Wagner’s nervousness surfaced at the opening kickoff.
“I was more nervous about that moment when all the flashes happen,” Wagner told ESPN Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson. “It was weird. I always watched it on TV, and I always wondered if I’d pay more attention to that than the actual game. The kickoff, you dream of being in the game and that moment and all the flashes. I was kind of paying attention to that too long, then I snapped back.”
Once the glare from the flashes had faded, Wagner was an intimidating force from sideline to sideline, recording 10 tackles in the Seahawks’ 43-8 triumph in Super Bowl XLVIII. Smartphones have made the explosion of camera flashes obsolete, but pregame jitters remain as much of a fixture at the Super Bowl as the Lombardi Trophy.
Players and coaches all have memories of dealing with nerves before the Super Bowl, which is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Broadcast in more than 170 countries, the Super Bowl is watched by an average of 100 million people.
For some, the nerves can be severe. The Philadelphia Eagles‘ Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson raised awareness about anxiety by sharing their stories. It became so intense that it caused them to miss games. Brooks retired in January.
For others, the feelings seem to act as a gauge, indicating they’re about to participate in something momentous.
Coping mechanisms can range from creating a distraction to just waiting for that first hit. Andre Rison, who played for the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI, found a couple ways to deal with the nerves.
“I was nervous, so I called Deion Sanders and we talked hours before kickoff,” Rison told ESPN reporter Eric Woodyard. “He had already played in one. The rest was history.”
Rison scored on a 54-yard TD pass from Brett Favre to help lead the Packers to a 35-21 win over the New England Patriots.
“I also got a lot of artwork done on my body to take my mind off the big game,” Rison said.
Stories of Super Bowl nervousness vary, but they have a common theme: This isn’t like any other game.
— ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley
Editor’s note: Some responses were edited for clarity and brevity.
Doug Baldwin: ‘Who’s against me?’
Leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII, some analysts said Seattle’s receiver group was nothing special without Percy Harvin. Cris Carter called them “appetizers,” leading to a back-and-forth with Doug Baldwin that included this memorable line from Carter: “Google me, man. See if I ain’t in the Hall of Fame.”
After the Seahawks’ victory, Baldwin was answering questions at the podium, with a hat commemorating their Super Bowl championship resting next to the microphone. A reporter asked him to come up with a headline for the story his team just wrote. Baldwin answered simply: “Google that.”
“For me, it was always about finding some type of motivation outside of the normal to kind of get over those anxiety feelings. So my mindset was, who’s against me? Who wants to talk s— about my capabilities or the receiver room’s capabilities and what we’re all about? Seeking those out to kind of combat the anxiety feelings to give me something to focus on, something else to fight for. So with the first Super Bowl, it was Cris Carter and several other guys talking s— about the receivers’ room.
“I’m trying to find some slight so that it addresses that anxiety for me, so I don’t really have to deal with it.”
“But the gist is, I think everybody handles anxiety differently. Obviously, I felt it leading up to the game, because you have two weeks to prepare. But I think my strategy was, how do I find an additional motivator that can get me to the point where the anxiety doesn’t matter? I’m trying to find some slight so that it addresses that anxiety for me, so I don’t really have to deal with it. I don’t know if that’s a healthy way to handle it, but it served me well in the [competitive] arena.”
Carl Banks: ‘Damn, I’m in the Super Bowl’
Banks is a two-time champion linebacker with the New York Giants who played in Super Bowls XXI and XXV.
“Any player that has participated that didn’t dream that whole week of having a certain type of game or certain plays is lying to you. So, I dreamed about just making plays, and I studied a lot, but there’s anxiety and [you feel] the magnitude of the moment when you step on the field, but by the time that anthem is over, it’s just football.
“You realize that you’re in the Super Bowl. It’s the player introductions, that whole thing and then the national anthem plays, and by the end of that anthem, it hits you. Like, ‘Damn, I’m in the Super Bowl, and here we go.’ Then, it’s football after that, though.”
Lance Briggs: ‘This is the biggest moment of our life’
Briggs helped a Bears team fueled by its defense reach Super Bowl XLI, which Chicago lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts 29-17.
“I had bigger nerves in the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl. That one-and-done feeling was worse than the lead-up to the big game.
“The thing I remember was the locker room. It was fascinating to me. Next to our name tag, it had the Super Bowl patch, so as you’re getting dressed you’re thinking this is the biggest moment of our life.”
“The thing I remember was the locker room. It was fascinating to me. Next to our name tag, it had the Super Bowl patch, so as you’re getting dressed you’re thinking this is the biggest moment of our life.
“I do remember during warm-ups there were so many flashing lights, so many people taking pictures. I had never seen anything like that. But it didn’t make me nervous. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment. It’s so hard to get to a Super Bowl, so I was telling myself, don’t let the moment get too big.”
— ESPN reporter Jesse Rogers
Kevin Butler: ‘I didn’t want to let Walter Payton down’
Butler was a rookie kicker for the 1985 Bears, who routed the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX in New Orleans.
“I was nervous. The morning after the championship game you realize you’re going to the Super Bowl, and as a rookie coming in, you’re just playing it week to week, trying to fight the nerves.
“There were some demons going into the Super Bowl because I wanted to stay perfect after that championship game.”
“I had an up-and-down playoff. In [the divisional round against the Giants], on the windiest day I’ve ever played in, I missed three field goals. So I had a heck of a week with nerves leading into the NFC Championship Game against the Rams, but I had a good game [4-for-4, including an extra point]. But there were some demons going into the Super Bowl because I wanted to stay perfect after that championship game.
“The nerves were there, but not so much because of the magnitude of the football game. I had played in big games throughout my career, at Georgia and other places. I was nervous about the moment. I didn’t want to let Walter Payton down. I didn’t want to let Dan Hampton down. Those were where my nerves came from. The year before, some of these guys were my heroes. The extra pressure came from myself, not so much from the game itself.”
Gary Fencik: This was going to be the last time we were all together
Fencik was the starting free safety for the ’85 Bears.
“For me, one of the big issues was early in the week, our defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, told me confidentially that he would be leaving to be the head coach of the Eagles after the game. So this was going to be the last time we were all together. So I don’t know if it was nerves, but we had a very emotional night before the game. With two weeks to prepare, we were ready. But we wanted to win for all those reasons.
“The other thing that was nerve-wracking was coming through for people who for a decade said to me, ‘Hey, if you ever get to a Super Bowl, call me up I’d love some tickets.’ I had five brothers and sisters, and you only get so many tickets. I had to get a house for them in Mississippi. I had to get a hotel for my parents. I had college buddies asking. It was crazy. And so during the week, I was two tickets short. I was done. I had no access other than going out to scalp two tickets. So I had dinner with Bob Verdi, columnist with the Tribune. I told him I was absolutely in trouble with tickets. He said he might be able to help me out. He got me two unbelievable tickets under the condition that I never mention it to anyone. This is the first time I’m revealing that in over 30 years. He saved my butt. That was as big a challenge as the game.”
Grady Jarrett: ‘That was an amazing moment for me’
The Falcons defensive tackle had three sacks in Super Bowl LI, but his big performance came in a losing effort as the Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit to win 34-28.
“It definitely was a surreal moment for me. It was just an exciting time. Anybody who tells you that it’s just another day, it’s just another game, it’s just untrue.
“You’re definitely looking around, taking in the environment. It was one of the pre-walk-through stadium things, I can’t remember if we did it the day before, and in Houston, they had the JumboTron where they were putting the roster up and your picture up. And my name came up and my picture, and for me to see my name up there on the top getting prepared to play a Super Bowl, that was an amazing moment for me. And I’m sure it was for everybody on the field.”
— ESPN Falcons reporter Michael Rothstein
Ray Lewis: ‘You got to calm down, sugar, you got to calm down’
Lewis is a two-time Super Bowl champion. He earned MVP honors while helping the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV and then had seven tackles in a win over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
“I always had a confident, nervous energy. It was never like the game was too big or anxiety kicked in. It was never that for me, it was always in the moment, I was so in the moment.
“Rod Woodson used to tell me all the time, ‘You got to calm down, sugar, you got to calm down.’ Because I was just always ready for the moment. … Let’s get through all of these flags and fly cross and let’s get the ball snapped. In all of my career, I would tell you this, I was always prepared to lead.”
Lincoln Kennedy: ‘I was exhausted’
Kennedy was the Oakland Raiders’ right tackle in Super Bowl XXXVII, which they lost to former coach Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-21. Kennedy grew up in San Diego, which was the site of the game, creating a hometown feeling, for better or worse.
“The overall anxiety comes from dealing with the unknown. You’re on the precipice of the biggest game you’ve ever played, and there’s an unfamiliarity with what goes on and what goes into the Super Bowl. And if you don’t respect that, no matter how many times you’ve played in it, you’re not prepared for it.
“And we were the last of the one-weekers [there was one week between the conference title games and the Super Bowl in 2003, the last time that happened]. So once you’re there [and there’s a two-week gap], you deal with all that anxiety of the unknown and the hype and all that the first week. Then, the second week, it’s back to normal. Except, we didn’t have that second week.
“On a personal level, my week was a double-edged sword. We were playing in my home city — San Diego. Everything was just … extra. I was the talk of the town. I was everyone’s VIP. I wanted to be everywhere, and I was, so I was extremely stretched out. By the time the game came, I was exhausted.”
— ESPN Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez
Rob Ninkovich: ‘I was so nervous. It was ‘I have to win”
Ninkovich was a Patriots linebacker who went 2-1 in Super Bowls. After losing in Super Bowl XLVI to the Giants, he was on championship teams in Super Bowls XLIX and LI.
“We’re playing in Arizona, against the Seahawks [in Super Bowl XLIX on February 1, 2015], and the field was super slippery. Bill [Belichick] came in and mandated that everyone wear seven-stud cleats [longer ones used for slippery or sloppy fields]. The first play of the game, I slip so bad. It was an outside run, I had two tight ends on me. I hit the first tight end, I got bounced out, and it’s everybody’s hats to the ball because it’s Marshawn Lynch. I run and try to cut, and both feet slip out from underneath me. They had painted the whole field green, and it was super slimy. Very wet and slippery.
“All week I kept thinking, I haven’t won a Super Bowl. I really haven’t done anything. Especially when you play for the Patriots, everyone assumes you’ve won a Super Bowl.”
“When Bill mandated the seven studs, it was kind of like a mental [game]. I hated wearing seven studs because towards the end I had bad Achilles tendinitis. Whenever I put seven studs on, I felt like my toes were raised higher than my heels, and I felt like it put added pressure on my Achilles. So I was nervous I was going to tear my Achilles. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was like, ‘Screw it! If I tear it, I tear it.’ I used to tell guys this — ‘If it pops today, it pops. It’s been fun!’ They’d all be like, ‘Shut up, Ninko!’
“The whole cleat thing was maybe a blessing in disguise because it took my mind off the magnitude of the game. All week I kept thinking, ‘I haven’t won a Super Bowl. I really haven’t done anything.’ Especially when you play for the Patriots, everyone assumes you’ve won a Super Bowl. They hadn’t won in 10 years at that point. So I had more nerves going into that second one. I was so nervous. It was ‘I have to win. I have to have a great game. We have to stop Lynch.’ And then in the third one, I didn’t have many nerves because I knew it was my last game. It was ‘I’m going to go play and hopefully we win.'”
— ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss
Bill Parcells: ‘It’s just like Elvis in Las Vegas’
Parcells coached the New York Giants to two Super Bowl wins, beating the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI and then edging the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
“When we were close to the Super Bowl [XXI in Pasadena, California], I just wanted to get it going. In other words, we had been waiting too long for it. All the work was done and I was ready to play. Let’s go.
“The game was at 3:18 on the Pacific coast, and I was in the stadium in my dressing room at a quarter to 8. I wanted to get out of the hotel and get into my environment.
“It’s an exciting time. That’s what I remember. I don’t think ‘butterflies’ is the right word. I think ‘impatience’ might be more the right word.”
“It’s an exciting time. That’s what I remember. I don’t think butterflies is the right word. I think impatience might be more the right word.
“[In the tunnel before the game] I wasn’t thinking about my life’s journey or anything like that. It was more like, ‘This is really the big show.’ I mean, it’s just like Elvis in Las Vegas. Everybody is watching.
“One of the things that concerned me was the guy who did the field — George Toma — he told me the field was a little oily. I was out there pretty early on, I want to say 9, 9:30, just kind of trying to find the spots where it might be slippery. I know the end zone bleachers were very close to the end zone, so I was able to warn my receivers, make sure you’re careful if you’re going out of the back of the end zone. It sounds stupid, but I was just looking for some slippery spots on the field, stuff like that. I was trying to figure out where the shadows were going to be, where you’re going to have the sun, where you’re not. That kind of stuff.”
— ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini
Patterson is usually carefree before games, jokes around with teammates and with fans, tosses the ball into the stands to play catch with fans for at least 15 minutes as part of his pregame warm-up. And he did that before Super Bowl LIII as a member of the Patriots, although he admits now it was all just a little bit different.
“I was nervous the whole game. Couldn’t hear. Couldn’t breathe. My heart was just pounding the whole game. It was different, man, the whole game was different.
“I was doing my little [pregame] routine, but I just got super tired. I don’t know, it’s weird. You got to be there to really understand. It’s hard to explain.
“[He kept telling himself:] It’s a game. It’s a game. It’s still a game, something we’ve been doing our whole life, just come in and play the game.”
Dean Pees: ‘Do your normal routine’
Pees was the Patriots’ linebackers coach for Super Bowl XXXVIII and defensive coordinator for Super Bowls XXXIX and XLII. He was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator for Super Bowl XLVII.
“The very first Super Bowl I went to, with New England, Bill Belichick did an incredible job of talking to the players — because they had already been to one the year before and two years prior to that — of telling the guys in the pregame, don’t go out and get all hyped up and spend all your energy in the pregame because it’s the Super Bowl. Guys are going out there, they’re all amped up and all this stuff and all excited and going 110 miles an hour in pregame. Do your normal routine.
“I always felt that was an advantage his teams had because he kind of had them toned down, and you see other teams out there just jumping around and going crazy and yeah, they look good for the first two series, and by the third series half of them are hyperventilating because they expended all their energy in pregame and at the start. He always did a good job of keeping everybody calm and in routine.”
Antwaan Randle El: ‘It’s just a matter of going out and hitting somebody’
The Steelers receiver threw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XL to help Pittsburgh beat the Seahawks.
“You have jitters before every game, so the Super Bowl is no different. It’s just a matter of going out and hitting somebody. If you go out and hit somebody, even if you get hit and knocked down, it’s like, ‘All right, I’m good.’
“Preparation kills a lot of that stuff. I mean you’re not getting your normal night’s rest the night before the Super Bowl, but I always took my Ambien anyway, so I was good. But, it just comes down to being prepared, and once you’re prepared, now it’s like, ‘Let me go out and make this catch. Let me go out and block somebody really hard or get knocked down’ and then you’re ready to go.”
Nate Solder: ‘I couldn’t catch my breath’
The former Patriots offensive tackle played in four Super Bowls, going 2-2.
“You just have so much more time to think about everything. ‘What if they do this? What if they do that?’ You have so much more time to go in your own head and over-worry about all that stuff.
“I remember the whole game [in Super Bowl XLVI], I couldn’t catch my breath. A month later, I remember I talked to one of my coaches from high school, I said, ‘It’s the weirdest thing. Even the littlest movement I made, I couldn’t catch my breath.’
“I was probably holding my breath the whole time because I was so nervous. You tend to do that. Your natural functions lock up.”
“He said, ‘Were you breathing?’ I said, ‘Probably not. I was probably holding my breath the whole time because I was so nervous.’
“You tend to do that. Your natural functions lock up.”
— ESPN Giants reporter Jordan Raanan