearl (top) took off from Denver and hit the ground running in L.A.; the Mehls cruised from Kansas in the trusty Buick, then added another carload in Tucson.
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After a hairy encounter with Cowboy fans at a truck stop, the Mehl convoy embarked on the final leg of its westward journey.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (TOP)
Sarah had her hands full, but she did have some laughs with (bottom, clockwise from right) Lucas, Deacon and Annie.
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