- Whether on the stands or at home, here’s how die-hard fans of the game enjoyed Super Bowl Sunday despite the pandemic.
Super Bowl LV was different in more ways than one — there were no tailgates, no house parties, and no crowds at a sports bar rooting for their favorite themes. As the Kansas City Chiefs faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the latter’s home turf at the Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7, the crowds in the stands also reflected the new normal. Hundreds of healthcare workers, along with Bucs and Chiefs fans were seen wearing their team gear and masks as they sang and cheered. Also filling the stadium were several cardboard cutouts of loyal fans.
Among them was a cutout of Mahesh V. Patel, Dharmesh Patel’s father. A longtime Tampa resident and loyal Bucs fan. Mahesh Patel died last year after a long struggle with cancer. In fact, his funeral was held on Feb. 7, 2020, “exactly a year ago” to the day of the Super Bowl, Dharmesh Patel told American Kahani. He was in the stands that day, along with his cousins, some of them physicians, to honor his father and support his home team. Born and brought up in Tampa, Dharmesh Patel, an entrepreneur, has been a lifelong Bucs fan.
The family had earlier tried to do something similar with the Rays, Tampa Bay’s baseball team, but they weren’t able to. “So when this opportunity presented itself, we took it.” Dharmesh Patel says his father came to Tampa in 1979 from Canada and started a small business. An avid sports fan, he followed baseball, football and hockey.
America’s Popular Sport During Covid
Football enthusiasts and those at the stadium had to adapt to changes this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “Being a home game, it felt relatively the same,” Dharmesh Patel says. “There was a sense of familiarity.” The poster board cutout cost $100, he notes, and adds “it was a good way to commemorate my dad.”
So how was it watching the game live during the pandemic? He explains: “The stadium was filled with around 22,000 to 23,000 fans, and there were also the cardboard cutouts.
Aman Patel, also a Tampa native, who was at the game was happy the way the logistics for the game were organized. “They definitely did a good job,” he says. “They put everybody in pods. Every other row was vacant, and the cutouts also felt real.” The energy in the stadium was phenomenal, he says, agreeing with Dharmesh Patel.
Aman Patel, an entrepreneur and a part-time football coach at a local high school, says his team had the home turf advantage with almost 60 percent of the fans on their side. However, Dharmesh Patel maintains that the Chiefs were represented as well. Even before the game began, he says the Chiefs fans were singing the team mantra. He says during the festivities before and after the game, he spotted many people wearing Chiefs gear, including face masks. The Bucs won their second Super Bowl and became the first team to win a Super Bowl in their home stadium. They defeated the Chiefs 31 to 9.
For those celebrating at home it was a different scene as well. “The feel of football, the action, the excitement, the fun with friends and family is just a blast,” says Dinesh Ramchandani, a small business owner, from Monmouth Junction, New Jersey. “But this year it was very different. Usually I’m with a lot more friends and family at larger parties. This year it was mainly immediate family.”
Though this year was an exception, fans still agree that eating and drinking is a big part of watching sports. Super Bowl parties have become de rigueur and many Indian American families host the annual events replete with the must-haves like beer, chips and dip, chicken wings, pizza and nachos. It is also a time to socialize.
The Tom Brady Factor
One of the biggest draws in this year’s Super Bowl was Tom Brady, the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). Both Dharmesh Patel and Aman Patel say they followed Brady, but weren’t a fan of the New England Patriots, the NFL team Brady played for 20 seasons.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Brady, 43, became the oldest player ever to play in a Super Bowl. Brady, who has been a starting quarterback for 19 full seasons, became the fourth QB to start Super Bowls for two teams, and secured his seventh Lombardi Trophy, two more than any player in NFL history and one more than any entire NFL franchise has achieved.
“Tom Brady is great,” Aman Patel says. “More than what he does on the field is the stuff he does off-field,” he says. “We have a young team, and he mentors them through the whole process.” As a part-time football coach of a local high school team, Aman Patel believes his knowledge is a tad more technical than the others. “Watching him yesterday, I saw he didn’t miss anything. Brady was on point.”
It was the celebrated quarterback who drew New Jersey residents Deepika Somarj and Sanjay Chabbria, both die-hard New England Patriot fans, to the game.
In fact, Somarj’s introduction to American football was in 2002, the year the New England Patriots defeated the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, 20-17, to take home their first Super Bowl victory. The IT professional had recently arrived from India and was a novice to American football. Despite being unaware of the rules of the game, she enjoyed its fast-paced nature, she said, “especially the way [now Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback] Tom Brady dominated the game.” Needless to say she became a fan.
For the first few years, Somraj, of Skillman, watched just the Super Bowl, but as her son’s interest in the sport piqued, she found herself watching more and more football – both college level and the NFL. She eventually learned the rules of the game from her son and has been hooked ever since. This Feb. 7 she was once again rooting for Brady, who was playing his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Like Somraj, Chhabria’s introduction to the sport was “the big 2002 Super Bowl,” making him a life-long Patriots fan. Fast forward almost two decades later, and Chhabria, an IT professional from Hillsborough, New Jersey, had faith that his favorite player. With his family of four dressed in Number 12 jerseys (12 is Brady’s jersey number), he was rooting for the Bucs in support of Brady. “I was optimistic Brady will pull it off, especially since they beat the Saints and the Packers.” he says. He admits, however, that he was “a bit sad to see him play for another team.” He adds: “But he clearly wasn’t happy in Boston last year. So the fact that he moved and built a team of his own liking was good.”
This year’s Super Bowl was “particularly interesting”for the Columbus, New Jersey-based Patel family. “Also being huge Brady haters for years it was just ironic that he is not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback which is my son’s team since he was the age of four. It’s also ironic how we now accept him,”chef Neelma Patel says. “There is still hate but we accept him, and now that he took us to a Super Bowl and won, we are hypocrites and we now like him.”
For Ramchandani, Brady is “absolutely amazing. He is so experienced and is amazing to watch. His love and passion for the game truly shows,” he says. “At 43 years old he very often says he is able to still do this because he lives a healthy lifestyle and values good nutrition, that means a lot to me.”
For the Love of the Game
While Brady was an important motivation for many Indian Americans, some like Farzan Bharucha of Atlanta, Georgia, and Ramchandani were in it for the love of the game. “I didn’t really have a team in this particular Super Bowl, but I was definitely rooting for the Chiefs over the Buccaneers, largely because I can’t stand Brady, and I didn’t want him to win another Super Bowl, which didn’t workout so well,” Bharucha, a healthcare entrepreneur says.
Explaining his dislike for Brady, Bharucha says: “Tom Brady comes from the University of Michigan, first of all, and I am a Ohio State guy. But I also prefer to root for the underdogs as opposed to the champs.” He said because he “hates Brady and the Patriots, that distaste has extended over to the Buccaneers. Adding that he wanted someone else to win, Bharucha says, “I really like Patrick Mahomes. I think he’s young, he’s talented, he’s exciting.”
For Ramchandani, “it really didn’t matter. I was excited to just see the two teams play. Part of me wanted the Chiefs to win cause they are just explosive. Part of me wanted to see Brady prove he is amazing without Bill Belichick, his former coach.”
Neelma Patel says hers is “a huge football family.” Although the family, she, her husband, and their two sons watch the games together, they each have their own team. “Also, because my husband is such a huge Buffalo Bills fan and I have lived four Super Bowl losses with him before the kids were even born, I made sure he would not mandate them to be fans of his team. So we all have our own teams… the Bills, the Eagles, the Buccaneers, the Cardinals.”
Bharucha, Ramchandani or the Patels from Florida and New Jersey are not alone. They are part of a growing Indian American population smitten with American football.Following sports has been a widely popular tradition in the U.S. due to a rich history at both the collegiate and professional levels.
There’s also a notion that athletes embody the American ideals of hard work, perseverance and striving for greatness.For immigrants, who grew up on cricket, soccer or even field hockey, watching college and NFL games does not come naturally.
For some it was an interest in sports in general that made them gravitate towards football, one of the most popular sports in the U.S. Some watch it as a family event, or as an excuse to hang out with friends.
Unlike immigrants who came to this country as adults on a work visa, those who came to America as students or those who grew up here were introduced to the sport much earlier. Bharucha says he’s watched every Super Bowl, and every playoff game since he’s been living in the U.S.
Similarly, West Windsor, New Jersey Mayor Hemant Marathe told this writer in an earlier interview that as a student at Virginia Tech in the early 1980s, he found football hard to escape. He recalls watching college teams play and gradually got interested. His roommate taught him how the game works and since then football has been an integral part of his life.
A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that despite losing some of its popularity “is still the champion of U.S. spectator sports,” picked by 37 percent of U.S. adults as their favorite sport to watch. The next-most-popular sports are basketball, favored by 11 percent, and baseball, favored by 9 percent. “Women were less likely than men to pick football as their favorite sport even before the issue of players’ assaults on women exploded in 2014, and that still holds true,” the poll revealed, 42 percent men to 32 percent women.
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.