Super Bowl 55 will have 22,000 fans, including 7,500 vaccinated health care workers

The NFL will provide free Super Bowl tickets to honor health care workers’ “extraordinary service.”
A Super Bowl 55 sign adorns a privacy fence outside of Raymond James Stadium Wednesday in Tampa.
A Super Bowl 55 sign adorns a privacy fence outside of Raymond James Stadium Wednesday in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 22, 2021|Updated Jan. 22, 2021

TAMPA ― Glenda Wright grew up a Philadelphia Eagles fan. But the Director of Environmental Services at Tampa General Hospital didn’t recognize the masked former Bucs player who prevented her favorite team from going to the Super Bowl 18 years ago.

Ronde Barber’s 92-yard interception return for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game following the 2002 season sealed a 27-10 win and sent Tampa Bay, not Philadelphia, to Super Bowl 37.

On Thursday, it was a giveaway — not a takeaway — that was on Barber’s mind as he presented Wright with a mini-helmet and news that she would be receiving tickets to Super Bowl 55.

Wright, who says she now roots for the Bucs, is among 7,500 vaccinated health care workers, most of them located in Tampa Bay and central Florida, who will receive free tickets to the NFL’s championship game Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

“We have a phenomenal team,” Wright said of TGH. “Hands down. They can run without me. I can’t run without them.

“It’s been a challenge. It has been difficult, but they come back every day ready to fight. Because it’s not just work. It’s home stuff. It’s the virtual school. It’s all of the layers of life. But they come back every day and start over again.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Friday that the health care workers will be guests of the league to thank and honor them for their service during the pandemic. They will be selected from all 32 NFL cities.

“These dedicated health care workers continue to put their own lives at risk to serve others, and we owe them our ongoing gratitude‚” Goodell said. “We hope in a small way that this initiative will inspire our country and recognize these true American heroes. This is an opportunity to promote the importance of vaccination and appropriate health practices, including wearing masks in public settings.”

Jenny Carswell, the Chaplain and head of Pastoral Services at TGH, put her hands to her face when Barber and Rob Higgins, the President/CEO of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl 55 Host Committee, informed her she would be attending the game.

“It has not been easy,” Carswell said. “I mean, COVID(-19) has added so much to it, but at the same time we’re still a large trauma hospital and people still die and people are still very sick, and we are just trying to manage all of it and be the family when the family can’t come.

“It’s been impossible this year, but we’ve gotten through with the help of this incredible team here at Tampa General.”

In addition to the health care workers, there will be another 14,500 fans in attendance, the league announced.

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Capacity at Raymond James Stadium is normally around 66,000. It was limited to about 25 percent for Bucs games this season due to the pandemic.

The Bucs could become the first team to play the Super Bowl in its own stadium if they beat the Packers in the NFC Championship Game Sunday in Green Bay.

That possibility excites Michele Moran. The Senior Nursing Director in the emergency department at TGH is a huge Bucs fan and hoping the home team will play in the Super Bowl.

“Oh my gosh!” Moran said. “I’m a big football fan, and I’m so overwhelmed with joy. We have such an amazing team here (at Tampa General Hospital), and I’m blessed.

“They have been through thick and thin and been so resilient. Every day they come to work. It’s different every day. They don’t know what to expect. They take pride in their work and they’re caring for people all day every day. I get emotional talking about it, because it’s been a journey but one we couldn’t do without each other.”

The 7,500 health care workers being invited to the Super Bowl will have received two vaccine doses by Jan. 24. Most will come from Tampa Bay, but each of the other NFL teams will identify four health care workers and provide an all-expense-paid trip to the game, including airfare and hotel costs.

“On behalf of Floridians and football fans across the nation, I’d like to thank the many men and women who worked hard to make this game a reality, especially our frontline health care workers who have worked tirelessly over the past year to keep people safe,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in the statement. “I look forward to the positive impact this game will have on the Tampa Bay area, and my family and I can’t wait for the big game.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said it was the perfect way to honor those who have endured the brunt of the pandemic.

“Our local health care workers have worked around the clock to ensure the health and safety of our community, and I cannot think of a better way to honor them than with the eyes of the world on our hometown for Super Bowl LV‚ (55)” Castor said in the statement. “Our country has endured so much over the last year, and we can’t lose sight of those who worked day in and day out to keep us safe. Thank you to the NFL for helping make this happen.”

Added Higgins, “To get a chance to personally visit with the incredible heroes at Tampa General Hospital and invite them to attend Super Bowl LV was truly surreal. Their team’s efforts throughout the pandemic continue to inspire us every day, and the NFL, Ronde and I wanted to make sure they know how much they mean to all of us.”