TAMPA — Tom Henschel sat at a table outside Jackson’s Bistro, Bar & Sushi on Harbour Island two days before Super Bowl 55, flipping through a tattered maroon and gold embellished scrapbook.
Page by page, he reminisced through the beloved book, its age and use evident by crease marks on the cover and yellow stains inside.
“I treasure these more than anything,” said Henschel, 79, of Tampa.
He was referring to his ticket stubs from all 54 Super Bowls, a collection he estimates is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He brought the tickets with him to Tampa for the NFL’s championship game this weekend at Raymond James Stadium.
Henschel is one of three members of the “Never Missed a Super Bowl” club. Though the odds were stacked heavily against them this year, the group managed to keep their streaks going.
On Jan. 1, the NFL told the group it would not be able to help them get tickets due to limited space inside the stadium. But that was unacceptable to the members, so Henschel called the ticket office every three days until the league came through on Jan. 17, asking if they had their credit cards ready.
“You can’t let me down,” Henschel recalled telling them. “I’m one of your biggest fans.”
More than $5,000 later, at $2,550 a piece, each member had two tickets to Super Bowl 55.
Henschel, a Steelers and Bucs fan, splits the year between Pittsburgh and Florida, wintering in Town ‘N Country. Friday, wearing a Steelers mask and Bucs baseball cap, he shared some of his favorite Super Bowl memories while showing off his stubs from the games.
One of Henschel’s favorites is from Super Bowl 18 in 1984, the first time Tampa hosted a Super Bowl. The yellow ticket looks like it came straight out of a Florida travel brochure, depicting everything from parrots to flamingos to pirate ships to a Disney princess castle in a collage.
The NFL went digital with tickets this year, but the three club members will receive souvenir stubs in the mail following the game. Then, Herschel’s collection will be placed back in his safety deposit box.
Don Crisman 84, of Kennebunk, Maine didn’t know if he would make it to this year’s game. A month after the group celebrated Super Bowl 54 last February in Miami Gardens, the world “was turned upside-down,” he said, by the coronavirus. For months, Crisman was convinced his streak was over.
His daughter, Susan Metevier, was a bit relieved at the thought that the streak might end. She was disappointed for her father but more concerned about his health and the effect COVID-19 might have on someone with underlying health issues.
Crisman, a longtime Patriots fan, and his doctor went back and forth about the game before Crisman was able to get his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Crisman could go to the game, his doctor joked, if he brought back a program.
“That (getting the first dose of the vaccine), to me, was a huge relief,” Metevier said.
This Super Bowl experience might be the most special for Metevier and her father. At least 7,500 vaccinated health care workers will receive free tickets to the game. As it happens, Metevier, 53, is one herself, though she is paying her own way.
“(My father and I) couldn’t watch football together all year, the whole season,” Metevier said. “And to end up back here, where we really thought we wouldn’t be, I just can’t even explain (how much it means) to share this with him.”
These days, the game and the streak are less important to Crisman than the friendships he’s made with his fellow members.
“I think half of the value of this trip is the reunion,” Crisman said. “It’s not just about the game, it’s about the guys.”
Gregory Eaton feels the same way.
Eaton, 81 of Lansing, Mich., looks forward to seeing Henschel and Crisman every year. And each year brings new memories.
Two years ago, Eaton was invited to sit with Roger Goodell in his suite for Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta. It was Eaton’s first time meeting the NFL commissioner and an experience he’ll never forget. Eaton said the two shared a special moment as Goodell thanked him for attending every Super Bowl to date.
Eaton, who is African-American, fondly recalls milestones from previous Super Bowls. He remembers the first time a Black quarterback won the Super Bowl and the MVP award (Washington’s Doug Williams in Super Bowl 22), as well as the first time two Black head coaches (Chicago’s Lovie Smith and Indianapolis’ Tony Dungy in Super Bowl 41) met in the NFL title game.
This year, the Bucs became the first team with three Black coordinators to advance to the Super Bowl.
Eaton, who now lives in West Palm Beach, will try to stick to his routine on Sunday. He’ll get to the stadium three hours before kickoff, wearing blue jeans and his “Never Missed a Super Bowl” club shirt.
The rest, he’ll take as it comes.
Even in a year plagued with uncertainty, one thing remains clear to Eaton.
“Sports brings people together,” he said. “And that’s kind of special.”
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