It’s a Super Bowl only penguins (and Minnesotans) could love

Sarah Wilson walks down the hill along Kellogg Avenue in St. Paul,. Minn., with an umbrella to shield the wind and snow last Monday. A blizzard warning was in effect for much of south central and southeastern Minnesota last week.

Credit: Leila Navidi

Credit: Leila Navidi

Sarah Wilson walks down the hill along Kellogg Avenue in St. Paul,. Minn., with an umbrella to shield the wind and snow last Monday. A blizzard warning was in effect for much of south central and southeastern Minnesota last week.

It’s 10 degrees, because temperatures have blasted into double-digits from the morning low of 4, and the airport shuttle driver is smiling as if he’s gazing out his front window onto a tropical paradise, not freshly plowed piles of dirty snow and slush.

“You brought the sun with you!” he screamed.

And so we have the two themes of this week: It’s cold.  And people are happy.

It’s cold because it’s Minnesota in February. Putting the Super Bowl here is, in the words of Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist and long-time resident Jim Souhan, “like a practical joke on the rest of the country.”

People are happy because, well, it’s Minnesota. It takes a lot to depress Minnesotans. These are the people you want organizing sing-a-longs when aliens land and begin vaporizing buildings and livestock.

I stopped in the Mall of America to ask one of the 10,000 volunteers – that’s not an exaggeration; there really are 10,000 volunteers; it’s like Munchkinland Meets The Clone Wars – if she was prepared to deal with complaints about the weather from miserable human beings like sportswriters.

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about. The weather’s perfect,” said Angela Bernhardt.

But … it’s ... cold.

“This isn’t cold,” she said. “But it’s supposed to get cold later in the week.”

She pulled out her phone and looked at the weather map.

“Look at game day: high of six. Low of minus-3. That’s going to give us a bad rap.”

In some ways, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is the perfect host for this year’s Super Bowl. There are few teams hated more by the general populace than the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles (or at least their horse-punching, beer-can throwing, grandma-hating fans).

So sure, put the game in glacial hell.

Why is the game here? Because it’s the NFL, which has long operated just this side of a street-walker, assuming the street-walker generates more than $16 billion in revenue. The handcuffed and duct-taped taxpayers of Minnesota were fleeced for $500 million in public money for a new $1 billion stadium for the Vikings. (Sound familiar, Atlanta?)

The NFL has long excelled at “incentivizing” (Latin for “blackmail”) stadium deals. It promises a Super Bowl for the city. The league would award a Super Bowl to Neptune if locals agreed to build a new Valhalla on the planet, and showered the owners with unlimited use of hover crafts and teleportation chambers for the week.

The league’s graft demands for Minnesota to win the bid included, but was not limited to: free police escorts for all owners, Presidential hotel suites, 35,000 parking spaces, billboards, all revenue from ticket sales, free billboards, a mandate that NFL-approved ATMs be placed in the stadium (while evil existing ones are shut down) and, my personal favorite, unlimited access to three golf clubs in the summer and fall preceding the game. (Not after Thanksgiving. Because, duh.)

So the game is here. Next year, the game will be in Atlanta. Owners swore they would never go back to Georgia after ice storms wrecked game week in 2000. But the Falcons built a $1.5 billion stadium (with a still-leaky roof), helped by $200 million in free construction dollars and another estimated $500 million over the next 30 years for loan and upkeep costs, so – tada! – we get a Super Bowl.

Good news: ice storm history notwithstanding, I’m reasonably certain it won’t be 10 degrees on the Monday of game week, the forecast won’t bottom out at minus-three for game day and a volunteer won’t be defining “bad” weather for me.

“Every Minnesotan takes a picture when it’s bad,” Bernhardt said.

Out comes the phone again. She shows me a screenshot taken Dec. 31 in nearby Medina. It reads: “-18”

“When it’s 18 below, you take a picture,” she said.

Minnesota is known as the state of 10,000 lakes. It’s believed that by early January, 9, 8,220 are frozen. Nobody’s sure about the other 1,780 because the roads to them aren’t passable.

This state exists largely because Iowans asked for an extra layer layer between themselves and Winnipeg.

“No Minnesotan, unless they thought they were going to make a lot of money off it, would ever invite anybody to Minneapolis in January or February,” Souhan said.

I covered the last Super Bowl here in 1992. I think I went outside once to see the ice sculptures. My hotel was connected to the media center via skywalks. It was like living in a Habitrail all week (less the exercise wheel).

Souhan has lived in several states but never this close to the Canadian border before moving from Dallas in 1989. He severely underestimated the winter chill when he flew out of a job interview ­and thought, “OK, it’s going to be cold. I should wear a T-shirt under my suit.”

(Insert numbskull joke.)

“I was standing outside my hotel waiting for my prospective boss to take me to dinner and I realize, it’s not cold, it’s deadly,” he said. “Your nose hairs freeze. You start to move more slowly than a human being should. Like a snowman.

“Southerners don’t get it. This isn’t like a cute, Vail, picture-postcard winter. This is death.”

When there’s a threat of a snowflake in Atlanta, schools close a day ahead of time. There’s a saying a about Minnesota: “When Hell Freezes over: Minnesota schools will open 2 hours late (Georgia).

The game is indoors, so it won’t be impacted. But when the subject of the 2000 Super Bowl in the Georgia Dome comes up, nobody talks about the fact St. Louis and Tennessee played down to the wire, with the Rams winning 23-16 after a Titans’ receiver was tackled just outside the goal line as time expired. They remember the ice storm that paralyzed the city.

That was a rarity for Atlanta. It’s the norm for Minnesota. What was the NFL thinking?

Listen to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Check out the podcast showpage at AJC,com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunesor listen from the AJC sports podcasts page, the WSB Radio on-demand page or Google play.