Super Bowl

NFL Experience a showcase of events – and fun – for fans soaking up Super Bowl week

The father had no chance.

Halfway down the makeshift 40-yard dash runway on a strip of field turf with yard markers surrounded by a throng of amused onlookers, each waiting for their turn to leg it out, Louis Ramos started to ease up. He threw his left hand to his chest, covering part of the No. 16 on a bright-red Joe Montana jersey, as if to feign sudden heart issues. He pretended to reach for an inhaler with his right hand but blew his cover when he busted up laughing.

His son, 11-year-old Jose in a Raiders jersey, bolted to the finish line. Dad wheezed on home several strides later. If this image captured anything, it was this: The NFL Experience for fans as a prelude to Super Bowl 50 was fun for one and all.

And the NFL Experience kicked off Saturday with another theme: There is no age limit to fun. Thousands of fans descended into the city, braving all manner of traffic, to soak in the festivities.

For those who cannot play the game, or once did or never did, and for those who will not attend Sunday’s super extravaganza, this offered at least a glimpse of NFL life.

“This is as close as we’ve been to any sort of NFL experience, and it’s awesome, even though I’m out of breath,” said Ramos, a contractor from Fresno.

There was a lot of security on hand – law enforcement on every corner, heavy security to get into any NFL-backed building – with a sense that nothing or no one was going to sully the NFL’s grand stage.

“Traffic was terrible, there’s more security and law enforcement than I’ve ever seen around here, but it’s worth it,” said Cindy Johnson, who works in the restaurant business in San Jose. “No room to complain. Too much fun.”

The NFL Experience runs all week and concludes on Sunday at 2 p.m., plenty of time to hustle home to catch the kickoff. The action includes drills, displays and interactive games in a 40-foot dome. There is a vertical-jump competition against NFL players on LED screens as part of the virtual reality experience. Fans can test their skills kicking field goals through uprights with San Francisco skyscrapers serving as a unique background.

“I’ll never boo a kicker again; this is hard!” said John Thomas, a financial officer from San Mateo, who shanked his two attempts badly.

There are three-cone drills, handoffs with read-and-react obstacles to avoid, and the chance to catch a football fired out of a JUGS machine with a chance to dive into an end zone. And there were replica helmets the size of a standard doghouse bolted to the ground, ideal for selfies.

Kay Lawrence brought her two sons, David and Tommy, and husband Eric Muller from their Marin home to check out the fuss. Lawrence works for the Environmental Protection Agency, located a Hail Mary heave away from the NFL Experience bonanza. This, she said, was a chance to soak in some fresh air, get some exercise and gulp down some savory chocolate pudding.

Traffic? Big deal. The Super Bowl in the Bay Area? That’s a big deal that trumps any inconveniences.

“It’s great,” Lawrence said. “The Super Bowl is unique.”

She can speak from experience. Her father, Don Lawrence, was once an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills, and the perks were memorable. Kay Lawrence attended four successive Super Bowls in the early 1990s.

“Yeah, we lost them all, but we still won four straight AFC championships,” Lawrence said with a laugh. “I attended Super Bowl 25 in Tampa Bay, and the NFL Experience for that anniversary game wasn’t nearly as big as this. It’s grown, and it’s so fun.”

Lawrence was quick to remind that she soundly beat her sister Betsy Lawrence in a 40-yard race 25 years ago. The Bills lost the following Sunday on a last-second field-goal miss to the New York Giants, but at least one Lawrence emerged triumphant.

“I remind my sister,” Lawrence said. “I’d do this 40, but the line’s so long, and I’m still working on my pudding.”

The action was just as compelling indoors, across the street inside Moscone Center, be it auctions or virtual reality experiences.

The virtual sound of cha-ching was clear inside the NFL store, with each team reflected on shirts, hats, jerseys and more. The lines were long, the delighted expressions many.

One also could fetch a Jim Brown autographed football here for a tidy $475, or a Montana autographed – and once-worn – jersey for $675. A Frank Gifford autographed mini-helmet, like the ones that included a scoop of ice cream for kids back in the day, goes for $175.

The auction floor includes a Colin Kaepernick jersey, right off his back this past season, for up to $4,000. Johnny Unitas cleats – black high tops from the 1950s – could go for up to $20,000.

“It feels like the Pro Football Hall of Fame here, and people can get something special and personal here, and they are,” said Paul Kutch of Hunt Auctions, which is working with the NFL for this event. “Fans want something that means something to a player. Players wore these jerseys, wore these cleats, signed these photos. You can see a lot of joy here.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

The particulars

  • Who: Denver Broncos (14-4) vs. Carolina Panthers (17-1)
  • When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
  • Where: Levi’s Stadium
  • TV/radio: Ch. 13, 1140
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