Okay, so he went on his own dime but that’s beside the point.
Long time SportsChump readers are quite familiar with the Don Calvino.
If you’re a newbie to the website, you can catch up on our antics HERE, HERE and HERE. If you’re a SportsChump insider, however, you’ve most likely had the pleasure of meeting the Don Calvino in person. Trust me when I tell you, my friends, that you should be so lucky.
These days, the Don Calvino has opted for early retirement. An ill-timed, near-death, health scare and a perfectly-timed multi-national company contract currently allows the Don Calvino to, within his means, travel freely about the globe on a whim while still providing invaluable insight to his company’s needs.
It’s not a bad gig if you can get it, assuming you didn’t have to risk your life to do so.
This week, the Don had Houston in his sights. Considering he was sending me photo after photo of his whereabouts, I asked him to provide a taste of what he saw there to give the rest of us a look at what the Home of Super Bowl LI had to offer.
A shrewd business traveler (and avid sports fan), the Don reserves hotel rooms light years ahead of whatever major sporting events take place in any particular city because you never know when a road trip might arise. We should all take heed to the Don’s wisdom in such matters.
Since the DC had graciously agreed to a Q&A, he and I thought we’d have a little fun with the experiment.
First of all, Mr. Calvino, please tell our readers, how long ago did you book these hotel rooms?
Don Calvino: Appreciate the warm and kind introduction, Señor SportsChump! Given the length of our friendship as well as our colorful exploits, published or non-published, I’m sure the intro could have gone in another direction depending on when you had your morning coffee (re: cocktail) today! Fortunately, the barista at La Cocina Teresita in Tampa has fairly swift service!
l’ll do my best to give your readers a view of some of the NFL festivities interwoven with a bit of my perspective, as needed, that are taking place here in Houston: The Super Bowl Host, a sought after dining destination and my sentimental second home since, as some of you know, The Medical Center here, which has a huge presence this week in the NFL Live events, are the guys responsible for continually keeping me upright enough to be able to do things like put this info together for your consumption. As you’ve alluded, The Donny C has long been bitten by the discount travel bug and is well known to book travel in all parts on a whim in the event that both health and good fortune may magically meet. Basically, I’m all on top of that s–. This philosophy has almost always worked… save for the occasional booking I forget to cancel if I can’t make the trip (I see you billing department @ W Chicago Navy Pier) that randomly shows up on my charge card and then I get BITTEN BACK!!, temporarily. So, I made the initial booking for these SB festivities the very day (1 year ago) after the golden anniversary Super Bowl 50 and landed the AAA, Four Diamond Royal Sonesta Hotel in the prime of the Galleria area for $130 per night.
The Falcons decided to stay well out of the fray so they motored themselves west of Houston for an attempt at solitude. In any case, I immediately knew this phenomenal rate was a mistake or wouldn’t last long so when I checked later that evening and saw the same room was listed at $422, I figured I’d gotten one of my greatest discounts ever. Less than an hour later the hotel completely sold out and my guess was stunningly validated.
I’d also booked additional hotels early last year around the city for the game. I felt decent odds dictated that either the Giants, Falcons or maybe even the surreal playoff berth winner Dolphins (editor’s note: Calvino is an unabashed Dolphins fan) might grace this town during Super Bowl week thus ensuring some modicum of relevance for the Donny C to really get into and embrace the mass party bound to take place, although mainly instigated by those same fans I would have dragged into Houston with me. After all of this planning, because of schedule concerns, I had to switch my hotel last week to a Courtyard Marriott; hey, they are an official partner of the NFL (still can’t trust Rich Eisen with anything though) and this room was nearly free as an indirect result from the long years put in with those multinational companies.
So Calvino, was Houston mobbed with football fans, media and the like? I can tell you first hand that Tampa, host of this year’s national championship game between Clemson and Alabama, was mobbed for the entire week leading up to the big game. Local business was booming and there was nothing but Clemson and Bama gear everywhere.
We both know the Super Bowl is a different animal altogether. Rarely do actual fans of the teams get to go. Seats are filled with corporate sponsors and the like.
Tampa put on quite a show. Fan Central was a blast and featured all sorts of cool things to participate in for fans of all ages. What did Houston have to offer? Tell me about that Super Bowl Village you checked out.
Oh and the parties. Please allow us to live vicariously through you.
Don Calvino: Dude, this was my first NFL SB Fan Experience and I was truly looking forward to it since I visited Tampa for SB XXXV but, instead, spent my nights on the party club strip and my days sleeping it off; not that I regret that decision. I’ll never forget watching singer Brian McKnight turned away at the door of a popular party event (he wasn’t high profile enough), scattering en masse with several hundred revelers from the same event entry line because a disgruntled partygoer had pulled out his gun, watching Magic Johnson disappear quickly into a private, curtained and well-guarded alcove with two EXTREMELY scantily clad women, and also watching Anthony Mason getting turned down consistently after approaching various ladies (he wasn’t high profile enough nor, from what I overheard, pretty enough)…. all within the space of 45 minutes!
So, I decided against going to any of the parties this time. I’d just started getting over a sudden mild sickness the past weekend and decided Tuesday to play it safe and get some rest at night this week. I will tell you this atmosphere is unlike any sporting event I’ve ever been to. Houston is lit! From the moment I stepped off my flight it was apparent that this was going to be truly magnificent. Huge SB banners adorned every major walkway, restaurant and bar. Travelers were steadily streaming off airplanes wearing their favorite NFL attire and eager to talk at great length about their team. Interestingly enough, I saw more fans from teams other than the two Super Bowl participants. Thought that was a bit odd but I figured it might still be early in the week and that I’d see more Falcons/Patriots fans on Wednesday.
When I showed up to the NFL Experience, it was as you said, an entirely different animal. The experience is really a two-part event. The inside event is the actual NFL Experience and is being held in the George R. Brown Convention center which is a mammoth facility.
Entry is $35 and $55 for NFL Xtra which is essentially a fast pass to skip the lines. These passes are extremely limited and highly recommended when you figure that 1 million fans are rolling through here this week. This is where fans can participate in a multitude of interactive events such as the Fedex Air/Ground Challenges, field goal/punt challenges and autograph sessions with NFL players which I will discuss further in a bit. The outside event in the park directly across the street is called NFL Live where FOX Sports, NFL Network, CNN and other networks have semi-open air studios set up for the week-long broadcasts and is free to all fans.
Still further on the next block is an outdoor stage where live music acts perform nightly and revelers can be seen with their favorite alcoholic beverage dancing to rock or blues during the evening. The atmosphere is electric! As Houston is home to NASA, another sprawling park area adjacent to the kiosks holds exhibits such as the new space engines used to power the new space shuttle model, lunar rover modules and a Return to Mars ride that slowly elevates 10 riders at a time to the top of a 90 foot tower while wearing virtual reality goggles and then free falls most off the way back to the ground. Outrageous!
By the way, security is EVERYWHERE! The entire collection of indoor/outdoor areas are entirely cordoned off by barricades and you literally cannot walk more than 20 feet without walking into uniformed HPD officers (who do not patrol in groups less than 4) or private security officers.
You can bet numerous undercover officers are patrolling as well. Every street in downtown Houston has at least two patrol cars cruising slowly while looking for any sign of trouble and there are a couple of helicopters patrolling the airspace. Yeah, I kinda felt safe. A cool tip I found out by accident: If you go to the food spots near closing time each evening, they’ll put out the rest of the food and you can take what you want free of charge. One HPD officer I met fills up on empanadas nightly. I took empanadas and po’ boys back to the room.
Back to the NFL Experience, I will never find to words to describe how awesome this place is! Thousands of fans are roaming around in here and the NFL has come up with an event to satisfy each one aged 8 to 80 and beyond. From watching players like Demaryius Thomas participate with little kids in speed drills to watching Michael Irvin, Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk up close doing an NFL Network session to watching a multitude of icons including, the legendary Jim Brown, meet and greet fans and sign autographs for a couple of hours each was truly great. BTW, he’s picked the Pats.
I’ve seen players just walking around randomly checking out the merchandise or watching fans participate in the events. I turned around at one point and bumped straight into Dick Vermeil who was taking in the atmosphere as well. Also ran into Curt Menefee running late for a broadcast.
A massive 35,000 square foot corner of the convention center is occupied by the NFL Shop selling all types of memorabilia and is outfitted with about 40 cash registers that were constantly occupied. A sales manager I spoke with said there is no doubt that they will easily break the SB sales record this year. If you sweet talk some of the volunteers, they’ll give you multiple gift cards for use at the shop. My final tally was $25.
As you move on past the store, multiple exhibits of past and present history are on display like the sparkling Lombardi Trophy that will be presented to the winner on Sunday or bling-laden SB rings like the back to back Miami Dolphins rings from the 1972/1973 teams much to the delight of this Fins fan.
A collaboration between ESPN and the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights is also on display which depicts activism of some prominent athletes over time. While I took pictures of this fine exhibit, the center’s marketing manager approached me and we started talking about the center where I spent a few emotional hours last month for the MLK celebration. As I was showing her the pictures from that day she stopped at one and exclaimed, “I took that picture!” I turned and took a closer look and then recognized her as the friendly representative who had stopped in the lobby to take a picture for me. The world can sometimes be a small place!
And the games… If you ever wanted to get a measure of what it is to be an NFL player, this is your chance! You can get on the turf, run receiver routes and make a reception at the end of the route. You can run the gauntlet just like in training camp which simulates getting hit by multiple defenders. The gauntlet is staffed by gleeful volunteers who do their best to knock you down and I witnessed one 52 year old female volunteer knock a 22 year old participant right on his butt while the huge crowd of onlookers, including his family, roared their approval.
I watched several fans easily nail 30 yard field goals; I gave them the phone number for One Buccaneer Place. A locker room tunnel has even been installed so that you can run out tunnel through the dry ice fog to an announcer calling your number as if it were game day and there are many more interactive events. A Play60 Zone and Nickelodeon interactive playground are also here for the kids. The highlight for me, though, has been getting to meet and get an autograph from the Miami Dolphins Jay Ajayi who has, surprisingly, been featured prominently throughout the Experience. I waited in line for a bit over an hour but it surprisingly flew by quickly thanks to the DJ that kept us occupied throughout the time with music mixes and hilarious commentary during that time.
All in all, it’s been a great experience and the city of Houston, the hundreds of great volunteers and the NFL, have obviously put a lot of time and effort into making this a super experience. With 2 upcoming Super Bowls in fantastic locations (Atlanta & Miami) I can tell you that even if you can’t land tickets, either of these will be a worthwhile trip to make.
SportsChump: Ladies and gentlemen, again… that is why I travel with the man they call the Don. Thank you, sir, for your impeccable reporting skills and enjoy the big game, my friend.