HOUSTON -- The NFL honored the seven astronauts who died a year ago Sunday when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas.
The on-field homage before the Super Bowl, punctuated by the
rock band Aerosmith and crooner Josh Groban, included the seven
members of the next planned mission. Some relatives of the Columbia
crew attended the game, but stayed out of the spotlight.
Eileen Collins, who will command Atlantis on the next shuttle
mission as early as September, said she appreciated the tribute and
was glad the space program went along with it.
"I thought about them the whole time," Collins said. "I think
they were with us today, and I think they're glad NASA didn't say
NASA and the NFL had several discussions the past few months trying to achieve the proper tenor for the pregame, said Andrew Thomas, a mission specialist preparing for his fourth flight.
"This should be an uplifting and exciting day so we don't dwell
on the unpleasantness of the past and look to the promise of the
future," said Thomas, who will operate the shuttle's robotic arms
and orchestrate spacewalks.
Astronaut Michael Foale, currently aboard the international
space station, beamed home a brief message for the Reliant Stadium
crowd to end the tribute.
"That's it from space. Enjoy the game, and good day from the
international space station."
Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, sitting beside Foale, added a
"Dosvidanya" for the audience.
Delay of game
Fans patiently moved through extremely tight security outside Reliant Stadium before the game.
Throngs gathered long before the gates opened. As fans entered,
their bags and jackets were searched, they were patted down, and
they moved through metal detectors.
"I'd rather be safe, you know," said Mike Schuster, who lives
a mile from New England's home stadium in Foxboro, Mass. "Besides, it kind of tickled and I made a new friend."
Schuster and his friend, Rob Ekho of Los Angeles, were among the most conspicuous fans.
Schuster's head was shaved on the sides, where he had the
Patriots' logo painted. The remainder of his hair was spiked in New
England's red, silver and blue. Ekho's shaved head was decorated in
"We meet every year for the Super Bowl," Schuster said. "I'm
the designated drinker, he's the designated driver."
All the checks and doublechecks still couldn't foil a man who,
posing as a game official, stripped off his uniform near the
kicking tee at the start of the second half, danced a jig and
streaked downfield about 30 yards.
The man, with an ad for a gambling Web site painted on his
torso, was tackled by Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham, corralled
by Houston police and carried away.
Panthers honorary captains
Carolina linebackers coach Sam Mills and linebacker Mark Fields were honorary captains, and were at midfield for the coin toss.
Both are fighting cancer. Mills, who has intestinal cancer, had
a chemotherapy treatment Wednesday before flying to Houston.
Fields, who had Hodgkin's disease, has completed treatments and is
on schedule to play next season.
The Panthers won the coin toss and elected to receive.
Former President George Bush talked briefly with
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue at midfield before the game.
New England owner Robert Kraft also came over to chat and asked Bush to root for the Patriots. In response, Bush opened his left
lapel to reveal a Houston Texans logo on his shirt.
"That's good," Kraft said. "Red, white and blue. You know
another team here has those colors."
Bush, who makes his home in Houston, called the Super Bowl "a great thing for the city and I hope it's a great thing for
football. May the best team win!"
Raise the roof
Don't tell Adam Vinatieri kicking indoors is easy, at least in Houston.
The New England kicker had made 30 straight career indoor field goals until suffering a block and a miss last November when the
Patriots visited the Texans.
Again playing under Reliant Stadium's closed retractable roof
Sunday against the Panthers, history repeated itself as Vinatieri
had another block and a miss. As in November, however, he rebounded to kick the game-winner.
The roof was open before the game until it was shut for warmups and performances by Toby Keith, Willie Nelson and Aerosmith. The game became the 11th Super Bowl to be played indoors when the league, citing an unfavorable forecast, decided to keep the stadium closed.
It was the first Super Bowl played in a stadium with a
retractable roof. The NFL's second convertible stadium, under
construction near Phoenix, is set to host the game in 2008.
For the troops
Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on hand to represent an estimated 900,000 troops able to view or listen to the game worldwide. He also had the assignment of escorting national anthem singer Beyonce onto the field.
"It's really important," said Pace, noting soldiers in
Afghanistan and Iraq were celebrating Super Bowl Monday. "If you
can watch it, or at least hear it, you feel connected back home."
Armed Forces Television broadcast the game to servicemen and servicewomen across the globe.