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Terrifying Heights, Marshmallow Dancers & More: What It Was Like Watching Rihanna’s Halftime Show From the Field

todayFebruary 13, 2023

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In many ways, football is the ultimate “hurry up and wait” game — a timed sport where play isn’t always continuous, where there are regular extended stoppages to check on whether somebody has caught a ball or not (with the definition of a “catch” seemingly always changing), and where two minutes of play can actually take half an hour.


Such is also the case, it turns out, when you’re in a tunnel underneath a stadium of 60,000 rabid football fans waiting to get on the field for the first Rihanna concert in seven years.

Such is the case, really, of the entire week leading up to the Super Bowl — there’s a lot of waiting around for things to happen, then things actually happening in a very short amount of time. It’s the anticipation-payoff corollary: Will the build up be worth the event itself? Welcome to the day of the Super Bowl showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs — or, more importantly to many, the day that Rihanna returned to the stage for her first live performance of the decade.

The morning of Super Bowl LVII started well enough. By 11:30 I was geared up and ready to go, wearing Buffalo Bills socks and a Buffalo Bills shirt just to feel something after another mind-numbing playoff exit from my favorite team weeks earlier. If I was going to be on the field, the Bills were coming with me, and I got down to the stadium a little after noon. After nearly being waylaid by Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Tailgate — extremely tempting, given I hadn’t yet eaten, but also seeming like a mirage in the desert distance that I could never get to even if I truly wanted — I found the media tent. It had everything I needed: a free ham and cheese sandwich, free Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, four free carrots in a bag and shelter from the sun. An auspicious beginning. I also acquired a bright orange vest.

There’s a lot of anxiety wrapped up in the Super Bowl, particularly if you’ve never been before. The security seems intimidating, you don’t want to bring or do the wrong thing or wind up in the wrong area, and there are a lot of rules that seem confusing at first. But once you’re there, it’s actually pretty easy — and while you’re waiting for the game to actually start, there’s plenty to fill the time. Like the Gameday Experience outside the stadium, which I wandered to next, where Eagles fans were loudly working on their spelling and a sea of people were either nervously knocking back beers, idly watching a few people attempt a dance-off, or trying to get on TV for the Fox pre-game show, which was being filmed on a raised platform just inside. I found it to be a good day to be a Bills fan, as nobody automatically hates you, and the few people who notice you generally take pity on you and are kind. Some things haven’t changed in 30 years!

But this bright orange vest gave me authority to go onto the field for the pre-game festivities, so that was where I headed next, shortly after 3:00 p.m. local time. Sometimes, with a credential like that, you just have to sort of test the boundaries of where you can go until you find yourself in the right place — and after I was pointed in the vaguely correct direction, I found the right door from the outside to enter the field level. At that point, I walked in after a dude who was carrying a laptop in front of himself and working on it while he was walking, while being filmed by a guy with a big video camera. This turned out to be DJ Snake — a fact I found out minutes later, when he started DJ’ing for the entire stadium on the big screen overlooking the field.

Once on the field itself, the energy was insane, like a dull roar in the background that is actually one of the loudest sounds you’ll ever hear (but weirdly not in an in-your-face way). The players were everywhere, kicking and running drills. Everyone was taking selfies. Paul Rudd was there, wearing an Isiah Pacheco jersey. A Fox Sports camera guy on a raised dais was crushing what appeared to be an apple juice box. Everyone, needless to say, was in championship form. Jordin Sparks was there, talking about her new single and what she was hoping for from the Rihanna show (or, as she put it, “when the game pauses and the Rihanna show comes”). Eagles fans were loudly booing Dak Prescott and then practicing their spelling again. Damar Hamlin was there (Go Bills!). Jay-Z and Blue Ivy were walking around. It was a whole scene, to say the least.

But just as the pre-game music was about to start, I had to leave: There were bigger prizes on the horizon. It is a strange thing to be physically at the Super Bowl and to see less of the actual Super Bowl than you would have if you had stayed home, but such was the mission: on the field for Rihanna. And that meant meeting up with people from Apple Music outside the stadium in order to be ready for the main event.

Yet, in classic Super Bowl fashion, that meant waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more. The music sounded great from outside; the fireworks were fun from outside; the game started while I was outside, and I watched the beginning on a phone screen that was at least 15 seconds delayed, with the crowd 50 yards away from me giving away what had already happened before it happened on the screen. At one point I walked back inside — it is very hot in the sun in Arizona — to see the Chiefs score a touchdown and watch GloRilla walk past on the concourse. And then it was time to meet.

Or, time to go wait in a different area. Walking to meet up with the Apple crew, we walked past around 200 people wearing marshmallow-sized white canvas suits with black plastic drape shawls (which were billowing and blowing away in the wind), who were standing outside the stadium awaiting their cue while a few people with bullhorns shouted reminders on how to enter the show. Basically, we were supposed to follow the marshmallow dancers into the stadium and onto the field. But first we had to wait some more.

At 5:39 pm we started to move, heading inside a gate and down a series of causeways towards the field level. Every few minutes we would move forward, then stop for another few minutes, then move forward again down into the bowels of the stadium. At 5:53 the time finally seemed to come — it was the two-minute warning of the first half, and they shifted us down to where the postgame interviews were to be conducted, underneath the stands (think a much more concrete version of being under the bleachers at a high school football game). It finally seemed to be time to go — but then, as we all huddled around a lone small TV mounted on the wall, we realized that only 10 seconds of the game had actually gone by. Hurry up, and wait; hurry up, and wait.

Patrick Mahomes hurt his ankle. There was yet another delay as referees tried to figure out what a catch was once again. The final two minutes of the half took a literal 26 minutes of real time. And so we waited, milling about behind the marshmallow dancers. Anxiety abounded, both over what was about to happen as well as whether Mahomes would be able to cover everyone’s prop bets. 

At 6:18, there was movement again, and a final instruction from a person with a bullhorn: “Your feet being on the ground is more important than your video looking good!” Well-intentioned, for sure, but there was not going to be much that would get in the way of many people getting their once-in-a-lifetime video of being on the field at the Super Bowl to see a Rihanna show. And then, finally, at 6:22, it happened: flashing credentials along the way, we were hustled up a final corridor and out onto the field, through an unbroken line of security personnel on either side into a corner of the Chiefs end zone. Our marshmallow friends were already on the field in position.

It is pretty hard to describe what it was like to be on the field for those first few moments of Rihanna’s performance, other than surreal. The platforms that she and the dancers were on were impossibly high in the air — not a chance I would sign up for that — and, given all the adrenaline and wall of sound and fireworks and raw energy, it is an incredible feat to be able to perform like that in such a situation. (Much less to do so having been only a few months postpartum, after not being on stage in five years, and oh yeah, while also being currently pregnant. Rihanna is something else, man.)

The whole experience of being on the field for Rihanna was, predictably, a total blur — hours of build up and waiting, and after 19 minutes we were back in the tunnel. But for those 19 minutes I forgot there was a football game being played, such was the total immersion of the show in the stadium. And that short period of time also coincided with the sun completely going down, meaning that the by the time she finished, the final fireworks were against the night sky, like it had lasted an hour or more. And yet all of a sudden it was over, and we were hustled back inside, where the exhilarated dancers were in half-marshmallow dress, and received a big ovation from everyone who walked by back up the several concourses. (The dancers, it should be noted, deservedly were allowed to take the escalators back up.)

The rest of the game felt like a blur after that — but the game itself was fascinating for people-watching purposes. By 7:50, when the Eagles had tied the game, none of the fans on either side were having fun anymore, as the tension started to overwhelm the spectacle. And then, just like that, a mom in Chiefs regalia was dancing, a father-son duo in Eagles gear started swearing profusely next to me and the inevitability of Patrick Mahomes came for everyone in the stadium. 

Suddenly the game, and the American national holiday, was over, as if it had taken mere minutes — a two-week build up for a game that was over far too soon. I will spare the details of the three-hour wait for a ride share car after the game, except to say thank you to the kind soul at a Jack in the Box in Glendale who allowed me to charge my phone from 3% to 11%, thus giving me the cushion I needed to finally book an Uber at 11:00 p.m. But that’s how it is with the Super Bowl, right? Hurry up and wait.

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todayFebruary 13, 2023

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