MIAMI – The NFL kicked off the Super Bowl week with its Opening Night media session here Monday. It came complete with cheerleaders, marching bands and flashing lights inside a baseball stadium. The annual event is meant to get the party started.
For once, it didn’t really work.
The players and coaches for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers are preparing for the biggest game of their lives Sunday, but like just about everyone in the American sports world, the pall of Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday seemed to hang over everything.
Forget that Kobe played basketball and this is football. Athletes are athletes and Bryant and his famously maniacal work ethic transcended sports.
As such, the league held a moment of silence before the media session. Fans in attendance then chanted “Kobe! Kobe!” just as football fans at Sunday’s Pro Bowl up in Orlando had done. Then everyone did their best to speak of both the tragedy (which took eight additional lives, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna) and what Bryant meant to them.
“I wasn’t lucky enough to get to meet Kobe, but the impact that he made in my life was huge,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “The way he was able to compete every single day. That is something I try to do.
“Even up to this day, I still watch YouTube videos of him before games, just listening to him talk,” Mahomes continued. “He puts everything in perspective, being great on and off the field, with his kids and his family and business ventures and obviously his play. He inspired me to be great every single day and I am just praying for his family and every family that was impacted.”
Niners star rookie Nick Bosa marveled at Bryant’s dedication, saying, “He was kinda crazy in the sense that he would work until he couldn’t work anymore. I think you have to be a little different to be as great as he was.”
It was a sentiment echoed throughout Marlins Park, where Opening Night was staged. The stunning death of the 41-year-old, five-time NBA champion in a helicopter crash, has rocked the country.
While these players wound up choosing football as a career, many were multisport athletes as kids, including basketball. Others were just sports fans. For 20 years, Kobe was one of the biggest stars on the planet, and his take-no-prisoners style of play and, perhaps more important, style of preparation crossed sports. The way he carried himself became a goal for many.
“He was just so special,” said Kansas City defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. “He was just so competitive. His will to win was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I thought I practiced hard, but going through YouTube videos and watching Kobe at practice, he was at a completely different element. I don’t think a lot of guys could mimic that. He will live forever.”
The Chiefs said they learned of Bryant’s passing during their flight to Miami on Sunday. As word spread through the plane’s wifi, there were groans and hushed conversations. It was supposed to be the flight of their life. Instead it was a moment to mourn the loss of life and put everything into perspective.
“Health and your family is everything,” the Chiefs’ LeSean McCoy told the Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes as ballplayers we get wrapped in our daily lives, who scored touchdowns and what contract we have. There are so much bigger things than that. I think of his daughters. I think of his wife.”
“As a father, and I know how seriously he took being a father, it was hard to watch,” said Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt. “I have four boys and a girl, so I can just imagine how hard this is for his wife and all the families that were involved. All of our prayers and thoughts go out to them.
“That was a guy who did the right thing on the court,” Colquitt said. “That was a guy I watched growing up. To see what he was able to do on the court and then talk about his frame of mind everyday. He knew people were watching him and talking about him. People see him as a sports idol, but they model everything they do after him. It’s a devastating thing.”
Bryant, who named himself “Black Mamba,” called his approach to life the “Mamba Mentality.” It spoke to millions around the globe, maybe most clearly to fellow highly competitive athletes.
Essentially, there are no excuses. Just work.
“It’s about not accepting failure,” Mahomes said. “Just not accepting failure in anything you do. Could be on the football field, it could be with your family, it could be whatever it is. It’s just trying to go out there and be the best person you can be and execute at a high level.”
There is a game to be played Sunday, and it will be played. The NBA cancelled Tuesdays game between the Lakers and the Clippers, but that was different. As the week moves on and preparation becomes more intense, the players here will likely continue to focus on the task at hand.
It’s how Kobe would want it.
Until then there remained a surreal feel for the start of Super Bowl week. It’s the biggest game and one of the biggest parties in the country, yet not everyone was in the mood on Monday.
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