- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

HOUSTON — A cavalcade of corporate jets landed. A procession of limousines rolled from one hot spot to the next. And celebrities from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to Paris Hilton rocked this town in anticipation of today’s Super Bowl XXXVIII between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers.

Once again, the game, scheduled for 6:25 p.m. EST locally on Channels 9 and 13, has been nearly dwarfed by its own spectacle. A-list parties, star-studded pregame and halftime shows and TV commercials that command $2.3 million for 30 seconds of airtime take up much of the spotlight for the nation’s centerpiece sporting event.

Security once again is a top concern in the post-September 11 environment. On Friday, U.S. officials cited fresh intelligence that international flights to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Miami could be terrorist targets. There is no evidence of any threat to today’s game, but the NFL is taking extra precautions.

Temporary flight restrictions will prevent private aircraft from operating in a large radius around Reliant Stadium. Ninety metal detectors will assist in screening those entering the stadium. And gates will open nearly 4 hours before kickoff to keep things flowing at security checkpoints.

The first Super Bowl in a retractable-roof stadium still will be played outdoors. The game-time temperature is expected to be about 65 degrees, with a 10 percent chance of rain. If rain does threaten, the NFL is prepared to close the roof, a departure from league policy, which requires stadium officials to abide by the pregame choice.

Today’s contest also marks the first Super Bowl in Texas in 30 years. Houston also played host to Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium. Houston, dubbed Space City for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, also is known as a hub of the energy and ranching industries. It has welcomed guests this week with Southern hospitality.

Chilly, misty and at times wet weather the past few days — temperatures were in the 50s — didn’t deter the crowds or dampen the excitement, which began to swell in earnest Thursday night.

Activity in Houston’s downtown centered on Main Street, where the crowd grew so dense Friday night that it was difficult to move. The Hilton Americas, where the NFL and media are headquartered, served mixed drinks from temporary stations in its lobby and grew thick with people watchers.

Out of view from most gawkers was the party circuit. Once again, celebrity-sprinkled bashes by a pair of men’s magazines, Maxim and Playboy, were the most intriguing. Maxim’s secretive soiree was held at an undisclosed ranch Friday night; Playboy’s was last night at the Corinthian, an old bank converted for entertaining.

The NFL played host to a massive party Friday night at the Astrodome, the old home of the Oilers and Astros. Anheuser-Busch held a bash at Minute Maid Park, the Astros’ new stadium. Generating considerable buzz were parties hosted by former NBA star Magic Johnson and Sports Illustrated magazine, respectively.

Celebrities abounded. Among those reportedly sighted around Houston included musicians Mr. Combs, OutKast and Nick Lachey, hotel heiress Miss Hilton and actors the Rock, Tara Reid and Kim Cattrell. There were also myriad NFL figures like the Redskins’ LaVar Arrington and Bruce Smith, as well as past Super Bowl stars Steve Young and Troy Aikman and Hall of Fame coach Don Shula.

Mr. Combs is among the halftime performers, along with Janet Jackson, Kid Rock and Nelly. Aerosmith, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson and others will perform in the pregame show, and Houston native Beyonce Knowles will sing the national anthem.

All the hoopla belied what many consider a ho-hum matchup between two defense-oriented teams with few stars. Although the Patriots are seven-point favorites and riding a 14-game winning streak, they are by no means a club for the ages. Their grind-it-out style mirrors that of the Panthers, who are a surprising Super Bowl entry after going 1-15 just two years ago.

One of Carolina’s top players is fondly remembered by Washington-area fans — running back Stephen Davis. After starring for the Redskins in recent years, Davis was released last spring in a move related to the salary cap and the offensive system of former coach Steve Spurrier. He will be among the players trying to secure a place in history tonight.

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