Fans display the American flag and a patriotic spirit at Super Bowl 51 in Houston. (Getty Images)
The lines to get into the (free) NFL Live experience on Saturday morning stretch for hundreds of yards. Inside, there are massive sponsored displays from the likes of Verizon, NASA and the Animal Planet Puppy Bowl. Between these booths and the various concert stages and food trucks, an increasingly dense compaction of humanity grows. More lines for the ticketed events. And a long line to have your photo taken with a digital rendering of the Lombardi Trophy. Fox News has a set there, and anchor Shepard Smith slips through the crowd unabated. There aren't many people gathered nearby, either. Far more people are interested in the Fox NFL Sunday set. Crowds wave and holler at Jimmy Johnson and Terry Bradshaw, and some women scream and swoon at the sight of Michael Strahan.
Fans of both teams buck whatever preconceived expectations I have pretty fast. There are a few Pats fans striding about in hideous red, white and blue New England Patriots business suits. One or two are in Patriots gear and hats or vests that signify they are combat veterans. And some Atlanta fans are decked out in head-to-toe Falcon red, with matching plastic Mardi Gras beads. But there are also the Patriots-themed luchadores. And French-speaking Falcons fans.
Everywhere I go, Patriots fans outnumber Falcons fans. Most of the people here are local. Texans fans. Cowboys fans. Fans of some other random team or no team in particular. Just out to enjoy a warm, sunny afternoon and food from the food trucks.
The food truck area brings the only discernible difference between Falcons fans and Patriots fans. There are an enormous number of Tom Brady jerseys around the truck selling lobster sandwiches—and a few Falcons fans standing nearby looking puzzled and disgusted.
Nearly every street corner has people either preaching or protesting. A small group holds up signs protesting circumcision. A man shouts "Stop cutting baby penis!" Two streets down, two different street preachers yell at each other on megaphones, arguing about an interpretation of something nobody else nearby seems to understand or care about. On one street, a man hands out what look like Patriots trivia cards. One side has questions like: "What year were the New England Patriots founded?" "Who did the Patriots lose to in Super Bowl XXXI?" "Where did Tom Brady fall in the 2000 draft?" The last question is: "What do you & all football players have in common?" The answer: "Death," and a long explanation about Jesus and repenting.
Tom Brady celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots win the Super Bowl. (Getty Images)
There is zero talk of politics, even at the Fox News booth. There is only one Make America Great Again hat that I see all day. (All weekend, for that matter.) It is worn by a man selling both Falcons and Patriots scarves, both of which are going fast. A teenage white girl—maybe 14—wearing a cardboard Patriots crown printed by the Boston Globe tells the man in a quiet voice, "I like your hat."
"You should give me a tip, then," he says.
At some point, as the sun is going down Saturday, the security team at Discovery Green stops admitting people, capping the crowd before ZZ Top kicks off its set. Taylor Swift plays at a club nearby. And a Taylor Swift impersonator plays at a gay bar called South Beach.
There are more people gathered around the Fox News set now. The crowd can hear Greg Gutfeld, the host of the show broadcasting that hour, explain how Donald Trump is like the Oakland Raiders of the late 1970s. And the Democrats are like winless Buccaneers or Lions. There isn't much reaction. There are two signs in the crowd advertising BlacksforTrump2020.com.
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It is a totally different scene at the Sheraton bar on Saturday. A few older, retired couples, fans of both teams that had just flown in that morning. A pair of New England fans discuss the virtues of gallbladder removal with an Atlanta fan. The woman from Atlanta had hers out a few years ago and strongly recommends the procedure. So much so that she breaks out into a Block That Kick-style cheer: "Get It Out! Get It Out! Get It Out!"
Fans celebrate in a bar in Atlanta during Super Bowl 51. (Getty Images)
The streets of downtown Houston, which are usually relatively dead on the weekends, feel like New York City. Every sidewalk is lit up and crowded. Music pours from bars and from bands playing near the intersections. A New Orleans-style brass band on one street. A reggae band on the next.
At the Dirt Bar, the drinks are (relatively) cheap. There's a skeleton of a horse in the corner and a round, circular bar with the bartenders in the middle. There are plenty of fans of both teams here, too. If they weren't wearing team colors, they'd be impossible to differentiate. One of the bartenders tells me that both team's fans have tipped well and she can't say who has been nicer or better to her. Which, honestly, surprised her, she explains.
"All of the people from up there," she says, her strong Texas twang apparent, "I expected them to all be rude."
The bar at the JW Marriott is full. It's a swanky place not far from the convention center where the NFL is having an awards banquet. Mostly Patriots crowd. White people in button-downs and loafers. One guy has on a vintage Brady Michigan jersey. Tony Siragusa is at a table in the middle of the room, holding court in a crushed velvet jacket and a blue turtleneck. A group of well-dressed men and women seem to be hanging on to every word. A guy with a beard and a man bun—wearing Toms—asks Siragusa to pose for a photo with him, and Siragusa is gracious. Nobody here is talking politics either, and the idea of bringing it up while people are so cheery feels awkward.
Down the street, a sports bar is blasting a Steve Earle song out the front door and an Usher song from the back patio. The bouncer, wearing gloves with hard plastic over the knuckles, announces the cover is $20 to get into the front and $40 to get into the back.
Other bars seem unfazed by Super Bowl weekend. Crowds at Monnalisa in the CityCentre development and Lawless in the Rice Hotel are indistinguishable from the regular weekend patrons. No jerseys or caps or loud mindless chanting. Just quiet people sipping expensive cocktails.
At another bar called notsuoH (Houston backwards), I stumble upon two men playing chess next to the bar. The walls are filled with art, including a display of a dozen or so women's pumps attached to the wall in concentric rings. The men, it turns out, are brothers from Atlanta. One is five years older than the other and lives in Seattle now, where he's an executive at Amazon. The younger brother works in landscaping.