Monday, January 22, 2018
  • USF Sports Bulletin
  • Joey Knight

Back-stage pass: What it’s like covering a wild national title game

The intensity starts to rise two hours before kickoff.

Players get ready in the locker room. Coach Nick Saban takes a lap around the field. Fans in crimson and red trickle in.

It starts to feel like a College Football Playoff national championship.

Alabama's 26-23 overtime win Monday was the fourth title game I've covered for the Tampa Bay Times. Three of them were decided in the final 13 seconds. It's a job, but it's a joy I don't take for granted.

It's thrilling. It's exhausting. It's really, really stressful. Here's a peek behind the curtain.

• • •

Related: Was this Nick Saban's finest moment

Game day began more than six hours before kickoff.

Secret Service prepping for the president's visit made security intense, so I rode one of the early shuttles from the Sheraton media hotel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. To the fans who saw the police-escorted buses and whipped out their cameras thinking its passengers were important or famous, my apologies.

For the next three hours, the stadium was empty — except for the press box. There was coffee to chug, antacids to chew and stories to write.
Professional standards mean I'm not a fan of any team (and the paycheck cashes the same no matter who wins). But I love the sport, so I try to give myself time to be a fan of the game.

I gawked around the Rose Bowl before the Florida State-Auburn championship four years ago. You can feel the history when you enter; that's the spot where Vince Young beat USC — not far from where Jameis Winston would hit Kelvin Benjamin a few hours later.

Two years later, the game had grown to an event in Arizona before the first 'Bama-Clemson matchup. I got goose bumps when Clemson's band blasted Eye of the Tiger at Raymond James Stadium last year.

This time, I tried to enjoy two moments. The first was at field level, two hours before the coin toss. The field itself was empty, but the sidelines were packed with journalists, TV cables, stages and support staff. Georgia coach Kirby Smart fist bumped a young fan. The boy's family was still gushing about it minutes later. As the stands started to fill up, the world-class stadium began to buzz.

The second moment was just after the national anthem, when the stands were full and the buzz peaked.

It never gets old.

Then the game kicked off. It was time to work.

• • •

Related: Roll with it; Alabama wins in overtime

The game I experience from the press box is different than what you see and hear at home.

From my second-row seat behind glass, I heard mostly cheers when President Trump entered. ESPN's microphones picked up more boos — which I only discovered from fans on social media, including former U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

I don't get to see every replay, but I can watch how plays develop and try to pick up things the cameras might not catch, like how sharp quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looked in warmups — a sign of things to come.

When overtime started, I had two stories (mostly) ready to go in the same Word document: 761 words if Georgia won, 768 if 'Bama did. All I needed was a final score. I put my hands on my head and waited.

At 12:09 Tuesday morning, 'Bama receiver DeVonta Smith streaked open, speeding to the end zone slightly to my right. By 12:12, my story was in.
The onfield celebration was a blur of confetti and crimson set to the soundtrack of Lil Wayne from the 'Bama marching band. It's hard to find someone to interview when players and coaches and trainers and wives and children are crisscrossing the chaos for selfies and hugs. Somewhere on the stage I can't get to, Saban said he was happier than he'd ever been.

The party continued in the locker room. Running back Damien Harris kept yelling about how the Crimson Tide wasn't supposed to be there (even mighty 'Bama thinks it's an underdog). Offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman beamed after proposing to his girlfriend (she said yes). Benched quarterback Jalen Hurts stood next to Tagovailoa's vacant locker and answered every question gracefully.

With the print deadline over, I went back upstairs to the press box to polish my online story with color and quotes. Then it was over.

Just after 2 a.m. — 12 hours after I left for the stadium — I was on the shuttle, waiting to go back to the hotel. My alarm was six hours away. By 10:15, my laptop would be plugged in next to a trash compactor at Gate B31 to file a follow-up story before the flight home.

Those were problems for later. On the back of the bus, I finally had a chance to digest everything I just witnessed — a presidential entrance, a charged atmosphere and a walk-off, miracle play to win a national title.

My reaction probably wasn't much different than yours.

What a game.

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