NEW ORLEANS — As vice president of stadiums and arenas for SMG, Doug Thornton has been a part of his fair share of large-scale events, from NCAA men’s Final Fours to multiple BCS championship games and Sugar Bowls.
And as Sunday quickly approaches, as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome gets set to host New Orleans’ 10th Super Bowl, Thornton knows whatever he sees this week will be cake compared to the city’s ninth edition of the big game.
Eleven years ago, you see, Thornton had a much bigger, tougher task than overseeing the acres-wide build-out the city has witnessed this past month.
That game – Super Bowl 36 – was the first one post-9/11.
Already a monumental task to begin with, that Super Bowl had to veer off script for security, changing the way the building was protected and people were allowed into the venue.
“It was the most difficult event I have ever been involved in,” Thornton said.
If not for how the city and leading officials handled security for that game, the possibility would be that New Orleans wouldn’t be looked on as favorably for future games, including Sunday’s game.
But instead of becoming another disaster, the city shined brightly, putting on a show that set the tone for future Super Bowls and how they’re run and secured. It’s also the only Super Bowl ever to be designated a National Special Security Event, the country’s highest security level.
“We’ve taken that plan from that game and the NSSE and kind of adopted that for what we do,” said Jeffrey Miller, chief security officer for the NFL. “Even though it’s not an NSSE, we still have the same kind of approach.”
This year’s Super Bowl has been designated a Level One event by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Though not an NSSE, Miller said this will allow Federal agencies to use “appropriated dollars in support” of the Super Bowl.
It all harkens back to those dark, fearful days in the months after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
“The world was watching us,” said Jay Cicero, the executive director for the New Orleans Host Committee and president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. “We had been warned that the Super Bowl at that time might have been something that was in such a spotlight. Everyone was afraid that every event that was in the spotlight after 9/11 was going to be a target. It had to be done right.”
The plan came together in just a few months after the NFL made the decision in October to push the game back a week. Not only did the city have to figure out a way to move several events, including the large National Auto Dealers Association convention, it had to figure out just exactly how to make the event safe for those playing in and those attending the game.
“There was no blueprint for that for Super Bowls,” Thornton said. “The planners had to organize the effort, the secure perimeter, the vehicle screening, all the things that are a standard measure today.”
To that end, with the NSSE designation, the Secret Service took point in securing the event. Working with the FBI, those involved at the highest levels put together a map to success.
“There were numerous conversations, numerous meetings,” Thornton said. “It was deep, deep, deep discussion about the fencing, the magnetometers , the tents, the location of all the network compound, how we would secure it because it had never been done before.”
According to Miller, the terrorism events helped then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue decide to put a group together to vet practices for stadium security. The committee continues to meet to this day, tweaking and refining stadium security each year.
For Cicero, the nature of the situation didn’t strike home until he tried to get into the New Orleans Centre, which was the then-home of the Sports Foundation.
“You couldn’t get into our office because there was a guard out there with a big rifle,” Cicero said. “He’s asking you where you’re going and you’re saying, ‘Well, my office is there.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t care who you are or where you’re going. You’re not going past here.’ It was like, ‘Oh gosh. This is real.’ ”
For Thornton, there were deeper issues. The Superdome is ventilated by a circulation system that, at the time, wasn’t well guarded. The fear before the Super Bowl was that anthrax would somehow be released into the system, something that could potentially have been deadly for more than 70,000 fans and workers in the stadium.
So Thornton and his colleagues devised a system in which the facility’s multiple giant filters would be checked at certain intervals along with taping the doors shut and videoing the room. Then, weeks before the game, a guard was stationed outside the door with only approved personnel having access.
It worked and there were no problems.
While there were those security provisions happening behind the scenes, there were several things done for everyone to see.
“In 2002, I walked out of the building with all of the fans and walked down Poydras,” said Rita Benson LeBlanc, owner/vice chairman of the Saints and Hornets. “It was powerful to see the tanks and the barricades. It was kind of a little bit unsettling.”
While the tanks have left the scene, most of the security that will govern this week’s Super Bowl had its beginning with that 2002 version, a seminal moment in the history of the game.
“This one is so much more New Orleans than that,” Cicero said. “That was about the Secret Service and security and security agencies coming in and putting fear in everybody.”
Added Miller, the NFL’s main security officer, “The interesting thing is our Best Practices for Stadium Security has actually been certified by the Department of Homeland Security under the safety act. So our policy is actually designated and certified as a technology that is effective in deterring acts of terrorism.”
And if the organizers were able to get through 2002, they can get through anything.
“If this (2002) is the hardest thing you’ve ever done, then everything else is easier,” Cicero said. “It gives you confidence – the worst can be thrown at you and you can still pull it off.”