EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- "Look at what you did! Look at what you freakin' did! Put that freakin' trophy up! Put it up!"
At 10:57 p.m. inside the Seahawks' crowded, euphoric locker room, Pete Carroll bounced past a garbage can and two equipment bins to the center of the room, where in a scratchy, hoarse voice he asked his team to "circle up" around Seattle's newest, greatest bauble: a 22-inch, 7-pound piece of Italian sterling silver crafted by hand during the past four months just down the road in Parsippany, N.J.
First, though, teammates had to pry the Tiffany & Co. creation, named in honor of Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, away from Jermaine Kearse and the team's other wideouts who had it sequestered in the corner of the locker room, cell phones out, smudging the silver shine opaque with long, loving smooches while using it as a prop for the ultimate sports selfie.
The Lombardi was then baton-passed down the line by its neck, just under the regulation-sized football that sits atop the trophy, until it reached the impromptu huddle where a group of defensive linemen held it aloft as Carroll had implored. The plan was to keep it in the air, bathing the world champs in its electric-white glimmer, as Carroll summarized Seattle's triumphant, nasty and historic dismantling of the Denver Broncos and whatever hope Peyton Manning had of going down as the greatest quarterback of all time.
But Carroll's list of accolades ended up being so long -- the greatest defensive performance ever in the Super Bowl, the turnovers they forced, the pass rush, linebacker Malcolm Smith's pick-six, Percy Harvin's perseverance and his kick return, the poise of quarterback Russell Wilson, the running of Marshawn Lynch and so on -- that even the team's strongest players couldn't keep the Lombardi aloft long enough to justify the full laundry list of all that Seattle had achieved. (In some ways, you might say, keeping the trophy in the air presented a greater physical challenge than the Broncos' offensive line.) "I'm so proud that we are able to stand together right here at this moment," Carroll finally concluded. "You guys just kept fighting, kept scratching and clawing and look what you did! Look what you did!"
Now, I've covered 18 Super Bowls and watched 18 shiny new Lombardi Trophies get passed around 18 wild postgame celebrations, and I've honestly never seen the Lombardi incorporated so quickly, so fully and so effortlessly into the very heart of a team, a franchise and a city.
Seattle, what can I say? You're a natural.
So, taking this as my cue, I decided to stick by Lombardi's side and watch and record what unfolded over the next hour or so as one of the most iconic pieces of sports hardware in the world made its way around the postgame celebration of Super Bowl XLVIII.
For the record, Lombardi's journey began just as tradition dictates: by being walked onto the field by a Hall of Famer. In this case it was in the safe, capable hands of Marcus Allen, who moved the prize to the postgame podium as fans, players and onlookers reached through the tangle of humanity to rub the top of the trophy like Buddha's belly.
This is what people do in the presence of Lombardi: They either rub the laces on top, cup the cone of the ball, grab it by the neck and pump it skyward or support it under the base in order to bring it in softly for a kiss without chipping a tooth. (Don't laugh. After the Colts won Super Bowl XLI in Miami, I got hit in the ribs by Lombardi, and it left a pretty nasty welt.) The trophy, designed on a cocktail napkin by Tiffany's Oscar Riedner during a 1966 lunch with Pete Rozelle, was named after the legendary Packers coach after his death in 1970 and first awarded under his name to the Colts after Super Bowl V.
Anyway, 44 football seasons later, Allen delivered Lombardi through a thick torrent of green and blue confetti that, if you looked closely, was cut into the shape of tiny Lombardi Trophies. The distinctive shape was everywhere last week in New York and, based on the dimensions of the game's ubiquitous logo featuring the New York skyline, Lombardi was actually 5,000 feet tall, not 22 inches.
Seems about right.
Fans in Times Square waited in line more than an hour in the cold to snap a photo with Lombardi. It was on the game ball. It was on cupcakes. I saw it as a temporary décolletage tattoo. I saw it as a giant ice sculpture at a celebrity beach football game that featured Tom Arnold covering Deion Sanders trying to catch a pass from Warren Moon.
Then, finally, I saw it for real on the podium, where Allen carefully handed it to commissioner Roger Goodell, who handed it to Seattle owner Paul Allen, who handed it to Carroll, who handed it to Smith, the MVP. (By the way, personally, I would have given the MVP to Seattle's unheralded but destructive defensive front, which made the Broncos look slower than Secaucus train service). When the TV cameras were off, Smith leaned over the edge of the platform and, with his teammates stretching their hands up to get a touch, he faked like he was going to chuck Lombardi into the crowd below. That was a very different move than the one performed last year by the Ravens' Ed Reed, who laid it down in the cradle of his arms, as if gently rocking a newborn to sleep.
Instead, though, Smith walked it down into a sea of humanity on the field, where it went from long snapper Clint Gresham to receiver Doug Baldwin, who gave Lombardi its official first kiss. Linebacker Mike Morgan got the first selfie with it before handing it off to linebacker O'Brien Schofield, who passed it to 6-foot-7 offensive tackle Breno Giacomini, who looked like he might never let it go.
A native of Cambridge, Mass., Giacomini skipped football season as a junior at Malden High in order to concentrate on basketball. But a year later, the only scholarship offer he got was from Louisville -- to play football. Taken in the fifth round of the 2008 draft by the Packers, he was cut just after training camp in 2010, the season Green Bay would hoist its fourth Lombardi Trophy. In a pattern that repeats itself up and down the Seahawks' young roster (average age: 26), he was plucked off the Packers' practice squad by Seattle, where over the next three years he worked himself into the team's starting right tackle role. It was a long, tortuous journey full of injuries, setbacks and self-doubt, and one that left him near tears when I asked him about holding the Lombardi in one arm and his daughter, Alayna, 5, in the other.
For whatever reason, we don't always think of the Lombardi as meaning as much to football players as, say, the Stanley Cup means to hockey's elite. But just listen to Giacomini who, like most, was struck by the reflective properties (both figuratively and literally) of Lombardi's shiny silver surface. "Those are the two things that mean the most to me in this world and to be holding them both at the same time, I held it in but ... but ... but I wanted to let it go, I really did," he said, his eyes getting moist. "Life doesn't get better than that for people who do what we do. This is something we've all worked so hard for, starting at Pop Warner. But it just doesn't all sink in until you have that trophy in your hands."
What did Alayna think of Lombardi? I asked. It's silver. It's from Tiffany's. Does she want one for herself now? (Hey, Baltimore's John Harbaugh had replicas made for his entire staff.)
"She liked it, but what she really wants is an American Girl doll," Giacomini laughed.
The trophy then went into the taped, massive mitts of left tackle Russell Okung, who handed it off to a Seahawks official in a gray coat, who then marched it off the field, holding it out in front of him, arms extended, like a live bomb. From there it went under the stands and into the Seahawks' frenetic locker room, where Drake's "Trophies" was blasting on the Seahawks' deafening portable stereo system.
Players, coaches and execs all instantly started hovering around for photos with Lombardi. Some fixed their hair or adjusted their ties before taking the trophy into their arms. Some couldn't wait. Kicker Steven Hauschka posed with it right out of the shower, yelling, while covered in a towel, "Hey, naked trophy pictures!"
Some players prayed in its presence: "Heavenly father, you have made us champions." Some players screamed things of a far less-holy nature. Some, such as linebacker Heath Farwell, who helped escort Harvin on his second-half kick return for a touchdown, still couldn't process what that silver would mean to Seattle. "We got hardware!" Farwell shouted before stepping away. "Put it away, put it AAAAWAY; it's too much!"
But even in the Seahawks' jam-packed, loud and chaotic locker room -- where Lynch, God bless him, was wearing a mask over his mouth and periodically full-on tackling unsuspecting teammates to the ground in celebration -- it was never hard to find Lombardi. You just had to follow the sound of clicking camera shutters or look for the flash of white light reflected off the top of the trophy. Even when it went down a restricted hallway and into the coaches' locker room, you still knew where it was because the second it turned the corner and was out of sight, you could hear the Seahawks assistant coaches erupt in spontaneous, delighted cheers at their first glimpse of what they had dedicated their entire lives to earn.
Out in public, Lombardi is almost always in the hands of a star player, the commissioner, an owner or the head coach, but in here, just after the game, it belongs, for the briefest of moments, to the dozens of unheralded players, coaches and employees who helped secure it. After visiting the coaches, it went into the training room for a round of photos, then to the equipment guys, then to the team's amazing group of scouts. The linebackers took it for a few minutes. Then the linemen. Then the tight ends.
You might not care for the Seahawks, might think they're too young, too fast, too brash. They do lead the league in speed, defense and penalties. They are young and great and, sorry, the future of the NFL. But let me say this: When it came to handling the Lombardi Trophy, I saw nothing but old souls full of deep reverence and respect for the game, its history and its grandest symbol.
"I don't know how you could not get emotional holding it," tight end Zach Miller said. "This represents the pinnacle of what we do. And to get there with such a dominant win in this game, all the better. The older guys, they know, they know how much hard work and sacrifice goes into this little trophy. But when you get to hold it, it sets you apart from other football players for the rest of your life. When I got to hold it, I thought, 'I finally made it.' I also thought, 'Hey, it was much lighter than I expected,' but I think maybe you're so excited to hold it, no matter how much it weighed, it would still feel light in your hands."
It felt that way for everyone inside the Seattle locker room, I suppose, except the poor guy the team had assigned to keep track of something Paul Allen probably values more than his multibillion-dollar bank account right about now. Last year, the Ravens actually lost Lombardi for a little while after the game, and the Saints banged it up pretty good four years ago, I'm told. So it was this guy's job to make sure that didn't happen with the Seahawks. The trophy costs roughly $3,500 in materials, but it must be returned to Tiffany after all the celebrating and parading and kissing in order to be engraved for perpetuity. "Someone just said, 'Keep an eye on it at all times,'" the exhausted, nervous guy told me as Smith and the linebackers passed it around behind him. "To be honest, I'm scared to death it's gonna walk off or disappear into somebody's bag."
A few minutes later, the trophy's custodian tried to sneak it out of the locker room to safety through the bathroom -- a rookie mistake -- only to be stopped by a series of players racing out of the showers for pictures and poses, including a dripping wet Golden Tate.
"OK, that's it," yelled the Seahawks' Lombardi wrangler. "It's going away now."
And with that, Lombardi slowly made its way to the equipment room near the locker room's exit, where, according to workers, it was placed in a black protective traveling case and shipped back to the team hotel for the postgame party. The trophy would make a brief appearance the next morning at the final news conference in New York before flying west to where Carroll repeatedly said it belongs, "With the 12th Man."
With Lombardi gone, finally, just before 11:45 p.m., the locker room began to empty out. Players pulled their name tags off their lockers, stuffed them in their bags as keepsakes and headed for the team buses. Right behind them workers tore down silk Super Bowl XLVIII banners on the walls to reveal the Giants' logos and mottos painted underneath.
Wearing funky wraparound shades, cornerback Richard Sherman emerged from the training room all smiles, while, somehow, making crutches look smooth and cool.
Sherman crossed right over the middle of the locker room where earlier Carroll had first used the symbol of the Lombardi Trophy to evoke the full awe and wonder of what the Seahawks had accomplished this season.
As I watched Sherman leave the area, my mind wandered back to the team's final chant.
"WE ALL WE GOT," someone yelled after Carroll had finished.
"WE ALL WE NEED," the rest of the players replied, the silver Lombardi Trophy pumping above the crowd, in unison with every word.
And then, on the count of three, the young, talented and brilliantly brash Seahawks ended their world championship run with a single, shouted question that should strike fear deep into the hearts of the rest of the league.
One ... two ... three ...
"What's NEXT?" the Seahawks screamed.
Well, there's only one thing in sports prettier and more meaningful than a Lombardi Trophy.
Multiple Lombardi Trophies.