The Darkness And The Lights Of Super Bowl Parties
9:01 AM EST on February 9, 2024
Las Vegas is America’s biggest party town. The Super Bowl is America’s biggest sporting event. Super Bowl Week is like King Kong vs. Godzilla: Something has to give.
I’ve been going to both Vegas and Super Bowl parties for most of my adult life. My first trip to Vegas was in the summer of 1999. I had a fake ID, we stayed four to a room at Bally’s, and no one had money. We were college kids, hoping to get lucky somewhere, somehow. Day two, we were all broke except for Barry. He was down to $120, so he gave us each $20 and convinced a pit boss at Barbary Coast to open a cheap blackjack table for us. We stretched it as far as we could, relishing the free drinks and the hope that youth afforded us. Thirty minutes later, the last of us lost his $20, they closed down the table, and we wandered the strip looking up at the lights, hearing the distant laughter and the clack-clack of high heels, watching velvet ropes lifted and the high heels disappear into black-lit tunnels of bass.
Four years later was my first Super Bowl party. It was San Diego in January of 2003 and I had just been signed by the 49ers. It was Leigh Steinberg’s party at the San Diego Zoo. My plus-1 was my old high school quarterback, Justin. When I checked in, because I was an “NFL player,” they ushered me through the red carpet, which was odd because no one knew who I was, especially the dude with the facelift who interviewed me at the end of it.
There is a certain type of human that finds themselves at an exclusive Super Bowl Party, and it wasn’t a human I was familiar with. I was a suburban middle-class dude who wore baggy clothes with holes in them. The people here fell into two categories, and neither of them involved baggy clothing. They either had a lot of money, or they wanted someone with a lot of money.
Being rich was not an aspiration for me or my friends. If it happened, cool! But it never really crossed our minds. But here at the San Diego Zoo, it didn’t just cross the mind: It was written on the forehead. That night there was a Playboy party, and we were urged to attend by some girls we met at the zoo. How would we get in? We had no tickets. We’d find a way, they assured us.
So we met them at the hotel where their party bus picked us all up and drove to the industrial area where the Playboy party was taking place. As we all got off the bus, Justin and I looked at each other and shrugged. Either this would work or it wouldn’t. The girls were sure it would. I had to admire their optimism. We followed them to the entrance where the bouncer was either checking tickets or letting you in because you were a hot girl. Justin and I met neither criteria, so when it was our turn to follow the ladies in, he dropped the rope in front of us and pointed to the street we came from. The girls never looked back.
We regrouped on the sidewalk. While we were chatting, I saw a familiar face. It was a girl named Tasha that I’d met the previous night in the Gaslamp district. There was a crowd of people trying to get into a club, and it had created a stampede-like situation, and Tasha, who was tiny, was in a precarious position, smooshed up against a metal retaining wall. I spent several minutes pushing back against the crowd so she didn’t suffocate.
“Nate!” She said and gave me a hug. “Are you going in?”
“Uhh, we don’t have tickets.”
“Well, I have one you can have. It’s for my brother but he’s not coming.”
She handed me a ticket. We were halfway there, but I didn’t save anyone else’s life the previous night so we needed a new angle.
“I’ll be right back.” I told Justin.
“Where you going?”
“Just wait here,” I said, and headed off toward the will-call desk. I knew my name wasn’t on the list—or was it? I walked up as calmly as I could.
She flipped through a few pages, ran her finger down the list and stopped. I held my breath.
“Yes! That’s me! Well, Thomas, but, yep, they call me Tom! Tom Jackson!”
“Welcome,” she said, and handed me the ticket.
I walked back and held it up to Justin. We were in.
The actual party was not as memorable as the entrance. It was big, it was dark, and there were naked girls in body paint walking around, which was sadder than I expected. There were older men with very white teeth and big watches, laughing too loudly. And there were Playboy playmates with bunny ears on. Women I recognized. Women who, as they walked through the room, were stopped every five steps by the men with white teeth. They smiled at the attention, but their eyes said something else.
They were on the clock, but I was not—and my lasting memory of that party was deciding that I wasn’t going to wait in line for the bathroom for another 30 minutes, and peeing in a bottle.
The game itself—won by the Buccaneers—was an afterthought. I have never attended an actual Super Bowl game and likely never will. That’s not really the point of Super Bowl Week. I can watch the game on TV; the parties will not be televised.
The next season was the end of my rookie year in Denver, and the Super Bowl was in Houston. No use going there, right? Unless, of course, you had something to sell. And all NFL players have something to sell at the Super Bowl. All players have the option of purchasing two tickets for the game at face value. I did it every year and sold them at a nice mark-up to a local ticket guy in Denver. But that year, for some reason, they made the rookies pick up the tickets in person, apparently to discourage black-market resale. It generally didn’t have the desired effect.
My friend and fellow practice-squad receiver Charlie Adams and I flew to Houston specifically for that reason. We landed and headed straight for the convention center, where we copped our tickets, then drove to a motel where we met a guy in the parking lot who handed us an envelope. We paid $500 per ticket and sold them for $2,500 each. For a couple of practice-squad guys in their first years in the league, this was a nice bag.
Problem was, we didn’t really have any party connections yet. We could barely find a hotel. We eventually found one in what seemed like an hour’s drive from anywhere—which is everywhere in Houston.
We shared a small room, got denied from every party, and ended up at a gentlemen’s club, where Charlie and I got in an argument and he left me there, deep in conversation with a dancer from New Orleans who had flown in for the week to make some extra cash. As we talked, I realized something funny (or not funny, depending on how you see it): I had also flown in for the week to make some extra cash. Both objectified for our bodies, we both used them to make a lot of money, fast. Our careers would be over while we were still young. We both performed a series of choreographed moves that gave us little joy but aroused the onlookers. And every weekend, a bunch of drunk dudes sat in a circle and watched us perform.
I looked around the room at the clientele, rocking back and forth in their seats, clutching their dollar bills, chasing some unattainable moment of pleasure that she was paid to suggest. Their escape was her reality—same with my job.
I looked into her green eyes—a 21-year-old single mom trying to seize the moment of the Super Bowl Week hustle.
Then they called her name over the PA. “That’s me,” she said. “I’ll be done in 15 minutes.” And she walked up onto the stage in her six-inch heels. Clack-clack. The men sat forward in their seats and licked their lips, and I slipped out and jumped in a cab. The next morning, before the Patriots beat the Panthers, I was on a flight back to Denver with some of the cash from my tickets still in my pocket. The rest of it was heading back to New Orleans to buy school clothes for a little boy.
The next two Super Bowls were in Jacksonville and Detroit and I have no recollections of those years worth sharing, but the following year it was in Miami and everyone I knew was there. By then, I was firmly in the pocket of the NFL’s party scene, largely because of my buddy Jake Plummer, who had gone through his own social renaissance after becoming single and finally started using the connections he had—namely, a strong one with Playboy. He knew the Playmate team mom, if you will. If she liked you, you were in. Jake wasn’t long for this game. It wasn’t his thing. He was soon to find his soulmate, but my other buddies and I were happy to take the baton.
Over the next few years, I attended more fancy parties and took more Vegas trips than I can remember, and soon they all began to blend together. Same clusterfuck getting in, same assortment of liquors and mixes, same conversations, same pretty girls in heavy make-up, same dudes with white teeth, same hangover. But partying is a skill, and once you develop it, like any other skill, the temptation is to take it as far as it will go. Leave it all on the field, they say.
In the summer of 2009, I was out of the NFL and trying to get back in. A few of my old teammates who were still playing invited me on a Vegas trip. I went along, but this wasn’t my crew. The soil had turned on my time in the NFL’s party pocket. Most of my old friends were out of the league. Younger dudes partied different. They talked about different stuff. They had weird friends who showed up. It didn’t feel right.
We had a table at XS at the Encore. A girl I knew had joined us and brought a few of her friends. There was a pretty famous NFL player on another team who knew my buddies, and that guy had his brother with him. And his brother had a friend. They were two greasy, sweaty dudes who stood at a distance watching the girls. Looking at the drinks. Looking at me. I drank the drink I thought was mine—and then I blacked out.
My memory goes completely dark—except for one solitary scene, recovered sometime later: Me, standing on Las Vegas Boulevard, flagging down a cab. For some reason, the guy stopped. I hopped in the back and said, “Take me to the Palms!”
“You’re at the Palms, buddy!” he said, and pointed over my shoulder to the entrance behind me.
I woke up the next morning on a cot next to a bowling lane in a suite at the Palms, blood on my shirt and my pants around my knees. I still don’t know what happened that night, but I knew it meant the end of my NFL party days. My friends told me I said I was going to the bathroom and never came back. It was a fitting end to a good run.