NEW ORLEANS >> Brass bands marching among spectators and a live alligator and trainer were among the sights on the grounds immediately surrounding the Superdome on Super Bowl.
New Orleans has long been a popular Super Bowl host, but with Sunday’s NFL title game being the first in the city in 11 years — and the first since Hurricane Katrina — officials took numerous measures to showcase the local culture in hopes that fans, and the league, would want to come back.
“The NFL and the host committee went to great lengths to give the Super Bowl a Louisiana and New Orleans flair,” said Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation.
Tickets to the game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers were scanned at security tents set up around the stadium. It allowed much of a secure 52-acre area immediately around the Superdome to be set up like an outdoor festival — with fans wandering in and out of the stadium and enjoying temperatures in the high 60s.
Ravens and 49ers’ fans danced in front of a stage set up in an expansive public plaza next to the stadium while the Grammy winning Rebirth Brass Band played. Next on stage was the New Orleans Super Bowl Gospel Choir, comprised of small choirs from area churches.
“It’s beautiful that we can represent more than one genre of music, so you get brass bands, you get jazz, all of these different things. So it just really gives the culture of New Orleans,” choir leader George Young said.
The fans in the plaza included Niners fans Rick and Cheryl Brandon from Mill Valley, Calif., and their son, Eric. They wore red and gold Mardi Gras beads. Rick Brandon wore a red cape and carried a small red and gold horn called a pocket trumpet, which he noted was “small enough to get through security and big enough to make a difference.”
“There couldn’t be a more perfect city of for the Super Bowl,” Eric Brandon said. “It’s the combination the music and the spirit, the fun, the meals, the weather and everything.”
SUPER HANDOFF: New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it was only fitting that a Super Bowl in New Orleans, which has doubled as a celebration of how far southeast Louisiana has come since Hurricane Katrina, would be followed by one in the New York metro area, where communities are working to rebound from Superstorm Sandy.
The mayor spoke at a “handoff ceremony” involving officials connected to the 2013 and 2014 Super Bowls.
Joining Landrieu were New Orleans Super Bowl host committee chair people James Carville and Mary Matalin, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Saints executive Rita Benson Leblanc, granddaughter of Saints owner Tom Benson.
Standing in Mardi Gras parade grandstands set up along St. Charles Ave. at historic Gallier Hall, the old city hall, Super Bowl officials handed off to New York Giants co-owner Jonathan Tisch and Jets owner Woody Johnson, who chair the New York/New Jersey host committee. Joining them was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and host committee president Al Kelly.
“One of the things that we did well here is use this game as an opportunity to rebuild the city, to really think about how we’re going to build New Orleans back better than she ever was, and I think that we succeeded in wonderful ways,” Landrieu said. “I’m sure that they are going to do an incredible job” in New York.
THAT’S SOME SERIOUS ZIP: 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sure was letting the ball go during pregame warmups, zipping his throws right at roommate and reserve wideout Ricardo Lockette.
A couple of the balls landed on the Superdome turf. A couple of others nearly took Lockette’s hands off.
Now, Lockette realizes just how coach Jim Harbaugh feels when he catches Kaepernick’s hard throws before games. Harbaugh admits he has his share of drops, too.
Wideout Michael Crabtree needed a little bit of time to get used to Kaepernick’s sharp passes.
“He has the arm. Some guys are scared, but it is not like that,” Crabtree said. “We do with him what we are supposed to do. Back in the day, his first year here, I do not think he could control his arm and he was just throwing fast every play.”
CALM GM, FOR A CHANGE: 49ers general manager Trent Baalke typically scurries around before games looking antsy and keeping to himself. He strolled through the Superdome on Super Bowl Sunday seemingly more relaxed.
The preparation was done, and it was finally time to play. His San Francisco team is back in the championship game for the first time in 18 years, facing the Baltimore Ravens.
Baalke, who formally addresses the local media only a couple of times a year and not so far during this postseason run, just smiled and shook his head, then kept moving.
“Has he ever talked?” 49ers CEO Jed York asked this week, knowing the answer. “It’s very easy to heap all the praise on your head coach. And Trent is strong enough and comfortable enough to know he’s a big part of this, but he shouldn’t be the guy that’s answering questions in the media day in and day out.”
PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF: San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis struggled to get into college.
It cost him a chance to play for his favorite team, but everything worked out in the end.
Willis talked openly in the days leading up to Super Bowl about having to take the ACT five times before he achieved a qualifying score. By then, his home-state school had passed on a chance to sign him.
“I had good grades in high school,” Willis recalled. “I just couldn’t take that test. That test is hard. I’m not good at taking a random test you just throw in front of me. I have to go over what’s on the test. So I had to take the test five times.”
Willis was upset when the Volunteers stopped recruiting him.
“I’m not going to lie. I had some tears. I was just angry,” he said. “I wanted to pursue something. I wanted to go there. I wanted to play football at Tennessee. I thought that was the best of the best.
“I’ll never forget my dad telling me, ‘You know what? That’s all right. You’re going to make your ACT scores because I see how hard you try. I see how hard you work. You can go somewhere else and play. Just make sure you pick a play where you can play against them.'”
Indeed, Willis got a chance to play against the Volunteers, including a 16-tackle game his junior year. He’ll never forget being praised by then-Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer afterward.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe we let that guy get out of the state of Tennessee,'” Willis said. “If I had it to do all over again, I would go back to Ole Miss.”
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley and Paul Newberry contributed to this report.