Tracing the Origins of a Weird Super Bowl Tradition

How the underdog 2001 Patriots started a trend.

Toward the end of the pregame festivities on Sunday night, the Baltimore Ravens likely will run onto the field together. The San Francisco 49ers will probably do the same, similarly eschewing the player introductions that were once the NFL’s standard practice. That practice changed in February 2002, before Super Bowl XXXVI–which was also held in New Orleans–when the Patriots decided to come out of the tunnel as a team.

“The impact that had,” Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, now an analyst for ESPN, said during an on-air conversation with retired Patriot Tedy Bruschi in 2010, “not just as a pro, but colleges, little kids … I’m glad you mentioned that because I remember seeing that and thinking to myself ‘That might be the most important moment we’ve seen in football in the last 20 years.’”

Was Young overstating the gesture's importance? Of course. But it was influential—to a bizarre extent. In fact, since that year, when the vaunted Rams did it, no Super Bowl team has chosen to have its players announced individually. By now, the custom has become a cliché. But back then, it was, at least to an overly emotional 18-year-old Patriots fan like myself, a revelation.

“One of the most exhilarating experiences an NFL player has sometimes is when you hear your name, you hear your college, you hear your position when you run out of that tunnel,” Bruschi said in his conversation with Young. “Multiply that by, like, a thousand and that’s the Super Bowl. And we decided that we were going to go out as a team and put all of that aside. When we did that, and it was the first time anyone had really done that, I could feel the shock in the stadium.”

Late author David Halberstam got to the bottom of it in The Education of a Coach, his biography of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “The League had asked him, according to tradition, whether he wanted to introduce his offensive or defensive team to both the crowd and the nation at the start of the game, and he had said, neither—he wanted to introduce the entire team,” Halberstam wrote. “League officials argued against it, because that’s not the way it was done, and told him he had to choose. … He refused to budge, so, finally, the League caved.”

Halberstam also said the group introduction “was designed to show that this was a team and everyone was a part of it.” It was the equivalent of flipping the star-studded Rams the bird. Before the Super Bowl, when the Patriots were asked whether they wanted their offense or defense announced, safety Lawyer Milloy put his foot down.

“I just remember everybody just in a little commotion,” he said in the above NFL Films clip. “And finally I think I stood up and I said, ‘Hey, no. We want to go out as a team. That’s how we got there. Period.’ And I believe Belichick said, ‘OK, that’s good enough for me.’ So he was willing to—no matter how the NFL was going to come down on him—he was willing to do that for his team. And that’s the reason he’s the best coach out there.”

The underdog Patriots won that Super Bowl, 20-17, and inadvertently started a trend. Even if it’s become a cliché, you can’t knock team unity.