Photo by Bruce Bisping / Minneapolis Star Tribune via ZUMA Wire
In late January of 1992, the Washington Redskins were slated to play the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, and Minneapolis had won the hosting rights. The festivities really started slowly for such a once-in-a-lifetime event. Hours before the game, football fans trickled into the Loon Cafe in downtown Minneapolis, hauling suitcases. Many wore Washington Redskins jerseys, some already donning pig noses in honor of the vaunted “Hogs” offensive line. My group of four Buffalo Bills fans had flown in for the occasion and had already staked out prime positions along the back of the bar. We greeted each new Washington fan with light-hearted derision. But over the next two hours, the balance of power changed. A crowd of Washington fans toting an unusual amount of luggage crammed in directly behind us. I sensed a bit of tension in the air as the bar filled and the two rival groups rubbed shoulder to shoulder. And then one final insult cast about the Redskins sent those behind us rushing for their suitcases. Latches were clicking in every direction as Washington fans yanked out their shiny chrome weapons.
Suddenly an explosion of trumpets, saxophones, and trombones blew the most beautiful, vibrant, and booming version of the Washington Redskins theme song, “Hail to the Redskins,” right into our faces! We had to turn, swallow our pride, and acknowledge the talents of the famous Redskins band. There was no comeback, with all the Redskins fans singing along. And an ominous sign for the Buffalo faithful: It was clear they had been blown out in the pre-game party, seventysomething-zip.
When you look back at the wall-to-wall Star Tribune coverage of the 1992 Twin Cities Super Bowl week, the tone being set by columnists such as Jim Klobuchar was that the Cities were spending millions of dollars to put on a grand party for the silver-spooned millionaires of the NFL, elite New York and D.C. season ticket holders, and big-money corporate partners. But the reality of the 1992 event was that the Cities innovated a seismic shift to promote game-week participation by the common man.
The NFL Experience Is Born
At the same time that the Redskins band was serenading us at the Loon, Metro Transit buses were shuttling fans from MSP Airport to the Convention Center for the brand new, Minneapolis-born NFL Experience. Previous host city parties were exclusive, extravagant affairs with tickets scalped for $100 or more. In contrast, the Minneapolis party introduced a new family-oriented approach with a small admission fee, targeted to the masses. A temporary theme park was set up in the Convention Center with interactive stations: to throw footballs and watch them being made; to register a 40-yard-dash time against the best in the NFL; or to get autographs from players. Instead of fancy hors d’oeuvres, fans were served Italian sausage, noodles, and tomato sauce. Georgia Tech football coach Pepper Rodgers told a local reporter, “It’s much more interesting to throw a football than to watch go-go dancers at 24 stations.” His wife, Janet Livingston, added, “It’s much more plebeian,” a country-club expression perhaps indicating that she was looking for caviar instead? In any case, tens of thousands of people poured through the NFL Experience during its four-day run, ensuring that the Twin Cities creation would become a staple of the big game for decades to come.
On the other side of town, St. Paul was making an indelible mark on the event by inviting visitors to join its annual Winter Carnival, the country’s largest cold-weather festival. The Star Tribune reported: “Build a 166-foot-tall palace of ice, splash it in a kaleidoscope of light, and explode green, red, white, and gold fireworks overhead and what do you get? One hundred and fifty-thousand people gasping Ooooooh!”
Riding the 1,000-foot “Super Ice Slide” at the State Capitol
Photo by Jerry Holt / Minneapolis Star Tribune via ZUMA Wire
The awe-inspiring ice castle and festive Winter Carnival parade unleashed a whirlwind schedule of events that garnered participation of thousands of Minnesotans and Super Bowl visitors. At the State Capitol, organizers built a thrilling 750-foot “Super Ice Slide.” Unlike the modern Crashed Ice slide, where professional sliders wear helmets and Kevlar, the 1992 version was open to the general public. (Imagine the number of bumps and bruises sustained by citizens zooming down the ice chute.) A few blocks away, the Carnival held an ice-carving contest. At nearby Lake Phalen, fans enjoyed car racing on ice and joined in a hearty winter softball tournament.
Back In the North Loop
After the surprises at the Loon, our group made its way to Runyons, another mainstay watering hole in the ’90s. CBS announcer Pat O’Brien had beaten us there. We chatted with him about his South Dakota roots as a group of beautiful women in sturdy winter coats was escorted through the crowd, with a disk jockey in tow. Minutes later, the DJ queued up a treble piano intro, and then the soulful, dulcet tones of Ray Charles reverberated through the bar. Now the women dropped their coats to unveil voluptuous silhouettes in sparkling gold evening dresses, and then hopped on the bar in front of us! The entertainers quickly found the beat and melded into a polished and choreographed dance line. The Super Bowl organizers had delighted us once again. This time it was the Pepsi ‘Uh-Huh’ Girls performing to the beverage company’s “You’ve Got the Right One, Baby” theme song, right in our midst.
At the same time, there were plenty of other outstanding public concerts happening around town. Frank Sinatra performed at Met Center while Harry Connick Jr., who also sang the national anthem, delivered a well-received big band performance at the State Theatre.
Even back in 1992, new technology was being introduced to the event. Across the skyway system, the NFL placed large and small video screens displaying its own “Superchannel XXVI.” The Star Tribune interviewed a cleaning woman from Guyana whose assigned skyway territory included eight video screens with sports personality Mark Rosen talking at the same time on all of them—and the clip repeating again and again. She was understandably stupefied but admitted she could not stop watching the video loop.
Buffalo television station WKBW was covering the event for the fans back home. It broadcast glowing segments about the Cities’ skyway system, the Winter Carnival, and the gigantic ice slide. Buffalo reporter and weather personality Linda Pellegrino was impressed by the efficiency of the skyways during cold weather. “But you continue to function so well here, like with the skyways,” she noted. “That’s something we’ve talked about for years, but never got done…This could be a real role model for us.”
Ice Station Zebra
Another mainstream Minnesota pastime, ice fishing, took center stage on Saturday. The superstar NFL announcer of the day and noted aviophobe, John Madden, made his way to the Cities in his Madden Cruiser, fully equipped living quarters contained in a motor coach bus. Madden was known for his demonstrative everyman delivery using an on-screen telestrator and adjectives such as “Wap!” “Doink!” or “Boom!” to entertain viewers. Madden ignored the high-profile events and traveled to Lake Mille Lacs to find out what ice fishing was all about. He didn’t catch any walleye but his group did, and he was particularly impressed by the fish fry on the bus ride home. At the same time, other media members, including those from The Washington Post and south Florida Sun Sentinel, were shuttled to Lake Minnetonka for a competing ice-fishing party.
Washington running back Earnest Byner caught a perch while ice fishing near New Prague
Photo by Brian Peterson / Minneapolis Star Tribune via ZUMA Wire
Don’t get us wrong. The rich and famous held their own soirée on Saturday, too. Downtown Minneapolis was swarming with limousines making their way to the exclusive NFL party at the Target Center. Notables Muhammad Ali, Larry King, Kirk Cameron (remember him?), and Joe Montana joined in the festivities, which were broadcast live on TNT. And don’t let us forget to mention that Donald Trump and his soon-to-be-wife Marla Maples attended as well. They were staying at the Bloomington Radisson.
Lessons Learned from 1992
Leading up to the Super Bowl, available rooms at hotels and motels were hard to come by for 100 miles in every direction. This begs the question: Are communities clamping down on Airbnb and other temporary rentals with tight regulations making a mistake? In 1992, the “perimeter,” the secured demilitarized zone around the Dome, stretched for blocks in each direction. With the demands of 21st-century security, we can expect that restricted zone to be even larger and less accessible this time.
Donald Trump and his then-girlfriend Marla Maples were among the famous spectators
Photo by Richard Sennott / Minneapolis Star Tribune via ZUMA Wire
By Sunday afternoon, downtown Minneapolis actually felt deserted. Most fans arrived at the stadium hours ahead of kickoff and everyone else was scared off by horror stories of gridlock and closed streets downtown. In fact, one of my friends had hundreds of dollars ready but could find only one scalper on the way to the stadium. He never found a ticket.
The Super Bowl organizers were lauded for their great logistics using Metro Transit buses as shuttles—and that was an era before the convenience of light rail. The Cities were fortunate, with mild temperatures in the 20s and little snow during the week. That helped Northwest Airlines and the other major carriers outperform all expectations on the Monday after the game, one of the heaviest air travel days ever.
Fears that harsh weather and the utilitarian Metrodome (with its at-risk-of-deflating roof) would doom the event were blown away by the Redskins band and contagious fun occurring at the Winter Carnival and dozens of other venues across the state. One has to tip a cap to the ’92 Super Bowl host committee, the NFL, and the thousands of Minnesotans who made that event so efficient and memorable that the league agreed to bring its big game back to its first cold-weather host.