NFL fans flock to Tampa despite pandemic

By Chris Hays
Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Kansas City Chiefs fans look over the field before the start of Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021.

TAMPA, Fla. - Samuel Medina, a Jaguars fan, drove down from Jacksonville for the Super Bowl party. He brought his fiancee Tamia Woods with him.

“I’m not even a Bucs fan. My fiancee, she used to live down here,” Medina said before the Tampa Bay Bucs and Tom Brady faced off with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. “She just wanted to see everything and get to feel the NFL experience, everybody around getting together for a great game. We’re gonna stay outside the stadium and listen for the crowd to go wild.

“We came down to go to Ybor City last night, but there was just too much traffic.”

Woods, who grew up in Indiana before moving to Tampa, was enjoying the pregame atmosphere.

“I’m really excited just to see all the festivities and all the people walking around in celebration of the Buccaneers making it,” Woods said. “I want to see if Brady can bring the Buccaneers a ring after all these years. They don’t call him the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) for nothing.”

While the Bucs had home-field advantage, Chiefs faithful came from all over to be in Tampa for the big game. Charles Carino, originally from the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, flew in from Honolulu with fiancée Fortune Velasco. They were joined by Carino’s mother and sister.

The family also traveled to Miami for last year’s Super Bowl, which Kansas City won.

“I’ve been a Chiefs fan since 1979, when I was born,” said Carino, who splits time between Honolulu and Overland Park. “It’s nice. We’re lucky. We had been waiting for a long time.”

There were plenty of Kansas City fans who made the trip to be at Super Bowl LV. Brendan Meyer flew in from Minnesota, where he now lives, but he grew up in the Kansas City area. Meyer came to Tampa without a ticket.

“I’m still trying to get a ticket, me and my buddy,” Meyer said before the game. “I went to Miami last year. Took my dad down there. I grew up in Kansas City when the Chiefs sucked, but his is great. I’m excited to be here but I’m not confident because it’s hard to repeat and Brady’s hard to beat.”

The NFL faced scrutiny over the decision to allow a limited number of fans to attend Super Bowl LV during the coronavirus pandemic, but the league pledged to enforce safety policies at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

The league couldn’t stop hundreds who gathered without masks at bars in Ybor City on the eve of the Super Bowl, but the NFL did push back on social media criticism of its pregame tailgate concert featuring Miley Cyrus.

Fans were packed together in front the outdoor stage adjacent to Raymond James Stadium and many were not wearing masks.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy posted on Twitter, “For those watching the pregame show and the Miley Cyrus performance, a reminder that the tailgate party is just for the 7,500 vaccinated health care heroes. They are all vaccinated.”

The NFL put the 25,000 fans who entered the stadium through security screenings and gave them K95 masks they were required to wear unless eating. Tickets were sold in small bunches and cutouts of fans filled the remainder of the venue that normally seats 65,618.

President Joe Biden and Jill Biden saluted front-line workers and led the stadium in a pregame moment of silence in honor of those who lost their lives to COVID-19. The NFL also featured a member of the military, an educator and an ICU nurse as honorary captains.