The greatest anthem ever sung. Well, in my opinion it was Whitney Houston's before Super Bowl XXV -- and I say that even though what we heard was recorded a couple of weeks before the game in a Los Angeles sound studio.
Jim Steeg was the NFL's senior vice president of special events and he organized all aspects of the Super Bowl for 26 years. He booked Houston for the Super Bowl, and he was still shaken up by her stunning Saturday death when we spoke Sunday.
"Last night, [wife] Jill and I sat here, totally devastated,'' Steeg said from his San Diego home. "I have Whitney's anthem on my iPod, and last night I just sat here and listened to it. I got chills. I always get chills when I hear it. That was such a special moment in my life.''
Steeg said he'd booked Houston to do the anthem three years earlier (the Redskins-Broncos Super Bowl in San Diego), but she fired her manager in December and took off on a tour of Australia. "So we got Herb Alpert,'' said Steeg.
Funny. I don't remember Herb Alpert's rendition in San Diego, but I'll never forget Houston's in Tampa.
The Gulf War was 10 days old when the Giants and Bills played. And there was major security in place for the first time at a Super Bowl. Fans were patted down before entering the stadium. Sharpshooters and SWAT teams, in plain sight, were in place on the roof of Tampa Stadium. Airspace was cleared. A stray helicopter with a photographer shooting overhead was nearly shot down before the game; the pilot claimed he didn't know anything about the airspace clearance.
"We were prepared for a possible chemical attack,'' said Steeg. "We'd bought up all the antidotes for a chemical attack that we could find, and they were stored under the stadium. After the game, we sold it off to the NBA.''
The league received a credible threat the week before the game: A police car filled with explosives would try to ram into the stadium during the game. "You hear about things like that and you go, 'Yeah, right,' '' said Steeg. "But on Friday, a police car in St. Petersburg was stolen. So that got everyone's attention. We had two Tampa police cars parked at each entrance to the [stadium] property that day. If a St. Pete police car came up, the cars were there to stop it, blocking the gates. So those cops were pretty happy when the game was over.''
Steeg cleared up a few things Sunday. First, the anthem that day was a combined affair, with the Florida Symphony Orchestra backing up Houston. The orchestra recorded the instrumentals that would go behind Houston's rendition. That tape was brought to Los Angeles, and Houston practiced a few times, then recorded the version that would be played in the stadium, the one we've heard so often over the weekend. "That isn't rare,'' he said. "I'd say about 80 percent of the anthems in my time were recorded beforehand.''
The difference with this anthem was that Houston actually sang it on the field before the game -- in front of a dead mike. "I was on the Giants sidelines, standing right behind Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks,'' said Steeg. "I heard her. It was fabulous.''
Said Steeg: "Lip-syncing is the wrong phrase. She sang it. I heard it. And the emotion on the field when she was finished was noticeable. I saw it on the faces of the Giants. No one knew what the moment would be like, but it was emotion, and fabulous. I'll never forget Taylor saying to Banks -- you think these guys are so intent on the game right then -- but he said, 'Oh my God! Is she good-looking!' ''
Steve Tasker of the Bills was on the opposite sideline. "She hit it out of the park,'' he said. "I'm an anthem enthusiast. I like to listen to them and judge them, and there's never been one like that. I remember looking around when it was over. I looked in the stands and saw fans waving their little American flags with one hand and wiping tears away with the other. I looked over and saw Jim Kelly and Marv [Levy] wiping away tears. And I'm standing right near one of the officials that day, Larry Nemmers -- and he's wiping his eyes. Amazing.''
Lip-syncing or not, it got the crowd going. And the teams. What we heard was a recorded voice and still, after the game, I remember a couple of Giants talking about how special the moment was; players never talk about the anthem. And the next day, radio stations across the country played the anthem so much it shot up into the Billboard Top 20. Houston agreed to give all the proceeds to the American Red Cross; more than $500,000 was raised.
Whatever the method of delivering the anthem, I remember getting teary in the press box when it happened that day. And, like Steeg, I got the chills Saturday night when I YouTubed it.
"Whitney Houston was the greatest singer I've ever heard.''
-- Tony Bennett, after Houston was found dead Saturday evening.
Now there's a tribute.
"If the committee switched up on the guys every five years or whatever ... I think some players would like to see some changes in who is doing the selection process every year because most of the time I think it's the same voters that come in and do all the voting. Outside looking in I would like to see a little more change up on who votes.''
-- New Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee Willie Roaf, on ESPN 101 in St. Louis, via sportsradiointerviews.com.
"I do think part of your legacy as a quarterback is how you bring up the next generation of quarterbacks. And I would be more than willing to talk with him as I have talked with some other young quarterbacks in the past. That being said, I think that the parties, let me just say all three parties, including [Colts owner] Jim Irsay, the Mannings -- which includes Archie and Peyton -- and Andrew Luck, would do a lot of good for the situation by not talking about it as much as there has been. Andrew first and foremost not having been picked yet, although most people assume he is going to go number one. I think it would do him a lot of good for him to have a less-is-more strategy when it comes to talking about the potential situation in Indy."
-- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, to Jason Wilde of ESPN Radio in Milwaukee, via sportsradiointerviews.com, on being willing to discuss how to handle sitting behind a legend with presumptive first overall pick Andrew Luck -- if the Colts pick Luck and keep Peyton Manning.
Ben Roethlisberger versus Eli Manning has gone from a slaughter to a contest in the last four years, since Manning won his first Super Bowl. Now that Manning has won two, let's see how he and the player the Giants would have chosen in the 2004 draft were Manning not available (Ben Roethlisberger) have fared in the first half of their NFL careers (first stat line is regular-season number, second is each player's playoff numbers):
Roethlisberger has a clear edge in the regular season, and they're close in the playoffs -- though Roethlisberger has gotten his team to one more Super Bowl than Manning (the Steelers lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl 45). But if you break it down further, they're awfully close. Roethlisberger has played a 16-game regular season only once; Manning hasn't missed a game due to injury in his career. In the last three regular seasons, Manning has 23 more touchdown passes.
These two will always be compared to each other, because of the Draft Day 2004 circumstances. The one thing we can say about them: Neither the Giants nor Steelers were cheated with the man they picked.
Jim Steeg told me two teams have forgotten the Super Bowl Trophy in the postgame locker room: the Jets after Super Bowl III and the Giants after Super Bowl XXV. Legend has it someone from Eastern Airlines retrieved the Jets trophy the day after Joe Namath and company shocked the world. The trophy was delivered to the charter before the team jetted back to New York. Steeg found the Giants' trophy, sitting alone on a table in the middle of the locker room about two hours after the game. He phoned Giants GM George Young back at their team hotel.
"You guys missing anything?'' Steeg asked.
"What are you talking about?'' Young replied.
"I've got your Super Bowl trophy in the trunk of my car,'' Steeg said.
That would have been an odd eBay sales item.
I can't tell you much about travel in the past week, because I slept for much of it. (Amazing how you can fall back into a 9:35 p.m. bedtime pretty smoothly.) I did have to go to Boston for a doctor's appointment, and stayed at the Westin Copley Place. A tad pricey, at $251.10 for the night. Then I got my surprises that aren't very surprising anymore with the final bill: $14.31 state tax, $15.07 city tax, $6.91 Convention Center tax (but I didn't use the Convention Center), $46 for parking. That's $82.29 extra. That's what happens when you stay in city hotels. At least they threw in the health club, unlike some hotels that shall remain nameless.
"I did not retire, I graduated.''
"With a degree in Millionaire.''
-- @RickyWilliams, who walked away from football last week.
"We should have kept @jlin7. Did not know he was this good. Anyone who says they knew is misleading U.''
-- @dmorey, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who waived Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin in December.