I WENT TO Tampa last weekend hoping for the worst.
Not from Super Bowl XLIII, but from the scene. I wanted excess and I wanted it wretched, with two scoops of celebrities in every (luxury) box. I wanted to see the glitterati rinsing their Escalades with Cristal, then drying them off with imported, endangered pandas. I wanted to see supermodels giving table dances to indicted executives wearing Armani do-rags. I wanted to see Warren Buffett on a corner using a leaf blower to send $100 bills aflutter. Why? Because it's what the country needs right now. Sure, most years I decry the decadence surrounding the Big Game, but at this, the first Super Bowl of what may be the second Great Depression, I wanted to be reassured that America is still capable of otherworldly exorbitance.
It wouldn't be easy. All I heard was grim news: how tickets were marked down, how hotel rooms were going begging. I tried to attend NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's press conference last Friday, only I mistakenly walked into a Timothy Geithner briefing. Soberly grasping a podium and addressing a sea of rumpled sport coats, Goodell kept using words like crisis and fear and layoffs. Hey, everyone, it's party time!
As for Tampa, it tried its best: turning a blind eye to public drinking, facilitating tent cities for merchants. Only the more places I went, the more depressed I got. Vendors told me no one was buying, no matter what they were selling. A guy with a flyer yelled, "Wanna bet big on the Bowl?" and when I replied that, no, I really didn't, he nodded and said, "Who can afford to, right?" On a corner near Raymond James Stadium the day before the game, as cars drove by with Terrible Towels twirling out the window like gold-and-black pinwheels, a middle-aged man in a crisp gray suit held a sign: TERRIFIC EMPLOYEE. LOYAL PERSON. I NEED WORK. Then there was a phone number.
The landscape was bleak, but surely the parties would provide solace, right? Standing amid famous-looking people at the last great Super Bowl blowout—the Maxim party—I thought that I'd found my oasis of excess at last. Patron flowed; four dozen models gyrated. To my right Pat Riley bobbed his head while, onstage, Terrell Owens shimmied as a woman in a nearly nonexistent green dress tried to hike him a football. Or at least that's what it looked like she was doing. Overhead, Steve Perry warbled, Don't stop. Be-leev-in'. Hold on to that fee-ee-lin', and man, did I try. Until, that is, I stepped into the chill evening and met a red-carpet model named Jen who (of course) works two jobs. "Party's sort of tame," she said, teeth chattering on a cigarette. How tame? "I'm not even getting hit on."
Sure, there were glimmers of hope. Cardinals running back Edgerrin James had promised himself that if he ever went to the Super Bowl, he would buy a Lamborghini, and by God he did. Silver and shiny and gloriously unnecessary, it arrived early in the week, shipped to his hotel in Tampa. (Explained James, the one-man stimulus package, "It's the Super Bowl and it's a fun week. Why not have it?") At the Marquis Jet party, the last place I expected optimism, one of the dozens of CEOs in attendance cheerily said of his company, "We've chosen not to participate in the recession." Now that's an opt-in plan I want to learn more about.
Still, come Sunday I remained disheartened. Until I got to the game, that is. It turned out I'd been looking for reassurance in all the wrong places. I met Arizona fans who'd practically hawked family heirlooms to make the trip and tailgaters wearing lucky underpants and, way up in section 303, Dale and Christine Pollick in their Steelers jerseys. The couple, both in their 40s, had flown from Pittsburgh after laying out $3,400 for tickets. "It was a little scary to do it right now," said Dale, "but c'mon, the Steelers are in the Super Bowl. It's worth it."
And the craziest part was, it was worth it. When Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison toppled into the end zone just before the half, left prone like some Ironman finisher, it was clear something special was happening. And by the time Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes nicked the corner of the end zone with his toes—a moment of ballet amid the mayhem—all perspective was lost. The stadium exploded in gold, spring blooming two months early.
For one moment—hell, for the better part of the night—foreclosures and collapsed stocks and ticket prices were forgotten. All that mattered was Pittsburgh's 27--23 win in one of the best Big Games ever.
So, in a funny way, the Super Bowl did come through—not off the field but on it. Finally, a bunch of rich guys who earned their bonuses.
If you have a comment on the scene at Super Bowl XLIII, send it to SI.com/pointafter.
I wanted decadence, and lots of it, in Tampa. I wanted to see the glitterati rinsing their Escalades with Cristal, then drying them off with endangered pandas.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER