By Amy Lawrence

By Amy Lawrence

In this age of all access, the NFL offers no greater access to its players, ambassadors and traditions than during Super Bowl Week. This annual football convention is a testimony to the popularity of the number-one spectator sport in the United States. With the final countdown to Super Bowl LI underway, the league dons its Sunday best for a week jammed full of events for current stars and alumni as well as the throngs of fans and media. From a giant convention center serving as home base for volunteers and press to the outdoor Fan Experience to the mass of security and law enforcement, you almost have to see it to believe it. And when you DO see it, you quickly find out it’s worth the price of admission.

Outside of Canton, Ohio, there is nowhere else to encounter and engage so many pro football Hall of Famers. Dozens of them descend on the host site of the Super Bowl each year for the unveiling of the newest class of inductees. They also hold court on Radio Row as they weave through a cavernous room packed to the gills with hundreds of TV, radio and digital media outlets. It’s easy to spot the NFL’s elite in their gold Hall of Fame jackets, though 2016 inductee Orlando Pace told me he didn’t get the memo to wear his jacket in public this week (ha). This time last year, the former Rams offensive lineman was sweating bullets, wondering if the call from the Hall would come. He admitted he’s much calmer and able to enjoy the experience this winter. Both he and 2014 inductee Derrick Brooks offered words of encouragement to former teammates Kurt Warner and John Lynch as they await word of potential induction.

The Hall of Famers carry themselves with a confident air for good reason. They don’t need Facebook Live as a platform because when they speak, everyone listens. And that means the game’s greatest players have the chance to share what’s nearest and dearest to their hearts. Brooks was a beaming dad as he talked about his son Decalon signing a football scholarship at his alma mater, Florida State. Derrick also opened up about his passion to help kids battling life-threatening illnesses, so he partners with Kay Jewelers to benefit St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes (1997) is a prostate cancer survivor determined to shed some light on the disease for other men as in the dark as he was. Andre Reed of Buffalo Bills fame (2014) is dedicated to helping NFL players in dire need of medical and financial assistance, and he helps raise money for the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.

While Hall of Famers are football’s upper echelon, NFL officials are not held in such high esteem by the populace. It’s rare to get a look behind the curtain with an official, but Sarah Thomas provided just that on Radio Row. As the NFL’s first (and only) female official, she uses her sense of humor to navigate uncharted territory. The Mississippi native was extremely candid about her 18-year odyssey to the NFL; the moment she got the call from the head of officiating, Dean Blandino; the heckling she hears; the weekly grading process; and her drive to inspire young women and her own children. Forget the fact that she’s female, how often do we get a peek inside the mind of an NFL official? For the record, she told me coaches and players don’t treat her any differently because of her gender. She also said she’s the only official who irons her uniform weekly!

Other sights and sounds from Houston included Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins chucking candy bars at people while he made his way through the crowd. Raiders running back and local product DeAndre Washington demonstrated his “POPCORN!” cry from his days selling concessions at the old Reliant Stadium. Doug Flutie practiced his golf swing while waiting for a TV appearance. Former Green Beret and Texas Longhorn Nate Boyer and former US Marine bomb tech and double amputee Joey Jones shared their frank views on national anthem protests by athletes. And one of my favorite scenes, astronaut Jessica Meir attracted a ton of attention as she walked around the convention center in her NASA jumpsuit. Rudy (of Notre Dame fame) asked her if she’d been to the moon while taking a picture. Remember the name — Jessica is currently awaiting assignment to the International Space Station where she will spend six months.

Being on the ground in Super Bowl’s host city has proved invaluable to me as a member of the sports broadcasting community. Not only is the game itself routinely the most watched and talked about TV show of the year, but having eyes and ears inside the NFL’s annual convention offers a unique perspective that I can’t get secondhand. In addition to the stories I can share with radio listeners, I learn so much about league culture by speaking to all-time greats. I can take the pulse of the game today by spending time with current players. It’s an all-out blitz of a week, but it serves as the culmination of a season-long investment.

Now all that’s left is to decide the next champion. Either the Patriots win their fifth ring in franchise history or the Falcons win their first. The highly anticipated kickoff is the crown jewel of the week. And for the first time ever, I will be in the stadium for the actual game, which means Super Bowl LI and the city of Houston will always hold a special place in my heart.

A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @ALawRadio.