Over about the last three decades, now that I think of it, I’ve spanned the country with Blair Kerkhoff covering the wide world of sports.
We’ve attended dozens of the same road events, probably hundreds if you count all the Final Fours and bowl games we both covered at the same time during my 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Back then, we traveled together on the Big 8 Skywriters tour and, among other trips, drove to Memphis for the 1997 NCAA Tournament. Since I came to The Star in 2013, along with other colleagues, we’ve been from coast to coast to coast and Canada and about everywhere in between with the Royals and Chiefs.
I’ll always remember flying back from New York on an hour’s sleep after the Royals won the 2015 World Series, talking most of the time with our burning eyes closed. We spent the last Super Bowl week together in a rented house along with teammates Sam McDowell, Sam Mellinger and Herbie Teope, a story in itself.
Heck, with other colleagues and friends we’ve also gotten to experience things like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
But for all the sights and spectacles shared over the tens of thousands of miles, nothing resembled the out-of-body adventure we began Saturday afternoon flying to Los Angeles to cover the Chiefs game on Sunday at the new $5 billion SoFi Stadium.
“Welcome to the new world,” an usher/security guard said when we arrived at the stadium where the Chiefs would go on to win 23-20 in overtime. I wasn’t quite sure if he was referring to this place or the COVID-19 coronavirus conditions test we had just taken.
For me, the trip marked the first time I’d been on a plane since returning from spring training in Arizona just before the pandemic changed everything. For Blair, it was the first time he’d been credentialed for an event since the Big 12 Tournament that shut down early.
With that, here’s a glimpse at a trip like no other during these strange days.
First, it’s worth noting that we had a major decision to make about coming out here to begin with. The Star has been erring on the side of caution about travel, and we had to talk through whether it was worth the risk of going since it could be watched on television and every postgame interview would be conducted by Zoom video. There would be no extra access for us, even as the only two members of the Kansas City media here.
But as we all discussed it last week, as the paper of record covering the team, we figured we needed to be on the ground for the first road game of the defending Super Bowl champion. You just don’t know what scenarios might emerge that only could be reported properly from here, and certainly you see the game more comprehensively in person.
Because of NFL pandemic protocols, only two of us from The Star could go when we’ve typically sent five or more on the road. So why not the elder statesmen? Or at least the two elders, anyway?
But we sure felt a void without Sam, Sam and Herbie and missed that camaraderie during the game. We’ll evaluate the whole premise this week, from whether we travel to Baltimore at all to who goes.
As for this trip?
It was discombobulating just to drive to KCI, once so routine. Knowing the airport construction was going on, I wasn’t even sure where to try to park, so Blair set me straight in the semi-double-secret lot I’m not allowed to mention but was harder to find than usual.
I masked up as soon as I went indoors and through security, though I was pleased to discover it was acceptable to take it off for eating and drinking before the flight. Since a few of the food places behind security were closed, I got some hummus and pretzels and yogurt and a hunk of cheese at the Farmer’s Market before boarding our Southwest flight while Blair, as ever, was on the computer.
As we waited to board, I hoped to stump him with something, for once: For a piece I’d written commemorating Patrick Mahomes’ 25th birthday on Sept. 17, I told him I had come across something else about that date that was interesting and wondered if he knew (The Beatles had played Municipal Stadium on Sept. 17, 1964).
Instead, he immediately mentioned that the NFL had been born on Sept. 17, 1920, which I hadn’t known and promptly added to my story … through his computer, since I was, you know, eating.
We flew non-stop on Southwest Airlines, which I always try to take because of its welcoming ways and flexibility with flight changes that are handy in the job. And I certainly appreciated Southwest’s efforts to keep us feeling safe, selling limited numbers of seats and mandating that all middle seats be left open (other than those traveling together who wanted to sit next to each other). I knew I’d have to keep the mask on the whole flight, but I was again relieved to learn you can get a reprieve to eat and drink. With Blair sitting behind me, I had an entire row to myself, and I never saw anyone on the three-hour plus flight taking issue with the rule.
But none of that was the strangest thing about the flight. Because what really stood out was that there were zero Chiefs fans dressed in red and, well, making themselves known. (That was a bit of a different story on the way back Monday morning, but we’re going to keep that tale in the vault for another time).
Normally, you can count on such flights the day before a Chiefs game being full of fans, especially coming out here where they’ve dominated attendance at Chargers games in San Diego and Carson in the recent past.
Then we got off the plane into an eerie scene at what typically is the second-busiest airport in the country (behind Atlanta) in the nation’s second largest city (behind New York City).
Most restaurants were closed, including the food court, and there were only scatterings of people in the hallways. You kind of figured zombies would stop us if we didn’t get out soon.
Blair and I were the only two on the rental car bus to the Avis lot, which was quite empty. Not because the cars were being rented, it turns out, but because much of the fleet had been sold, an attendant told us.
On the way to our hotels, we saw a huge sign for COVID TESTING that looked like it had been there for years.
Most sportswriters like to get to a stadium several hours early, so we figured on trying to arrive three hours before game time at a stadium that holds 70,000 and is expandable to 100,000 for global events.
In a normal situation, our 2.5-mile ride on residential streets surely would have taken an hour or more. Instead, we made it in 11-12 minutes, including a wrong turn and getting fresh directions and having our temperatures taken, another phase of what Blair called “Twilight Zone stuff.”
Once into the lot, we complied with the signs saying, “SOCIAL DISTANCING REQUIRED … PLEASE PARK EVERY OTHER STALL.” Then we approached the imposing 3.1-million square foot stadium and made our way through security, where they even sanitized the bin we put our bags through between every entrant.
It was a spectacular place to walk into, with a nice touch of open air on the ends that brought a cool breeze through the patio area where we could pick up our box lunches.
Plastic shields separated every seat in the press box, and even then we were all seated three spaces apart with masks on for the duration. Didn’t lend itself to the usual shared observations and banter, especially without our other three teammates here, but so be it. (And at least we got to talk it over together afterward, along with our friend and colleague Pete Grathoff, in our postgame SportsBeat KC chat.)
There were some surreal elements to the feel of the game, with the monstrous scoreboard and the entirely empty seats across the field from our view … save for the Hunt entourage in the owner’s box.
But that all came to seem like mere background as the riveting game went on and the Chiefs were rallying from down in double digits for the fourth time in their last six games. And with a menacing deadline dwindling with the increasingly expanding time of a game that required a result to reconcile.
Despite the circumstances, the play’s the thing, after all.
And there was something reassuring about that amid the chaos … and, yep, yet another adventure with Blair.
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