NFL creating heartfelt memories with Super Bowl ticket giveaway

Roger Goodell surprised 'Fire Chief Bill' Duggan (second from left) with four Super Bowl tickets. Courtesy photo/Michael Chillemi

Roger Goodell entered the Hope Hose, New York, firehouse on a Sunday morning with a football and an NFL-logoed red shirt for Bill Duggan's 5-month-old grandson, Michael. Goodell's wife, Jane, brought chocolate chip cookies. The couple stayed for 45 minutes after surprising Duggan with four Super Bowl tickets.

That's how you deflate tension with a lifelong New England Patriots fan.

"He does take a lot of flak, but to me he can do no wrong," Duggan said of Goodell, whose appearance sparked multiple "holy s---" reactions from the longtime firefighter. "For what he did for me and my family in the firehouse on a Sunday morning, you can't expect anything more than that. In my book, he'll always be a great guy."

A league saddled with complex business decisions faces one of its easiest calls this time of year: play Santa Claus for dedicated fans and community pillars with surprise Super Bowl tickets.

The NFL recently transitioned from a 500-ticket lottery at $500 a piece to a stealth, viral-friendly giveaway. The league works with its 32 teams to identify the most compelling stories.

"It's surpassed our expectations. You see the power of our game to bring people together," said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL's senior vice president of events.

"Fire Chief Bill" Duggan is a 41-year firefighter with brain cancer whose story reached the league office after family and friends created a GoFundMe account.

Four LAPD officers coaching youth football in a high-crime community packed for Minnesota this week. The entire Phelps Falcons youth squad out of Minnesota got tickets from Goodell, with an assist from Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs.

All expenses paid, with two stipulations: pick up tickets at the stadium the day of the game, and no reselling.

Duggan is down to about 150 pounds, and though the Super Bowl falls between treatments, the freezing temperatures in Minneapolis pose issues.

Local fire departments extended transportation help to shorten Duggan's stadium walk. But friend Michael Chillemi isn't worried about the chief.

"He's been running into burning buildings his entire life," Chillemi said.

Chillemi and Rob Racanelli launched the GoFundMe "to give Bill a sense of meaning, something to look forward to" during a difficult time, Chillemi said.

The account quickly raised $12,000 -- and caught the attention of the NFL, which set up a surprise visit at the station.

Duggan, a Mount Kisco, New York, native, has seen the Patriots in person twice. He has spent decades working two jobs as a volunteer firefighter and a Verizon field technician, navigating poles and wires through harsh winters.

The work stops for what Duggan expects to be "the time of my life" in Minnesota.

"I'm shocked. I'm overwhelmed. I don't deserve it. I'm just a regular guy," said Duggan, 59. "After 41 years in the fire department doing it for others, they are doing it for me now. They've blown the doors open."

Duggan is expecting his Patriots to prevail, and then he'll wait for his grandson to fill out that shirt.

"I'm going to go fishing with him," Duggan said. "I'm going to play baseball, basketball, do everything with him. Take him to McDonald's. I'm going to win."

The Watts Bears youth football program has expanded to 80-plus players. For many, simply getting to practice can be challenging.

"Basically every street you cross is entering into a gang area," LAPD officer James Holliman said.

Holliman and fellow officers involved with the program have spent significant hours guiding 8-to-13-year-old kids from South Central Los Angeles. The aim: keep them busy and safe with free football, which now includes track and field, summer tutors and incentives for improved grades.

Getting noticed by the NFL was validation.

Officers Holliman, Grant Goosby, Zarren Thompson and Otis Swift took a group of Bears to the Rams-Falcons playoff game. An official brought them down to the field and had someone for them to meet.

They had figured something was up when the liaison for the trip triple-checked they would show. Goodell awaited with four tickets.

"It shows we're doing something right," Holliman said. "It's blossomed into something much bigger than where we started, and to be recognized by the NFL shows people around the country know about our program. It's eye-opening."

The Californians weren't sure how they'd get around in Minnesota as of this week, but attending a Super Bowl might never happen again, Holliman said, so they plan to go everywhere.

What the tickets represent -- helping kids through sometimes difficult times -- weighs heavier than the game's outcome.

"You don't have to be rich or well-connected, you just have to want to help," Holliman said.

Charged with making Super Bowl LII run smoothly, O'Reilly has spent much of the past three weeks in Minnesota handling a sea of emails, calls and tasks.

The best part of his day might be replying to an email chain shared with communications vice president Natalie Ravitz and others about last-minute ticket giveaways for deserving fans.

One of the league's simplest ideas has become most rewarding for O’Reilly.

"It's the human moments that make it so special," O’Reilly said. "We've made a lot of people cry."

The NFL sought to bless community-minded fans who might never see a Super Bowl because of price challenges. It puts on free festivities around the game, but there's no replacement for a hard ticket, which goes for at least $3,000 on secondary markets.

The giveaway provides compelling human interest stories for the league. O'Reilly says Goodell is most comfortable in a casual setting talking football with fans.

"That's who he really is," O'Reilly said. "He embraced the program from the very beginning. He was very hands-on in identifying the right people."

Teams also have embraced the giveaway, O'Reilly said, in most cases covering all expenses for recipients they picked.

At least 500 more will get tickets next year.

"It's not a sweepstakes," O'Reilly said. "It's about identifying incredible fans and those who are doing great things in their community."