The first thing I did at Super Bowl XLIX was hug a stranger.
His name is Janos. He's a 22-year-old student and Seahawks fan from Magdeburg, Germany, who traveled halfway around the globe to stand outside the entrance to University of Phoenix Stadium with a sign that read: FREE HUGS.
Still several hours before kickoff of a game with an inexplicable ending that would leave us all needing a little extra TLC, Janos wasn't getting many takers. It might have been the lack of deodorant. Or, it might have had something to do with the spot he chose -- just 50 feet away from three heavily armed soldiers with automatic rifles dangling from their chest armor. (You really can't get more Super Bowl than that: a guy giving away hugs next to a rifle-toting SWAT team.)
Anyway, I felt bad for the guy, so I walked over, introduced myself and then said, "OK big guy, come on, bring it in for the real deal."
I didn't offer a church hug. I didn't offer the handshake, shoulder bump, frat bro thing. I didn't insult him with a sideways "Duggar hug" or overwhelm him with a bear hug. I just reached my right hand over his left shoulder, wrapped my other arm around his ribs and squeezed.
"Oh, a real man hug," Janos said, pleasantly surprised. "That's lovely, thank you."
Pretty soon, folks were lining up to get a free hug from Janos. Even Patriots fans were getting in on the act.
Hugs, as you may know, are one of our species' most instinctive, primitive but powerful non-verbal methods of communicating devotion, bonding and trust. So much so, experts say, that hugs actually trigger the release of the neuropeptide Oxytocin, otherwise known as the cuddle hormone, which can reduce cortisol levels and lower blood pressure.
Outside of Janos, though, in the weirdly restrictive, confusing machismo culture of football very little real hugging ever takes place. Except during a brief window when the winning Super Bowl team is allowed to let its guard down and get its hugs on.
Taking the interaction with Janos as an omen, the Flem File decided to chronicle this strange anomaly: the veritable binge of hugging that takes place after the Super Bowl.
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What I found was, in the case of the slightly dispassionate Patriots, the hugging all begins and ends with the man of the hour: defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Draped in an American flag, Patricia marched off the field and toward the team locker room while holding hands with his wife, Raina. It was a sweet, tender, but very restrained and kind of old fashioned display of affection. At the entrance to the Patriots locker room the couple's hands separated and they promised to meet up back outside in a few minutes. Based on this, when he got inside with the team I half expected Patricia to stiffly shake hands with team members like a politician working the rope line.
But this is the locker room post-Super Bowl, and all the rules and restraint imposed on the men who make up our culture's masculine ideal are kicked to the curb in exchange for actual real, heartfelt human, emotional and physical interaction.
In fact, moment's earlier in the Pats postgame interview room and for all the world to see, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hugged running back LeGarrette Blount warmly then pulled back, looked deeply into his eyes and declared "I love you." It was actually quite touching and tender and, in some way, hyper-masculine, in that McDaniels and Blount were both man enough to be real. And it made me question if, like the Patriots, I was man enough to tell my male friends that I love them.
We'll never know, though, because about 30 seconds later, in the midst of pondering all these deep, existential questions, McDaniels did the same thing and repeated the exact same words to Shane Vereen.
It was McDaniels and Patricia, after all, who kicked off this whole hug fest near the end of the game when they elevated the sports hug to an entirely new stratosphere. The Patriots two coordinators orchestrated a hug for the ages, roping in Bill Belichick, of all people, in a three-way embrace conducted under a beautiful blue cascading slo-mo waterfall of Gatorade.
Say what you want about the Pats and their emotionless, android-like coach -- and trust me, I have -- but I was genuinely moved as I watched after the trophy presentation as Belichick hugged and embraced his way through the crowd of team members, co-workers, friends and family on the field.
That's the power of hugs. Even Belichick can't control or manipulate them.
If they are fake "church hugs" like Chris Christie's gross, jiggling, side hug in Dallas, you are instantly repulsed. And if they are real, you are instantly enthralled. They are windows you rarely get to see in football: instinctive, primitive, genuine, unscripted human behavior in a sport that has become almost completely devoid of such behavior, unless you count dancing sharks.
Now, inside the Patriots locker room, Patricia seemed to flick some kind of switch, going from nearly platonic with his wife to deeply passionate with his players.
Starting with linebacker Dont'a Hightower, the coach went locker to locker, embracing each and every one of his players with the fervor and focus of a boa constrictor. Embracing doesn't really do it justice. Inhaling or consuming is more like it. These were violent, loud, passionate and emotional collisions of human beings. They were always chest to chest, cheek to cheek, with arms wrapped tightly and the hands placed high near the neck, face and head in what sociologists call the most intimate position. Patricia often took it a step further, grabbing a guy's neck or hair to pull him in even closer. Pats DB Nate Ebner was half-dressed. Didn't matter. Patricia moved on, rubbing his thick beard across the cheek of Kyle Arrington and whispering in his ear, "Amazing, man, amazing, we're champions, we did it."
At that moment, I swear, I thought I could hear the opening bars of U2's "City of Blinding Lights." Patricia was a grabby, stocky, teary-eyed, emotional tornado, spinning and pin-balling all around the locker room before coming to a complete stop in front of Malcolm Butler, the stunned rookie hero who had just earned a place on the Mount Rushmore of unknowns-turned-household names by the power of the Super Bowl.
You know that pre-hug, arms down, "I'm so darn proud of you" gesture you do at weddings and graduations? That's what Patricia did when he finally got to Butler. He knew what Butler had done for them. The undrafted rookie hadn't just pulled off a miracle to win the game, he had changed, forever, the legacy of this franchise from dubious to undeniable.
In 25 years we will still be wondering what the hell the Seahawks were thinking.
But Butler's story is simple and straightforward and pure Patriots.
By simply doing his homework before the game Butler recognized pre-snap that near the goal line, when the Seahawks align receivers the way they did, the trailer almost always runs a quick slant. Butler attacked. Russell Wilson threw a bad ball. And the rest is history.
And now came Butler's reward: Patricia hugged him close like he had with all his other players but, somehow, someway, even after a long embrace, it wasn't enough.
So the coach reached up again and locked Butler's face in his hands and planted a big kiss on his cheek.
I asked Butler why there was so much hugging at the Super Bowl.
"So much emotion, there's just so much emotion, you're just overwhelmed, you share it with all your teammates and it just comes out," he said, tears forming in his eyes. "This game, it proves that anything can happen in life. Anything. If you don't believe that, that's how I got here. Anything can happen."
If the Patriots had an MVP of hugging, it was Blount. The guy who, in November after being released by the Steelers, was probably more in need of a hug than anyone in the NFL, was making up for lost time with a tireless, creative and intimate repertoire. Blount did the spider (a hug where you lift one leg off the ground); the bear hug with full lift off the ground; the piggy-back; he kissed cheeks; he grabbed necks; and he smacked asses.
"This is indescribable," he said. "This is the most amazing feeling. I don't know the words."
The Lombardi trophy is so difficult to attain and so elusive, even for the best players and the most deserving men, that when teams do climb that mountain -- even for a fourth time -- words simply aren't enough.
In Blount's case, even normal hugs weren't enough.
After a group hug with his family in the tunnel under the stadium -- his kids wore jerseys that said "Lady Blount" and "Daddy's Girl" -- Blount bounced into the locker room where he reached out to team president Jonathan Kraft. Before they could embrace, though, Blount was mobbed by teammates. As he was being swept away he reached back and wrapped Kraft's entire head in his right arm like you would secure a giant log on your shoulder, and then, with his long braids dangling into Kraft's face, Blount leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Kraft closed his eyes for a moment, soaked in the gesture and smiled as he shook the braids out of his face.
Of all the spontaneous, explosive hugs that broke out around the world at the exact moment Butler made his pick -- think if we could somehow bottle that collective cosmic energy -- the biggest one may have involved New England owner Bob Kraft, who told me he didn't catch the end of the play or know exactly what had happened because he got "absolutely mauled" by friends and family in a giant group hug. With specs of blue confetti still stuck in his silver hair, Kraft's eyes lit up when he talked about that moment, and before then, knowing the Patriots were going to win just based on Tom Brady's body language. "He's the nicest, kindest most down to earth guy you will ever meet or be around but when he gets his Irish up, watch out," said Kraft. "Maybe we're a little alike like that, I don't know."
Someone then came up from behind Kraft and I thought for a second he was going to give him the rarest sports hug of all -- the blind, surprise spoon -- but instead he whispered in his ear and the owner turned and walked out of the locker room.
He returned a moment later, hugging something silver with both arms, close to his chest.
The Lombardi trophy.
And then, in the midst of all the profound emotion and celebration, the Patriots did something I haven't seen before while covering 19 Super Bowls: They closed their locker room. Normally, after these games, it's an absolute chaotic free-for-all with people crying, laughing, screaming, champagne dousing and dancing in every corner and doorway. Not the Patriots.
After what seemed like 60 minutes of actual human emotion and affection, they shut it all down and, just like that, the hugging stopped.
Even Rob Gronkowski, dressed in a rumpled suit with baby blue Nikes, packed his vitamins into his equipment bag, hung a credential around his neck and snuck out the back of the locker room to go see his family. (Ironically, Gronk was one of the worst huggers on the team. He group moshed, bounced shoulder to shoulder with several teammates and chest bumped anyone within a 10-foot radius but never gave out an actual meaningful hug.)
At the end of the hallway, before stepping outside where he would throw a few side hugs to fans and workers lining the metal barricades, cornerback Brandon Browner stopped and reacted to a question. "Are the Patriots the real deal? Are you even serious right now," he yelled. "We are the m-----f------- Super Bowl champs. You can't get more real than that."
A few steps behind Browner was the guy who made it all happen. Earlier, inside the locker room, Brady had stood in front of his cubicle and, one by one, shared long, warm embraces with what seemed like everyone in the entire Patriots organization. He had tears in his eyes and he held these hugs, even when it was just equipment guys, interns and practice squad players, longer than anyone else the entire night and certainly longer than is normally socially acceptable. Brady seemed to collapse into people's arms, overwhelmed, exhausted and grateful. A few times he even rested his head on people's shoulders, trying to extend these embraces as long as possible, not wanting this night to end.
Now, walking to the team bus, Brady was surrounded by a swarm of dozens of well-wishers, friends, teammates and others swept up in his gravitational pull who all just hovered close by in what seemed like one giant, moving hug that practically carried him out of the stadium.
Seconds later Russell Wilson walked the exact same path, completely alone. The same physical allure of a winner that seemed to pull everyone toward Brady was now having the opposite effect, pushing everyone away from Russell. It was really kind of remarkable -- and sad. If hugging is our deepest and most meaningful way to express love and appreciation, not hugging must be the exact opposite.
Before kickoff, the experts were debating whether Wilson, 26, was already the greatest athletic quarterback in the history of the game. Now, no one wanted to be within 10 feet of the guy. Now, he was his generation's Bill Buckner. Dressed in a sparkly blue sport coat with his headphones wrapped around his neck, in his left hand Wilson held the reward for finishing as a runner-up in one of the biggest sporting events on the planet: a black Styrofoam box with a cold sandwich.
Almost out of sympathy people beyond the barricades yelled "good game Russell" and "Keep your head up" but that only seemed to make him more sad. The massive red stadium sign cast an eerie crimson shadow over the entire area. No one approached him, let alone offered a hug. Moving as if he was still in shock and now suddenly seeming shorter and smaller, Wilson shuffled past a motorcycle cop, past a few team officials and up the stairs of Seahawks Bus No. 5 where he collapsed down into a seat by himself near the very front of the bus.
He stared blankly out the front window, into the dark void, in desperate need of the one thing no one was offering.
After this game, even Janos couldn't help him.