About 3:30 Sunday afternoon Mark Deml's cell phone buzzed as the words "restricted number" flashed across the screen.
Deml hit the button and said hello.
Roger Goodell was on the other end. Yes, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. Yes, that commissioner, who is an ESPN fixture and is mired in labor negotiations and public relations tsunamis.
"I thought at first somebody was having fun with me," said Deml, a 1998 Notre Dame High graduate, admitting he expressed disbelief. "I didn't really know what to say, but it kind of takes the sting out of it really."
That sting was the reason for Goodell's call. Deml was among the 400 ticket holders in unusable Section 448 of Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl XLV. His ticket was valid; his seat was unavailable.
"It felt like a bad dream really," Deml said of getting in the stadium and not having a seat. "We were inside, so the tickets were OK, and then there's not a seat. It was unbelievable."
Deml got a full-blown case of Packers-itis from his father, Bill, who played for Green Bay for a season long before he settled in Hixson. The Deml boys had made a Super Bowl trip before — they watched the Cowboys blast the Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta — but this was different. This was the Packers, for crying out loud.
"I've been a Packers fan all my life," Deml said. "About midway through the season I told my wife, 'If they're going, I'm going.' She knew what it meant to me."
With wife Rachel's support, Deml and co-worker Sean Shockey were off — dropping more than $2,000 on each $800 face-value ticket through StubHub and cashing in as many travel vouchers and airline miles as possible.
Everything was in place — even down to their Packers jerseys, Deml in a Clay Matthews No. 52 — when at about 2:30 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, Deml and Shockey were met with puzzling, troubling, unbelievable news at the ticket gate just outside the stadium.
It's hard to fathom, really. Pilgrimages don't come up short. Bucket lists don't have room for "maybe next time." Lifetime dreams are not supposed to be historical footnotes that end with terms like "class-action lawsuit" and "formal apology."
Back to Deml, who goes through the details like he's told the story more than once in the last 10 or so days:
"We went through security, then we got to the ticket scanner and a big red 'X' popped up. She said, 'There's a problem with the tickets, and there's a rep there to help you out.'
"The [NFL's] first offer was face value of the ticket. I mean, I thought we got a pretty good deal for our tickets and that's still a lot of money."
After going through several stops and talking to anyone with a walkie-talkie, Deml had few answers and a lot of concerns. About 30 minutes before kickoff, the group, which is growing in numbers and anxiety, is led toward a possible solution.
Deml, picking up the story: "Then the NFL is trying to sugarcoat everything. They walk us down to the Miller Lite club, and people are really upset. They're trying to call the press or lawyers, and they're crying in the elevator. They let us out and there's Evander Holyfield, Christina Aguilera and Snoop, so I'm thinking this may work out. But the Miller Lite club is almost underground and it's a bunch of TVs, and I didn't come all this way to watch it on TV."
Deml and Shockey left the Miller Lite Club and managed to get up to section 448. They saw the black tarp over the section and were told again that the seats were unavailable. They started walking around the stadium, stealing views over shoulders and catching glimpses on televisions and jumbotrons.
Sure, the Packers won and Deml was there, but it was more frustrating than fulfilling. Green Bay's first championship since 1997 should have been the memory of a lifetime; now it's sadly unforgettable for Deml.
"That's not the experience we wanted or what we paid for," said Deml, sounding more disappointed than angry. "Really, it just let us down, and the fact that they knew about it a week before is what really pissed us off."
There has been talk of class-action lawsuits, and Deml admitted to contact from lawyers. Enter Goodell, who apparently spent most of Sunday on the telephone in trying to contact Deml and those in similar situations.
Deml said the commissioner offered two options: a Super Bowl ticket for next year and $2,400 (triple the face value of Deml's ticket that proved worthless) or a ticket and travel accommodations to any Super Bowl down the road.
"I told him it was a shame that none of his staff knew what was going on," Deml said of Sunday's conversation with arguably the most powerful executive in all of sports. "He sounded like somebody had just shot his dog. He was very cordial and he let me vent and assured me everything was going to be taken care of.
"Then he said he had about 1,500 calls to make."
That's a lot of phone work — restricted number or not.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...