Some might think giant shopping malls are completely devoid of culture, but the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, offered warmth from the tundra, roller coasters to ride and a store that's only purpose is to sell ready-to-eat cookie dough by the scoopful. So it wasn't all bad.
It's been a year since I spent most of a week inside the largest mall in the United States, but I'll never forget it. No chance. And this is as good a time as any - the last week the Eagles will be reigning Super Bowl champs - to remember it all.
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Of course, the Mall of America was the host site for Super Bowl week leading up to the big game last year between the Eagles and the Patriots. (Spoiler alert: the Eagles won 41-33.) It was a surreal scene as the NFL world descended upon the mall this time last year. Because as outrageous as the Mall of America can be, with its 500-plus stores, unlimited food options and centrally-located amusement park on the site of old Metropolitan Stadium, it's still a mall. Radio row was just off the food court and both teams stayed at adjoining hotels.
Tom Brady, meet Auntie Anne. Nick Foles, meet Jamba Juice.
My first vivid memory of the week came just a few hours after landing at the airport. I wanted to check out our NBC Sports studio that was just a stone's throw from radio row and in front of a Game Stop. A group of Eagles, who also arrived just hours earlier, escaped from their hotel and were wandering through the mall. Among them were Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, who would combine to make the game-saving play less than a week later. Graham greeted me with a giant bear hug.
"You at the Super Bowl, baby!" said Graham, who began to get noticed by plenty of NFL fans who would spend the week stalking players for selfies and autographs. Graham obliged, granted some photos, while a few of his teammates slinked into the Game Stop for a key purchase. Without many options to kill time in Bloomington, several Eagles went into the video game store and walked out with Xboxes.
I was still in awe of the mall when then-rookie linebacker Nate Gerry came over to chat. Unlike a few of his teammates, Gerry was able to walk around the mall in relative obscurity. And being from South Dakota, Gerry had been to the mall before. He gave me a few tips.
One of the few respites from the weeklong mall experience was media night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. My colleague Reuben Frank picked me up and we drove over to the event with the plan to eat dinner at one of the restaurants along the road perpendicular to the arena. But once we stepped out of the car, the sub-zero temperatures made up our minds for us. The first restaurant we saw - "That'll do!" Turns out, the perfect dish when the wind chill is minus-10 is absolutely turkey pot pie.
Media night - or Super Bowl Opening Night as the NFL labels it - was a circus. It's a night for wacky. Farzetta wore a dog mask to interview people, Jalen Mills tried to do an interview in Chinese and I watched comedian J.B. Smoove ask some insane questions to a willing Brent Celek. But it was also a night to chat with Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Darren Sproles, Carson Wentz, the bunch of injured players who had collected throughout the season and were about to watch their teammates play on the biggest stage. I remain amazed about just how positive all of them remained.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were spent back in the mall. There were media availabilities each day. Something funny happens when you cover your own team in a Super Bowl. For months, you bother the same players with questions but in a setting among a bunch of strangers and reporters they don't know, I became a familiar face. They were happy to answer my questions.
On Wednesday night, the media party was held in the amusement park in the middle of the Mall of America. Free food, drinks and roller coasters? I'm in. Just before I got to laugh at my colleagues from NBC Sports Washington when they were forced to bolt after the Redskins traded for Alex Smith, I saw an unlikely face. I was waiting in line to go on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ride, when I saw a group of 20-something Eagles players getting off the ride. Ronald Darby was about to start in the Super Bowl five days later, but the 24-year-old couldn't pass up the chance to enjoy a few amusement rides; he recommended this one and he was right. It was a good reminder about just how young some of these players are. They're on the world's biggest stage, but roller coasters and Xbox? Not a bad way to kill a week.
There was also a Super Bowl LII store that popped up inside the mall. I went there to grab some souvenirs for family members and friends. A few beanie hats, keychains and programs did the trick. I ran into another group of Eagles a few minutes after my shopping spree. I showed off my purchases to Jordan Hicks, who said he needed to make a trip there for some souvenirs of his own. I struggled to give him directions; don't know if he ever made it.
On Thursday night, I was eating mall Chinese food with a coworker - orange chicken, always orange chicken - and gave a head nod to Jay Ajayi, who came strutting by with some friends. Weird week.
After spending Friday and Saturday quarantined in my hotel room with the same cold several Eagles were dealing with, I got to the stadium super early on Super Bowl Sunday. My most vivid memory came just after the game ended. As the green confetti rained down on U.S. Bank Stadium, I was busy trying to file a story but I realized I should probably take a moment to let it hit me. I took a photo with my iPhone and then made my way to field level and the locker room.
A few sleepless hours later, I was back in the mall.
There was a press conference with Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, which was still weird to hear. It's when Foles gave the best answer I have ever heard (see story) when Roob asked him what he wanted people to take from his story.
I left the press conference and settled into one of about a thousand Caribou Coffee locations in the mall and tried to make sense of it all, the game, the week, the season. No luck. It might never really sink in.
When I left the Mall of America that day, I decided I wouldn't be back in a mall for a while. I lasted until Dec. 23, when a last-minute Christmas shopping trip broke the streak. Sadly, there was no cookie dough.
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