Every year, the Super Bowl finishes in a flurry of detritus. Confetti swirls through the air like a school of fish through water, then coats the ground. Bands of athletic tape layered nearly as thick as a phone book are sliced off players’ wrists and ankles and then discarded onto locker room floors. Gatorade cups litter the sideline. Typically, these remains are easy to ignore in the game’s aftermath and are forgotten as participants and fans stream out of the stadium in jubilation or grief until the cleanup crew arrives to erase any sign of the previous proceedings.
Super Bowl LV in February, however, was different. The game ended, the teams left the field, and half of the crowd remained in the stands.
There was Grandma, holding her perch atop one of the red folding seats in the lower bowl of Raymond James Stadium; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, wearing mittens and a winter coat, peering quizzically down at the 50-yard line; someone’s goldendoodle, next to a baby, next to a man in red body paint, next to … Jay Leno? They were all lined up like the characters from an abandoned game of Guess Who? waiting for someone to come and collect them.
The start of the 2021 NFL season will be notable, mostly, for what returns with it. All but one of 32 teams have been cleared for full stadium capacity beginning with the preseason in August. The NFL believes the lone exception, the Colts, is on track to be cleared by Indianapolis authorities. That means roaring crowds, game-day traffic, and long beer lines will be back. Certain items, however, will be jettisoned to make way for those returning. Among them: tens of thousands of the NFL’s most rabid fans, replicated in cardboard form.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NFL and other sports leagues to restrict or eliminate fan attendance, some teams decided to use corrugated likenesses as a stand-in for a live audience. Cutouts made of stiff cardboard featuring the torsos of players or celebrities were placed in seats to represent those who once filled those chairs with actual human butts and to fill empty space on TV broadcasts. Eventually, teams allowed fans to purchase their own cutouts of themselves, family members, friends, or even their pets, with proceeds usually benefiting team charitable foundations. For a price of around $100, depending on the team, fans could send a photo and have a cutout of their choosing placed in a seat for a game. For the Super Bowl, at 65,618-seat Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the NFL sold 30,000 cardboard cutout fans to sit alongside the 25,000 socially distanced fans who were allowed to attend the game between the Chiefs and Buccaneers. But after the game ended, what happened to cardboard Grandma? Well, we set off to find out.
[Author’s note: A cutout of Ringer editor-in-chief Mallory Rubin’s beloved cat, Halo, attended the Ravens’ Week 5 game against the Bengals, seated in Section 140. The Ravens offered fans who purchased cutouts the chance to pick them up at M&T Bank Stadium; some fans also had the option of having their cutouts mailed to them. As of this writing, cardboard Halo’s whereabouts remain unknown. Rubin had no involvement in the ideation process or editing of this admittedly ridiculous story and is definitely not threatening to cut off the author’s supply of podcast microphone batteries unless she embarks on a relentless quest to find Halo à la Liam Neeson in Taken.]
The search began before the 30,000 Super Bowl cutouts, with those that supported—we can’t really say they cheered—their teams during the regular season. At least nine NFL teams welcomed cutout fans into their venues during the 2020 season, and the mulchy individuals met various fates.
The Titans told me they sold about 750 cutouts for placement during home games last season and that they gave fans who bought them the opportunity to pick them up or have them shipped to them after the playoffs. A few cutouts, mostly of former Titans players and celebrity fans, were kept in-house for eventual display. Two-dimensional Tim McGraw will surely roam the bowels of Nissan Stadium for years to come, but for now, he and others like him are stored in the office of the team’s director of ticket services, Stephanie Atkins, who has graciously welcomed their company.
The Lions ran a similar cutout reunion program, as did the Patriots for the 900 cutouts of health care workers who watched New England’s Week 16 home game against the Bills from the south end zone. Washington also offered in-stadium or by-mail pickup for its 2,196 cutout fans and has stored those left unclaimed by their friends and family at the stadium.
The Broncos had more than 5,000 cardboard fans at Mile High Stadium last season, though that count included nearly 2,000 cutouts of South Park characters (the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are Broncos fans and based the animated series in a fictional town in Colorado). Fans were not able to get their cutouts back due to storage and distribution challenges. The South Park cutouts, however, were returned to Comedy Central and the Broncos kept several cutouts of celebrities, thereby proving once again that fame will get you anywhere in this country.
The Ravens hosted more than 4,000 cutouts during the 2020 season, several of which honored beloved superfan Mo Gaba, who died last July at the age of 14. Gaba, who was blind for much of his life and battled cancer four times, was a frequent caller to Baltimore sports radio stations and a regular presence at home games. In 2019, he announced Baltimore’s selection of guard Ben Powers with the no. 123 pick in the draft and became the first person to announce an NFL draft pick using a card written in Braille.
After his death, the Ravens ensured Gaba was represented at their home games with 575 cutouts of different pictures of Gaba decked out in Ravens gear filling “Mo’s Rows” in Section 146. Joining each of them was a cutout of Mo’s mother, Sonsy Gaba, who’d always been by his side.
The Ravens have saved the Gaba’s cutouts and will continue to honor Mo in some way in 2021. For the rest of the cutouts, the Ravens gave fans scheduled times to come pick them up at the stadium or, in some cases, offered to ship them back to their human counterparts.
Like Baltimore, the Eagles gave fans who’d bought cutouts chances to come collect them from the stadium. The team raised more than $260,000 for the Eagles Autism Foundation by selling more than 4,900 cutouts, including one to Kelly Branigan O’Mara and her family, who bought one of their Eagles fanatic father, Fran Branigan.
Branigan’s likeness cheered on the Eagles from Section 130, five rows down and fifteen seats over from his cardboard brother Larry. After the season, Branigan O’Mara’s brother-in-law Henry Colby got an email from the Eagles telling him he could make a reservation to come to Lincoln Financial Field and personally collect Fran in his seat. The email included a 360-degree view of the stadium so fans could search for their cutouts before arrival. It was a nice gesture that could perhaps double as the meet-cute in the world’s weirdest romantic comedy.
According to Colby, the cutout, made of a material more like that of a political campaign lawn sign than the cardboard boxes that packages come in, was in “pristine” condition when he arrived to claim it in March, despite the fact that cutout Fran had apparently been left in his seat since he was first placed there in September.
Troublingly, though, cutout Fran Branigan was zip-tied to his seat. Once Colby found him, he waved to an employee who was waiting nearby with scissors and asked him to free his father-in-law. After taking multiple selfies, Colby and cardboard Fran packed up and drove home. Sadly, the two made the journey alone–cutout Larry was given a different pickup time slot, which got snowed out. No one in the family could make the rescheduled date and, by the time Colby went back for Fran, Larry was gone.
Cutout Fran is currently being stored in Colby and his wife’s laundry room since it—he—scares the dog. They plan to gift the cutout to the real Fran on Father’s Day.
Branigan O’Mara expects that her father will be thrilled with the gift and will “put it somewhere and keep it in that exact spot no matter what until they lose,” or, as her father would put it, “come in second place.”
“My mom won’t want it on the mantle, but we’ll see,” she said.
(Colby and Branigan O’Mara were offered anonymity so as not to spoil Fran’s surprise when this story publishes, but they deemed it unnecessary. “He doesn’t use the internet,” Branigan O’Mara said.)
Spokespeople for the Browns, Bears, Chiefs, Saints, Bills, Cowboys, Dolphins, Raiders, Jets, Falcons, Packers, Colts, Chargers, Cardinals, and Buccaneers told me they did not host any cardboard fans in 2020. Representatives for the Seahawks and Giants did not respond to emailed questions regarding cutouts, so who knows what collage of cardboard corpses they are hiding.
A 49ers spokesperson initially sought to connect me with a member of their marketing department who oversaw their cutout program, then thought better of it and said they wanted to focus on the return of real fans instead. It reeks of conspiracy.
The Super Bowl cutouts faced a different set of circumstances. With 30,000 of them in attendance, storage and distribution presented too great a hurdle to see all of them returned to their homes. Like passengers on the Titanic, they faced fates wildly different based on status.
According to an NFL spokesperson, a privileged few cutouts were saved and given to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where they’ll appear in a recently opened exhibit on Super Bowl halftime shows called “The Biggest Show on Turf.”
Alongside the cutouts, the exhibit features such iconic artifacts as Prince’s turquoise suit from the 2007 show, Bono’s American Flag jacket from 2002, and Katy Perry’s Left Shark from 2015.
Another lucky 300 went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. According to a Hall spokesperson, slightly more than half the cutouts who made the journey were Hall of Famers themselves, the rest a mix of current players and celebrities (welcome to Canton, Billie Eilish). The cutouts were part of an NFL Network special from April called Hall of Famer Forever, during which they were stored in an auditorium where each cutout got its own seat.
The NFL spokesperson told me that the league was also in talks with the Smithsonian to provide it with some cutouts to commemorate this unique period in sports history. Perhaps an exhibit of NFL fan cutouts could pilot Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega, or whip up a vichyssoise in Julia Child’s kitchen. The Smithsonian, however, was unaware of these prospective plans.
“I would be surprised if this were the case,” Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian, told me in an email.
(The NFL did not respond to follow-up emails on the subject, though it’s hard to blame them.)
What the NFL did say was that the “majority” of cutouts were recycled after the Super Bowl, a grim end for these most stoic supporters.
Dawn McCormick, director of communications and government affairs for Waste Management Inc. of Florida, told me that the city of Tampa services Raymond James Stadium. Her company was responsible for recycling the cutouts at a nearby facility, where they are processed, bundled, and then marketed as OCC (that’s “old corrugated cardboard” for the uninitiated). That material is then sold to paper mills to be made into new cardboard items. Ah, the circle of life–the next time you pick up a box of cereal, ask for its thoughts on those defensive pass interference calls before halftime.
Admittedly, this pursuit of cardboard-related closure was not wholly satisfying. In many cases, care was taken to return cutouts to their loving homes, but in many others, these floating torsos are lost relics of a strange year. Everyone, understandably, is eager to move on from the extreme—and sometimes absurd—lengths individuals and organizations went to just to get by and create some impression of normalcy and community. It follows that some of these cutout mementos would get swept up in that desire to go forward. At least none of them had to watch the Jets. But we will never know all of their stories.
The cutouts did not respond to a request for comment.