Football is Back: A view from inside the stadium opening weekend and a look ahead to a football season like no other

Kelly J. Hayes
For the Aspen Times Weekly

On this very date a century ago, Sept. 17 in 1920, 14 dreamers met in an automotive dealership in Canton, Ohio, to establish what would become the National Football League. Their meeting came just months after the end of the pandemic of 1918.

And this past weekend, a century later, the NFL launched its 101st season. Smack in the middle of the pandemic of 2020.

The NFL did what many believed just a few weeks ago would be impossible: Bring teams together to safely play the first week of games.

In the Thursday night opener, the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs beat the Houston Texans, marking the return of professional football. And the rest of the Week 1 schedule went off flawlessly. Whether the season will be completed with its full complement of 256 regular season games followed by the playoffs and the Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 7, remains to be seen.

But for now football is back.

As one who has traveled from stadium to stadium and game to game for the past 34 seasons for both Monday and Sunday Night Football broadcasts, I look forward anxiously to the rituals of each new season. Almost as much as Aspenites look forward to ski season.

This is what it was like inside the stadiums as this strange new season opened.


KANSAS CITY — Arrowhead Stadium is one of the reasons we love football. Obsessed fans dressed in red gather hours before the games, filling the parking lots with elaborate tailgates. The sky fills with fragrant smoke from a thousand barbecues. The enthusiasm for their beloved, and now champion, Chiefs is infectious.

But not this year.

As I arrived at Arrowhead on a rainy, cool, September evening for the opening night broadcast of the 2020 season the mood was more surreal than celebratory. Just 15,896 fans — 22% of stadium capacity — were allowed to attend the first game of the COVID era and they were seemingly outnumbered by security and medical personnel.

As a part of the NBC crew, I was met by a coordinated testing team for temperature checks and digital surveys before being escorted into the broadcast booth above the field. It was a bit lonely and a somewhat disheartening experience. And the masks, everywhere the masks, brought a stark reminder that this is the season of COVID.

The pre-game proceedings featured a dichotomy of emotions and messages. It began with the subdued Lombardi Trophy unveiling, which, in any other year, would be a highlight. It was followed by the performances of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the national anthem that saw only one team, the Chiefs, on the field. The Texans chose to stay in their locker room for both songs, so as not to throw shade on either. When Houston finally did take the field, the teams lined up together, linking arms in a pre-planned demonstration of unity. Amazingly, a segment of the socially spaced crowd booed. How do you boo unity?

But then, almost as an afterthought, a game broke out.

And despite expectations for ragged play, the football was very good. Granted, these are two teams that are in the upper echelons of the NFL, but if this play is indicative of what we might expect this season, bring it on. It did not take long for it to actually feel like football.

Albeit quiet football.

LOS ANGELES — As the traveling circus that is our NBC Sunday Night Football production crew made its way to L.A. — the huge studio trucks by land and overnight, the rest of us by early-morning flights, there was a sense of satisfaction that we had actually completed our first show. Much of the crew had worked remotely from NBC Sports studios in Stamford, Connecticut, digitally providing visual elements to the show. In the booth Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels, the analyst and play-by-play announcers, respectively, quickly fell into their natural rhythm despite not having had a preseason. The mood was upbeat and we looked forward to the opening of SoFi Stadium and the debut of the 15th season of Sunday Night Football.

Los Angeles always has been a different place than the rest of the country. But the feel of the still-closed tinseltown was not unlike that of Kansas City. It was just weird to have so little traffic and see everyone in masks. The shroud of smoke from the local fires added to the disconnect with the past reality.

We have long anticipated the opening of SoFi. It had been four years since ground had been broken for what was to become the most extravagant sports stadium in the NFL. Designed by architectural firm HKS, the same firm that designed AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Stan Kroenke’s vision and checkbook were tested.

As we entered the empty stadium hours before the kickoff of the Cowboys and Rams game, we again faced a gauntlet of security and testing. We were limited to four people per elevator, so just making our way to the broadcast booth proved challenging. But once there, the view was stunning. Especially the Samsung “Oculus,” the massive, thousand-ton, 4K video board. The translucent roof, shading us from the smoky sky, was equally impressive. And once again, all that was missing were the fans of the Rams.

The game itself, once the ball was kicked off, was just another close and exciting NFL game. The kind we are used to seeing every week. Other than the lack of crowd noise, and the resulting opportunity to hear every audible from quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Jared Goff, the scene was very similar to my past experiences.

Aspen Times Weekly columnist Kelly J. Hayes is a spotter for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and previously spotted for ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” He hasn’t missed a game since he started the job in 1986. This season he will work alongside Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the Sunday night broadcast.

Aspen Times Weekly

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