Coming to the Big Easy, 72-year-old Dion Rich had sneaked, weaseled, conned, bluffed, tricked and bamboozled his way into 32 straight Super Bowls, the record for a man refusing to touch his wallet.
Wait. Not just into the games, but often onto the fields and into the locker rooms. That's Rich on the winner's podium with Vince Lombardi and Pete Rozelle after the first Super Bowl. That's him helping to carry Cowboys coach Tom Landry off the field after XII. That's him whispering sweet nothings into coach Joe Gibbs's ear as the Redskins run off after winning XVII.
Wait, wait. It's not only Super Bowls. Rich has gone ticketless into World Series games, title fights, America's Cup races, Kentucky Derbies and 14 Olympics. Basically, he's Red Smith without the deadlines. He's also crashed eight Academy Awards, as proved by pictures like the one of him with his arm around Gwyneth Paltrow after she won her Oscar. He even has a snap of himself at the Playboy Mansion, in Hugh Hefner's bathrobe.
It's not that Rich is poor. He's made boatloads in real estate and other things. "But why pay when you don't have to?" he asks. Then came Super Bowl XXXVI, hard on the heels of 9/11. The NFL spent $7 million on a mammoth security effort manned by the Secret Service, the FBI, FEMA, the National Guard, U.S. Marshals and dozens of state and local law-enforcement agencies. The week looked bleak for the Sneak Streak.
It got worse. Everywhere Rich looked, there were Jeeps, Humvees and even tanks. There were more wands around than at a fairy godmother convention. Security was triple anything he had seen before. A 10-foot-high chain-link-and-barbed-wire fence was put up around the perimeter of the Louisiana Superdome.
Welcome to the Big Hard.
Dion cased the Superdome and declared it tighter than Joan Rivers's eyelids. How could any of his tricks work? The wheelchair? Claiming to be a ref? Pretending to be with the team, the band, the stadium crew? The Coke-bottle bifocals? The bag of press credentials? "If every Super Bowl were like this," he sighed in a media center he wasn't supposed to be in last Thursday, "I'd retire."
Not only that, but he was sure he was being followed. The NFL admits it has tailed him. "Oh, yeah, I've heard of him," Milt Ahlerich, the league's vice president of security, grumbled. The NFL once told Rich if it ever caught him on the field again, he'd be finding out if he could sneak out of jail. He agreed to stay off the fields—but he never said anything about stadiums.
A streak is a streak, wartime or peace, and the Gate Crasher knew what lay before him: He must descend into hell and pull the devil's teeth. It was Clyde Barrow versus Fort Knox. Roseanne versus Denny's page 3-Wearing a blue blazer and a tie, Albert Einstein's haircut and glasses on the end of his pointy nose, Rich set off to penetrate the most impenetrable fortress in U.S. history.
The fortress lost. Rich was inside in six minutes. I followed him the whole way. It was pure art.