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Super Bowl 2021: Can it bring a divided America together?

Can a divided America unite this weekend for its favourite sporting event? Steven MacKenzie speaks to two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora about healing a bruised nation
Two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora. Image credit: Harry How/Getty Images

The Super Bowl is always the biggest event on America’s sports calendar, but this year’s will be more than significant than ever, as a nation never more divided comes together for the first time after months of political uncertainty, racial tension and pandemic.

“Football in America is more popular than all the other sports combined,” says Osi Umenyiora, sports pundit and Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants in 2008 and 2012. “So when the best teams play, the entire country comes to a halt.

“There’s so much tradition wrapped up in the Super Bowl, it’s like a holiday, a coming together of American tradition and values. Where there’s a game that is unifier of sorts, where we can put aside differences – even if it’s for a couple hours – I think it’s going to be a really good thing.”

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In recent years, the football field has become a platform for political statement. In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem, starting a movement that transcended sport and laid much of the groundwork that galvanised the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

“We all know what’s been going on for the past couple years in the country, but those issues have been going on in America for a very long time,” Umenyiora says.

“Once [Kaepernick] took that stance, the visceral reaction, whether that was positive or negative, became such a polarising issue it couldn’t be avoided and the whole world was talking about it. They were talking about it here, talking about it in China and Germany and Nigeria, everywhere.”

Two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants lifts the trophy after defeating the New England Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII on February 3, 2008. Image credit: Harry How/Getty Images
Super Bowl XLII
Two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants lifts the trophy after defeating the New England Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII on February 3, 2008. Image credit: Harry How/Getty Images

It especially irked the previous resident of the White House, no stranger to an offensive line himself.

“You have to look at it from black athletes’ and the black entertainers’ perspective,” Umenyiora continues. “Unfortunately for us we don’t have that many Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerbergs, we don’t have a lot of people outside of the sports and entertainment world that carry authority and have that kind of power. So if they don’t speak, then who’s going to?”

Umenyiora brings an outside perspective on the place of football in US culture. The 39-year-old was born in London, moved to Nigeria when he was seven then went to live with his sister in Alabama as a teenager. It was there he first encountered a sport he’d previously never heard of. He gained a scholarship to Troy University and was drafted to the New York Giants as a defensive end, but not before completing his business administration degree.

“Coming from a Nigerian background, education is stressed so going to college was about education. I was just so happy that I was able to go to school for free. Making it to the NFL was a bonus,” the two-time Super Bowl winner says.

“Going into such a high-pressure environment, trying to keep things as normal as possible helps.”

The education didn’t stop after leaving college. In fact, lessons learned from playing on the biggest sporting stage imaginable seem particularly applicable to navigating a life full of fumbles in 2021.

“I definitely learned a massive lesson from it,” Umenyiora says. “You can’t get overly excited or emotional because if you do the pressure will overwhelm you.

“Going into such a high-pressure environment, trying to keep things as normal as possible helps. Obviously, you know that it’s not a regular game but you have to approach it like it is because if you don’t, that’s where things tend to fall apart.

“There’s a routine that you set and enabled you to be able to compete at such a high level, and you don’t want to break that routine.

“Everybody has to be working together in order for you to succeed. My whole career was basically trying to get sacks – trying to get to the quarterback, pressure him, force him to make mistakes. If I was able to do that my mission was accomplished.

“The guy next to me has to do his job in order for me to get to the quarterback, and if I get to the quarterback then I can force the turnover which gives the offence the opportunity to score points. We’re all so connected. Everybody has their job to do, but their jobs are connected to everybody else’s jobs.”

Maybe the rest of us should similarly behave like we’re all team players as we bid to overcome the challenges we face.

“And also,” he adds, “you have to understand that this is pretty much going to be the biggest game of your life and it’s much better if you win than if you lose.”

As well as his double Super Bowl triumph,  Umenyiora also married a Miss Universe, Leila Lopes, before transferring to the BBC’s NFL Show where he forms a pundit pairing with Strictly contestant Jason Bell.

So what should we look out for at Super Bowl LV on February 7 as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on defending champions the Kansas City Chiefs at home?

“It’s very unique in that you have a very young, very dynamic quarterback in 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes leading Kansas City Chiefs, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is led by Tom Brady, who’s 43. You have this young quarterback who won it last year and Tom Brady who has won it six times already, so from that perspective, it is going to be unique and very exciting.”

Super Bowl LV is live on BBC One and BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday February 7, kick-off 11.30 pm