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Super Bowl 55 notebook: Chiefs' success big reason why fans will be at Super Bowl

By The Associated Press
A Kansas City Chiefs fan holds up a sign during the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship game against Buffalo. Even when COVID-19 numbers were spiking around the country, the Chiefs never experienced an outbreak traced back to their fans, and that's a big reason the NFL is allowing fans at Super Bowl 55 Sunday.

There will be about 25,000 fans inside Raymond James Stadium for the Super Bowl on Sunday. One reason the Buccaneers and Chiefs won't be playing before oceans of empty seats is Kansas City helped to prove it was possible to have folks in the stands.

The Chiefs hosted the Texans in the kickoff to the season. From the start, they followed a plan to allow 22% of capacity — approximately 17,000 fans — for each game at Arrowhead Stadium. Fans had to go through temperature checks; sit in small groups and pods; adhere to strict social-distancing measures; and wear facemasks whenever they weren't eating or drinking.

Even when COVID-19 numbers were spiking around the country, the Chiefs never experienced an outbreak traced back to their fans. And as the season wore on, other teams began to follow their blueprint for allowing fans into their own stadiums.

Chiefs president Mark Donovan said they take tremendous pride in that as an organization. 

"To be the team on that stage the very first weekend and launch NFL football and do it successfully, and then be the last playoff game before the Super Bowl and close that window and do it successfully, that's a memory I'll share with everybody here for a long, long time," Donovan said. 

BUCKET LIST OPPORTUNITY

There will almost certainly be a moment Sunday when Tyrann Mathieu, the ball-hawking All-Pro safety for the Chiefs, bears down on bruising Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette and tries to make a tackle.

The fact that it will happen in the Super Bowl? Mathieu called it a "bucket list" moment for both of them.

You see, long before they became NFL stars, or even standouts at LSU, they were making plays for St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. Mathieu was a couple years ahead of Fournette, so they never really played together, but he always kept his eye on the next football prodigy coming out of the all-boys parochial high school.

"It's great to see him having some success and be in the situation. It's great for both of us," Mathieu said. "Growing up in New Orleans, it teaches you a lot not only as a person but the person who you want to become in the future. The different teachers and coaches we had, they were really hands on, and that put is in the mindset to dream big and work hard."

MICHIGAN MEN

Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne has the most yards passing in Michigan history, well ahead of another Wolverines quarterback in Tom Brady. 

Henne knows what he'd rather have. 

"I'll take his professional career over them, over my college career," Henne said. 

Henne was a four-year starter with the Wolverines, while Brady alreadyhad two of his Super Bowl rings before Henne's first start at Michigan. Henne called Brady a true role model for quarterbacks with what he does on and off the field, his leadership and ability to win championships. 

"And we always want to strive to be one like Tom," Henne said. "And I'm proud that he's a Michigan Wolverine and really proud of what he's done in his career."

Henne, who turns 36 in July, isn't likely to play as long as Brady either. Henne already has an idea of what he wants to do after he stops playing, even though he has one more year on the contract the Chiefs signed him to last offseason, and still feels he has "a little gas in the tank."

"After football, I feel like I just want to get back and coach quarterbacks and help out a high school," Henne said. "I feel like with all this information, all these years and experience, I can get back to the community and help out some younger quarterbacks."

FAN CUTOUTS

Philadelphia Eagles fans have helped raise more than $260,000 for the Eagles Autism Foundation through the cutouts taking the place of fans who couldn't attend during the pandemic. 

Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation, said Thursday that 4,900 cutouts were bought by Eagles fans from around the world, and the response helped the autism foundation top the $10 million mark over its first three years. 

"While we couldn't celebrate in person this year, we were all together in spirit thanks to this fun and creative program that truly represented the very best of Eagles fans everywhere," Hammond said. 

Most NFL teams gave fans the opportunity to buy cutouts for games, with most of the money going to team foundations for their charities. 

Philadelphia's cutouts included healthcare workers and fans such as actor Morris Chestnut, Diplo, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Savannah Guthrie, soccer star Carli Lloyd, actor Ryan Phillippe and others. Fans were able to pick up their cutouts at the end of the season. 

PREPPING FOR NOISE

Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians wanted to make sure his Bucs are ready for something they haven't dealt with much during this season played during a pandemic: noise.

The Bucs had 16,009 in the stands when they routed Atlanta 44-27 to wrap up the regular season. Approximately 25,000 fans will be allowed inside Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, so Arians pumped up the speakers during the Bucs' 1-hour, 45-minute practice Thursday.

Arians said communication was easy with nearly empty stadiums during the regular season. He used the speakers before the NFC championship in Green Bay where Arians said it was very loud for his offense. 

"I'm hoping there will be some crowd noise when we're playing defense because our guys are used to talking to each other," Arians said. "They've talked to each other all year and now all of a sudden, they've got to use hand signals." 

Linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul was limited at practice Thursday after sitting out a sore knee Wednesday. Defensive tackle Steve McLendon was given the day off.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee), safeties Antoine Winfield, Jr. (ankle) and Jordan Whitehead (shouder) and linebacker Lavonte David (hamstring) all worked. Tampa Bay added tight end Cameron Brate to the injury report with a strained back that limited him. 

The Chiefs moved indoors in Kansas City because of snow and a temperature in the low 30s. 

Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher (Achilles tendon) and rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. (knee, ankle) were not available. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) and running back Le'Veon Bell (knee) both practiced after being limited Wednesday. 

Thursday marked the final time talking to the media for the Bucs and Chiefs until after the Super Bowl. 

"I'm real happy," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said with a thumb's up. 

BRADY'S PORTUGUESE

Tom Brady's six Super Bowl rings don't protect him from being trash talked in his own home. 

Asked by a reporter to say hi to his fans in Brazil if he knew any Portuguese, Brady praised his 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter for how fluent they are in the language. His wife, model Gisele Bundchen is from Brazil, so Portuguese is spoken regularly at home. 

"Unfortunately, their dad is way behind and in his understanding of how to speak the language," Brady said. "But I can usually understand a lot of things my wife will say: Papai nao sabe de nada, which means Daddy doesn't know anything. I usually get that a lot in the house."

Brady may not be able to speak Portuguese as well as the rest of his family, but the Tampa Bay quarterback knows enough to understand most of what they're saying, especially when it's about him. 

"I know when they're speaking Portuguese, kind of what they're saying, even if they're, you know, taking shots at their dad ...," Brady said. "Sometimes when I use my Portuguese words, my daughter will be like, 'Daddy, you spoke Portuguese' which is pretty great. So she's very fluent."

TOM TERRIFIC

Tight end Cameron Brate was already a well-established player, but like many of his Tampa Bay teammates he was a bit star struck by their new quarterback when Tom Brady picked the Bucs. 

The first text greeting he received from Brady prompted him to vet the number with wide receiver Chris Godwin, to make sure the message was actually from the three-time NFL MVP and six-time Super Bowl champion. Brate, Godwin and wide receiver Scotty Miller eventually got together for a throwing session at a local high school on a summer Saturday.

"I just remember being so nervous the night before, just to go out and catch passes, just routes on air, something I'd done a million times, just because he's Tom Brady, you know? He just makes everyone feel very comfortable, made us all feel very comfortable right away," Brate said.

"It's just been a ton of fun getting to know him and being his teammate and being part of his legacy. Hopefully I can help add one more championship this year to his ring total."

FIRST QUARTER TROUBLES

For all Tom Brady's success in the Super Bowl — he has an NFL-record six rings — his resume has a gaping hole: The star quarterback has yet to account for a first-quarter touchdown in the big game.

That's right, the guy with more TD passes than anyone in NFL history has failed to get his team into the end zone in the opening 15 minutes in any of his nine Super Bowls.

It's staggering, really. Or maybe just fluky. Brady and his former team, New England, managed a first-quarter field goal in 2018 against Philadelphia. Goose eggs in the rest of their Super Bowl appearances (2002, '04, '05, '08, '12, '15 , '17 and '19).

Maybe a new team will bring new early-game results when Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host Kansas City on Sunday.

"Yeah, you'd obviously love to get off to a fast start," Brady said. "It's hard to explain why or why not that hasn't happened. I'm sure they're all a lot of individual things. I don't know. Ultimately, for us this week, it's about taking every play, understanding what we're trying to execute on a given play and then go make it happen."

Of course, Brady has been dynamic for the other three quarters in most of those games. The Pats averaged nearly 23.5 points in the final three periods.

"The one thing about this game, you're playing the other best team in the league," he said. "There's not a lot of margin for error. If you do anything that's unsound, it's not going to work. The execution has to be at your best. It should be that way. That's the way this game should be played.

"It should be the highest level of execution 'cause it's the most time to prepare, concentration, focus. You've got to lay it on the line and try to make the plays when we got them. When they're there to be made, we've got to make them."

SMALL SCHOOLS, BIG STAGE

The interior of Tampa Bay's offensive line is as unheralded as a group playing in the Super Bowl can get, each of them manning an unglamorous position and coming from a small college background. 

Left guard Ali Marpet was the highest-drafted NCAA Division III player in history, a second-rounder from Hobart College in 2015. Center Ryan Jensen was a sixth-round pick by Baltimore in 2013 out of Division II Colorado State Pueblo who did eventually sign a $42 million free agent contract with the Bucs. 

Right guard Aaron Stinnie went undrafted out of James Madison in Virginia at the FCS level. He replaced the injured Alex Cappa, a third-round choice in 2018 out of Division II Humboldt State in California.

"I feel like it proves it doesn't really matter where you played college ball, as long as you can get it done at the next level. I think that seems like it's kind of becoming the narrative now," Marpet said. "I think the narrative is hopefully shifting to the point where it doesn't matter as long as football's important to you and you get better."

Playing at Hobart, located in the town of Geneva in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, even provided Marpet an unexpected benefit for the 2020 pandemic season.

"One of the unique experiences that I had at Division III that sort of lent itself well to the NFL this year specifically is that a lot of stadiums didn't have a whole lot of fans, right? So I think being able to communicate in that sort of quiet, being able to bring your own energy and your own juice, I'm sort of used to that and I kind of enjoy that. So I think actually was an advantage for me this year," Marpet said.

GHOLSTON'S GIFT

Buccaneers defensive end William Gholston kicked off Super Bowl week and Black History Month by donating $225,000 to support research into cancer health disparities.

The gift to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa will help fund work in breast, colon and prostate cancer, which all disproportionately affect Black communities.

Gholston, who's played for the Bucs throughout his eight-year NFL career, made the donation in the name of his mother, a breast cancer survivor, and father, who died of lung cancer. The 29-year-old player also lost an uncle to prostate cancer.

"My father and uncle both died battling cancer, and my mother has won her battle with cancer multiple times. This battle is hard. The fight is hard, and any amount of research or help is huge in my eyes," Gholston said. "I hope this donation helps others who are fighting or may have to fight down the line. You can never get the time back, but with this effort we may be able to add more time for others."

LEFTOVER GEAR

The nonprofit group that helps the NFL turn all the championship gear created for losing teams will have a new item to distribute during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Masks of course. 

This is the seventh year the NFL has teamed with Good360 to collect all the T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts kept stashed away in boxes after AFC and NFC championship losses. Gear from the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers will be added to everything ready to sell for either Kansas City or Tampa Bay, depending on which team loses, once the Super Bowl ends Sunday night. 

The new item this year includes that must-have mask for safety's sake. Good360 will be distributing all the losers' gear to a list of pre-approved regions and countries such as Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. 

WALKING ON 

Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' son has decided to play football at Rutgers as a walk-on player.

Todd Bowles Jr. was one of 10 February recruits to join the Scarlet Knights and Greg Schiano, who coincidently coached the Bucs for the 2012 and '13 seasons. The linebacker from Jesuit High School in Tampa has ties to New Jersey from the time his father was coach of the New York Jets (2015-18).

AP Pro Football Writers Mark Long, Teresa M. Walker and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta and Fred Goodall contributed to this report.