Darkness fell unexpectedly at Super Bowl XLVII. (Getty Images)
Former NFL events chief Frank Supovitz on the night the lights went out at the Super Bowl in an excerpt from his new book
The passage has been edited for length.
In 2013, shortly after Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens opened the second half of Super Bowl XLVII with a record-breaking 108-yard touchdown, one-half of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, including our command center, was plunged into darkness. My brain immediately ordered a mandatory injection of adrenaline into my bloodstream a second or two before I stated the obvious to my teammates at NFL Control. “Alright, we lost lights.” Then, I turned to the stadium’s senior executive in the room and said “Doug, tell me what we do and when we do it.”
I don’t remember feeling calm. I remember feeling nervous. I recollect feeling some of the symptoms of anxiety, the rush of adrenaline, and an empty sensation deep in the pit of my stomach. I’m sure I was not alone in feeling any of those things.
We felt the pressure of urgency and appreciated just how screwed we might be. After our adrenal glands did their job, unbidden milliseconds after electrons stopped flowing along the deactivated feeder cable, each of us at NFL Control began prioritizing our individual and collective responses. That is why my first question to Doug Thornton was “What do we do and when do we do it?” As the stadium’s senior executive, he not only had decades of facility operations experience, but also had managed the Superdome when the building infamously served as an emergency refuge of last resort during Hurricane Katrina. The Superdome had been heavily damaged during the storm, the roof had been breached, and rising floodwaters had threatened to swamp the stadium’s back-up generators, the only source of power available for the sweltering building and for the 15,000-20,000 people who had taken refuge there.
As for the team at NFL Control, I am often asked how we resisted panic. I truly believe that the annual game day simulations we conducted 10 days before the Super Bowl contributed immeasurably to the entire team’s ability to calmly, quickly, and collaboratively shift to a problem-solving mode. We had previously managed responses to an ammonia spill, a mysterious fatality, a spray of a powder of uncertain origin on the field, at least as drills. Notwithstanding that adrenaline was flowing liberally through our arteries, we approached the power failure as though it was another drill though, clearly, it was anything but.
When something goes wrong, it is the most ancient part of our brain, the limbic system, that literally gets things moving. Before we consciously perceive the problem, the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure that processes emotions, tells our bodies that we are in danger. It signals other primitive parts of our brain to get the adrenaline pumping and as a result, we feel stress and anxiety. Like the rest of our bilaterally symmetrical brain, the amygdala is tucked below each half of our cerebrums, the larger, evolutionarily newer parts of our brain that facilitates problem-solving. Psychologists have proven that we can consciously fight back against the anxiety generated by our limbic systems by engaging the thinking parts of our brain with tasks involving cognitive and motor activities, that is, by thinking or doing something like solving a problem, incident, or crisis. This conscious refocusing forces our cerebrums to take command over from the unconscious work of the amygdala and other brain structures that give rise to the emotion of anxiety. To put it simply, if we get busy fixing a problem ASAP, we are too busy to panic. That’s how people who routinely launch into action in the face of a crisis, like brave first responders, avoid falling victim to panic.
Frank Supovitz is president and chief experience officer at Fast Traffic Events & Entertainment and was NFL senior vice president of events 2005-14. His latest book, “What to Do When Things Go Wrong,” will be published May 17 by McGraw-Hill.