Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans were delirious with joy, after the Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV.
Besides emerging victorious, the Bucs made history by becoming the first team in NFL history to play — and win — a Super Bowl game in its home stadium.
Both the season and the Super Bowl were altered considerably by the COVID-19 pandemic — which created a scene where 30,000 cardboard cutouts outnumbered the 20,000-plus fans at Raymond James Stadium.
The smaller crowd size didn’t diminish the experience in any way for Heather Stegmeier, of Wesley Chapel, one of the 7,500 vaccinated health care workers who received a free ticket to the game.
In a pregame interview on CBS with interviewer James Brown, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell explained why the professional football league provided the free tickets to health care workers.
“They’re our heroes,” Goodell said. “Today, the heroes are going to be sitting in the stands. Those heroes have been working day and night for all of us, and taking risks and showing us courage, and obviously being the incredible professionals they are, to keep us all safe.”
Goodell added: “We wanted to give them an opportunity to get away from all that for a day and just celebrate,” he added.
Stegmeier’s happy Super Bowl experiences began on Jan. 29 — when she received a surprise videotaped message from Rob Gronkowski, known as Gronk to football fans, personally inviting her to the game.
She was at work at AdventHealth Wesley Chapel, when the invite came.
“I was told that I had a conference call at 9 o’clock. That was my 9 o’clock conference call,” she said, laughing, and noting she was shocked.
On game day — Feb. 7 — she went through a flood of emotions, as she put on her jersey and got ready to go, she said.
As health care workers arrived at the stadium, they received a warm welcome, she said.
“The staff that were greeting us were all cheering for us. It was very surreal. It made you feel like you were really, really special.
“It made me so proud to do what I do. That so many people respect and appreciate what we do on a daily basis,” said Stegmeier, the manager of infection control and prevention at AdventHealth Wesley Chapel.
She not only got to go to Super Bowl, but she had a primo seat, too — sitting close to the field, at the 50-yard line.
The cardboard cutout near her, she said, was a “little kid Eagles’ fan.”
Also seated in her section were other health care workers — mostly from regional hospitals.
There were health care workers from all over the country, representing the NFL’s 32 teams, at the game.
The atmosphere was electrifying.
“You could feel the excitement. It never let down. You felt it from the minute you walked in, until the minute you left,” Stegmeier said.
The Super Bowl Bomber Trio flyover was impressive, she said.
“That whole part to me was very emotional. It was very loud. It was very cool, too.
“It was pretty powerful,” she said.
She enjoyed the performance of “America the Beautiful,” by H.E.R.; the rendition of the national anthem by Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan; and, the halftime show, by The Weeknd, too.
And, of course, she was impressed by the Bucs.
“They did so well. They couldn’t have played better,” Stegmeier said.
The whole experience is something she won’t soon forget.
She said she enjoys watching football on TV, but being at the Super Bowl was entirely different.
“It’s not something I ever imagined being able to be a part of, but to be a part of that, is just — it’s mind-blowing,” she said.
And, like Goodell said, it was a great way to decompress.
“It has been a very trying — you know — year,” said Stegmeier, who joined the hospital’s staff a month before it opened its doors.
She’s not sure how she was selected to attend the game, but she is grateful.
“I was so happy just to be part of it. I was so blessed that I could be part of that. And, I’m just so thankful to the Bucs and the NFL and AdventHealth, that I was able to go.
“For me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it’s definitely a highlight.
“Everything to me, yesterday, was just perfect,” she said.
Published February 10, 2021