Following the Lombardi trophy through the postgame chaos

HOUSTON -- As soon as New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was satisfied with his Lombardi trophy selfie, the plan was to pass the 22-inch, 7-pound, sterling silver bauble into the waiting arms of special-teams captain Matthew Slater. By then, though, the trophy had already made two full circuits of the crowded, joyous locker room inside NRG Stadium. It had been smooched, hugged, pumped, cradled and caressed by nearly every team member. ("Chest hair or no chest hair?" Gostkowski had laughed as he fiddled with his shirt collar before posing with Lombardi.)

The once-shimmering world championship prize was looking a little, well, "nasty" is what lineman Marcus Cannon shouted when he saw the splotchy, smudgy condition of the trophy headed for the beloved and respected Slater, a six-time Pro Bowl pick.

"Naw, naw, naw, this won't do for Slate," Cannon yelled. "Give me that thing."

"Chest hair or no chest hair?" Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, while fiddling with his shirt collar before posing for a Lombardi selfie

Cannon, a West Texas native and TCU grad who made the key block on James White's 2-yard touchdown run in overtime to cap one the greatest comebacks in sports history, wasn't finished cleaning things up for the Patriots on this historic night. He intercepted the trophy before it reached Slater and grabbed a big, blue bath towel with one hand and a fistful of Purell from a wall dispenser with the other. After a flurry of buffing and wiping, he delivered a proper Lombardi trophy, shiny and spotless, to his esteemed teammate.

It made sense. After five Super Bowl titles since the 2001 season, the Patriots have more recent experience than anyone in the care and handling of the most prized possession in sports.

The trophy, named in honor of five-time NFL champion coach Vince Lombardi and built from a design sketched on a cocktail napkin during a 1966 lunch between commissioner Pete Rozelle and Tiffany & Co.'s Oscar Reidner, made its first appearance inside NRG Stadium with 1:57 left in Sunday's game, while the whole world thought it was still going to Atlanta. A white-gloved rep from Tiffany & Co., which handcrafts the Italian silver in a four-month process each year, took the trophy out of its familiar robin-egg-blue velvet bag at the 10-yard line near the Falcons bench. There, he held it through the end of regulation and into overtime as the Patriots completed their stunning comeback to win 34-28.

At game's end, tradition dictates that the Tiffany rep hand the trophy to a former NFL great for a 30-yard walk through a gantlet of players and to the foot of the postgame awards podium. This year, the task fell to former Patriot and three-time Super Bowl champ Willie McGinest. In what has to be the most NFL moment ever, a worldwide audience of millions saw and heard McGinest take the shiny, clean artwork from a guy wearing white gloves and stomp through a mob of sweaty, bloodied, exhausted players who slobbered all over it while McGinest screamed at them to "kiss this [expletive] trophy, man, [expletive] kiss it!"

After wiping his face with both hands as if to wake up from a dream, Danny Amendola was the first Patriots player to touch it. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who had the game-saving strip sack on Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter, was one of the first to give old Lombardi a smooch. As the trophy made its way to the podium, an exhausted Tom Brady collapsed onto a metal railing, barely able to hold himself up.

Moments later, as the trophy was presented to owner Robert Kraft, Brady snuck down the back of the podium to share a touching moment with Gisele Bundchen, their kids and Brady's ailing mom, Galynn.

"He just got the job done, again," still-in-shock Pats safety Duron Harmon said later. "It just doesn't matter with him. Tom Brady just always gets the job done. That's what it's like to have the greatest quarterback to ever play the game on your team."

Brady, the driving force behind this dynasty, emerged from the family huddle with his daughter in his arms and a tiny, red, Lombardi-shaped piece of confetti stuck to his left temple. After promising to "bring this sucker home," Brady dropped the trophy into the trusted, outstretched arms of guard Joe Thuney, and from there it seemed drawn through a sea of bodies and confetti to tight end Martellus Bennett, who'd appeared for the first three quarters to be the only Patriot with any intention of hoisting the trophy on Sunday. Several minutes later, the trophy re-emerged inside the Patriots' crowded locker room.

A fist-pumping Brady rode to the locker room in the front seat of a golf cart that wheeled through a tunnel deep under NRG Stadium. Another cart heading in the opposite direction carried quiet, somber Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney. All Freeney could muster were the words "this hurts" as the two golf carts, and two Super Bowl legacies, sped in opposite directions.

As Freeney must know, it's going to hurt a lot worse than anyone in title-starved Atlanta can ever imagine. What the Falcons did on Sunday will go down as one of the biggest choke jobs in history. While watching the Lombardi leak out of Ryan's hands like cupped water in the second half, assisted by Kyle Shanahan's catastrophic look-how-bold-and-super-smart-I-am playcalling, it was easy to see how the Patriots' spooky lore and reputation actually helps them in these games. It spooks teams like the Falcons and Seahawks into thinking they have to risk it all to beat New England in a Super Bowl when, in fact, all a team has to do is call a handoff on third-and-1.

As a result, the New England locker room atmosphere was fun but remarkably businesslike -- even chill -- as compared with most other Super Bowl-winning locker rooms I've been in (notably, the Seahawks at one point had the trophy in the shower with them). It was almost as if this team had been through this routine a few times recently.

"When it's in your hands you know you've finally reached the top of the mountain." Patriots safety Nate Ebner

When fullback James Develin was done with the Lombardi, he simply held the trophy aloft with one hand and yelled, "Who wants it?" The trophy passed temporarily to a teammate who was FaceTiming with family and then into the arms of safety Nate Ebner, who sported a shirt from the U.S. Olympic rugby team, his offseason hobby.

Ebner and veteran linebacker Rob Ninkovich reacted like a lot of players over the years when they finally got a hold of the trophy. They scream and laugh and bounce off each other until the moment that 7 pounds of silver hits their hands. Then they go quiet and their bodies almost seem to buckle under the realization of what they've accomplished: immortality, in a way.

"I don't know exactly what to tell you or how to describe this moment," Ebner explained. "It's just super special to hold this trophy because of what it represents and what it means. When it's in your hands you know you've finally reached the top of the mountain."

Just like Cannon, Ebner cleaned off the top of the trophy before kissing it several times. "It is cold and flu season, after all," I joked. But his reply surprised me, especially coming from a guy who spent his summer at the Olympics, surrounded by the most iconic athletic symbolism in the world. "You want to leave your mark on it somehow," he said. "Even if it's just your lip marks, and even if it's just for a second."

For every somber and serious reaction from the likes of Ebner and Ninkovich -- he kept repeating, to no one in particular, "Helluva run we had, man. Helluva run." -- there was an equal and opposite reaction from guys like Kyle Van Noy. The linebacker handed his phone over to teammates, fluffed his hairdo into selfie quality and then, for the next five minutes, he primped and preened with the Lombardi -- kissing it, palming it, whispering sweet nothings to it -- while holding it like a newborn and, finally, pumping it in the air overhead like it was the Stanley Cup.

The whole time, rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts yelled over and over, "PAR-TAY with the Lombar-DAY!" When Van Noy was finished, he turned to everyone watching and, like a true millennial, said "send me all those pics, you guys, for real."

"PAR-TAY with the Lombar-DAY!" Patriots rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts

I had every intention of fulfilling Van Noy's request when, out of nowhere, the sharp corner of what felt like a 2-by-4 suddenly dug deep into my lower back. Super Bowl locker rooms can be a bit of a mosh pit. (After the Colts won I got hit with the Lombardi trophy hard enough to have a nice welt on my ribs for a week or so.) I arched my back and spun around, only to find that it was Kraft, just kind of shrugging at me while brushing past to distribute an open box of PadrĂ³n cigars.

Several practice squad players then snatched the Lombardi and ran off toward the showers with it. "Bring your phones!" was the last thing I heard them yell. It would come back into the locker room several minutes later, but truth be told, once Kraft appeared with his cigars, those keepsakes became every bit as coveted as the trophy.

"'Preciate you, boss man," Van Noy said.

"And I appreciate you, Kyle, thanks for being here," said Kraft, who seemed everywhere all at once inside the locker room, as opposed to Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick, who was nowhere to be found.

"Can we smoke 'em or what?" one of the Patriots yelled.

"I don't know," came the response, "someone ask Mr. Kraft for a light."

They never did find a lighter, which was a good thing, since they would've been extinguished a few minutes later when Chris Long and the rest of the defensive line uncorked several bottles of champagne. God love the Patriots, trying so hard to be cool in victory, but they used small, cheap bottles of bubbly and so, despite the buildup, the actual spray was short and less than impressive.

"Geez, how do the baseball players make it look so cool?" a slightly flummoxed Long asked.

"I'm just so excited right now. Excited that I wasn't lying when I told everyone it was going to be the greatest comeback in history during halftime." Patriots safety Duron Harmon

A moment later, the Lombardi trophy reappeared around the corner from Long, by the defensive backs' lockers. It was here, during halftime with the Patriots down 21-3, that Harmon, a guy who normally isn't into big rah-rah speeches, stood up and predicted the Patriots were about to execute the greatest comeback ever -- and no one disagreed.

"I'm just so excited right now," Harmon said on his way back to the locker room after the game, his son by his side. "Excited that I wasn't lying when I told everyone it was going to be the greatest comeback in history during halftime. There's lots of time in there during halftime. I normally try to keep to myself, but I just felt it today and so I just started talking from the heart."

Harmon was one of the last Patriots players to get back to the locker room. It was so late by then that the room was nearly empty. The trophy was already gone. As he spoke to a few remaining teammates, workers behind him already were peeling Lombardi trophy logos off the stadium walls.

One logo remained perfectly in place, however. The right shoulder of Harmon's game jersey was covered in red field paint or, perhaps, blood. In the middle of his chest was a single word: Patriots. And over his heart, the thing at the center of this incredible comeback and this once-in-a-lifetime dynasty, there was a large, raised silver logo of -- what else? -- the Lombardi trophy.