MIAMI, Fla. -- The 49ers had just beat the Green Bay Packers 37-20 to earn a spot in Super Bowl LIV, and coach Kyle Shanahan spent most of his post-game meeting with the media explaining exactly how that happened.
Shanahan thought his session was over after detailing Tevin Coleman’s shoulder injury and his optimism about the running back’s playing status, but one last question came from an older man to his left.
“For nostalgia’s sake, will you bring the backpack?”
Shanahan paused for a second and smiled.
“I will, but I’ll lock my arm around it if you’re there,” Shanahan said. “I know what you do.”
The inquirer chuckled along with the rest of the assembled media, recalling a crazy incident from three years earlier, when Kyle Shanahan lost a backpack containing several Super Bowl LI tickets, a tablet with the Atlanta Falcons’ game plan vs. the New England Patriots and tons of cash.
Shanahan, then the Falcons offensive coordinator, brought that invaluable backpack with him to Super Bowl Media Night at Minute Maid Park in Houston, but didn’t hold on to it quite tight enough.
Legendary sportswriter Art Spander took it by accident, creating a minor panic and a social media firestorm that fueled conspiracy theories that the Patriots were up to no good. In reality, an 82-year old man had a case of mistaken backpack identity.
Shanahan eventually got the backpack back, but the hour-plus between lost and found is a crazy tale retold by those who were there.
This is that story:
The ‘belle of the ball’
Kyle Shanahan had agreed in principle to become the next 49ers head coach. It was a terribly kept secret heading into Super Bowl week, and media night was the first time Shanahan was made available to comment on a job he would take but could not discuss fully until after his Falcons work was done.
Gregg Rosenthal, NFL.com: “Kyle had the biggest crowd of any of the assistant coaches. He was in an awkward place because there were so many people swarming around him. It was all 49ers questions. I was actually impressed with how he answered them transparently without breaking any league rules.
“His media night spot was a nicer setup because it was a little bigger than normal. Kyle’s crowd, though, was wild. Everyone wanted to hear from Kyle, and not just because of the 49ers. A lot of people also thought that Falcons offense was one of the greatest of all time. He hadn’t spoken about the 49ers at all, so people were hanging all over each other trying to get a question in.”
Darin Gantt, Pro Football Talk: “Kyle Shanahan was the belle of the ball that night. He was getting ready to take a head coaching job and everybody wanted to get his thoughts. There was a constantly moving herd of people around him, and I was there for a good bit.”
Art Spander: “I come running up because I was late. I got in that night and everything was already going, so I got to him and just sort of dropped my backpack. It’s sort of dark and, after the session ended, I pick up the backpack because I thought it was mine.”
Kyle Shanahan, 49ers head coach: “All you guys were huddled around me and distracting me, setting me up while he could take it. [laughing] No, I was sitting on the top part of a chair and it was between my legs. Then, when I was done talking to everybody, it wasn’t there anymore.”
Shanahan’s media session ended after the prescribed hour, with the Patriots press period starting shortly after. The crowd around Shanahan started to disperse, and in that moment the esteemed coached realized his backpack was gone.
Shanahan: “I was panicked, not because of the game plan or anything. That’s on an iPad and you need codes to get in and stuff and we have others, so that’s not a big deal, but I had about 48 Super Bowl tickets in there that I bought for family members and everything. I was carrying a lot of money from that, a lot of IOU’s and stuff. I was very panicked about the tickets and the cash.”
Rosenthal: “I was there when Kyle’s session started breaking up. As I remember it, either as it was wrapping up or with a couple or so minutes left, he started asking around for the bag. He had what must’ve been a PR person there with him, and they quickly seemed to get a little panicked, and everyone around started checking to see if they had it. I am someone who would be very likely to take something accidentally, and I was quickly happy that it wasn’t me. I certainly felt for him at that time.”
Shanahan: “The whole team left me, the Patriots came in, I was walking around there looking for my backpack frantically, running into more media people and still having to do interviews past my deal. I was trying not to come off as a jerk blowing them off, but I was certainly stressed trying to find my backpack.”
Rosenthal: “I didn’t know at the time that his playbook was in it. I do remember people were grabbing him and asking him for more interviews as he was trying to get out of there. It seemed like he was worried and trying to think about where this bag is. We all knew he didn’t have it, and I wasn’t the only one sort of hanging around to see how it played out. For a second, I thought about the fact the Patriots were there and we weren’t one Super Bowl away from DeflateGate, and I thought, ‘Is this going to be a thing? Is this going to be a huge story throughout the week?’ Not that I thought the Patriots took it, but the backpack disappeared and I thought it might turn into a Super Bowl week mystery.”
The social media storm
Word of Shanahan's missing backpack spread like wildfire with a strong wind. The Super Bowl's media night always contains a fair amount of ridiculousness, but this was kindling for those on social media looking for a fresh angle.
Gantt: “We were between sessions when the information started to spread. I was actually sitting across the table from Mr. Spander in the work area. I didn’t realize what was going on and he didn’t realize what was going on. I said 'hello' to Mr. Spander and asked if everything was good. He was sitting there minding his own business and there was no sense at that point what was happening. I left to go to the Patriots session, which came after the Falcons that night without realizing anything was up.”
Rosenthal: “I saw what had happened on Twitter later on. I lingered around to see where it would go, but the Patriots session was coming up. The Falcons PR person was still there and abruptly left. It was later that evening or within an hour or so that we found out Art Spander had it. They were looking around and eventually realized there was one bag left and it was Art’s.”
Gantt: “We were all doing different things when it started popping up on social media. My first reaction: “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it!” (laughing) They couldn’t pin it on me. Seriously, though, I can understand the panic on Kyle’s part, probably more so for the tickets and the cash than the playbook because they can wipe that thing pretty easily. The cash and tickets, I’m sure, was what he was having a heart attack about.”
Solving the case
Shanahan never located his backpack at Minute Maid Field because it was no longer there. There was another backpack left unclaimed. It was green, just like Shanahan’s, and was easily identified as belonging to Spander.
Shanahan: “I think we found it, because the backpack remaining, I eventually opened it and saw his name in there, so people tracked him down.”
Shanahan enlisted USA Today columnist Jarrett Bell to track Spander down. While people may know Spander as a freelance writer in the Bay Area, the man is a legend. He will cover his 42nd Super Bowl this week in Miami. He’s a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame. He has covered 53 straight Masters golf tournaments and received the PGA’s lifetime achievement award. He has been to 67 consecutive Rose Bowls, and is well known throughout the sports-writing community.
Bell, as it turned out, had Spander’s cell-phone number.
Spander: “I was getting ready to formally sit down and start writing when Jarrett Bell calls me up and says, ‘you have Kyle Shanahan’s backpack.’ I said, ‘no I don’t.’ He was sure I had it and, honestly, I hadn’t even looked at it to realize that I didn’t have my computer ... I had not opened it up. It was the same green color as mine.”
Shanahan: “He had it, and they tried to take it off of him and he wouldn’t give it to me at first until I showed him it was mine.”
Spander: “So I go back to the field and I bring the backpack with me. Somebody from the Falcons sees me and says, ‘that’s it!’ and looks at me like I stole it. He grabs it from me. By that point, the news was all over the place and it becomes gigantic.”
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Shanahan and the Falcons certainly were relieved that his backpack was returned relatively untouched. It was roughly 90 minutes of pure panic followed by a great sense of relief. This flash in the pan, however, proved tough to extinguish.
Spander: “I’ve known Jarrett forever. He’s at USA TODAY, but he used to work at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat for a little while. He writes about it, and boom, it’s all over the country. I’m not famous but I’m recognizable, which made it a thing. Then the jokes all started, including that the Belichick paid me off. I mean, he doesn’t even talk to me. It just grew into a life of its own. I was getting phone calls and TV requests.
Gantt: “I saw him the next day and brought it up, and he was great. Just hilarious. He was kind of embarrassed and didn’t really want to be the star of the show but accidentally found himself there. He was gracious and funny about it after the fact. He clearly enjoyed telling the story over and over again. He’s such a great ambassador for the business anyway, and it was such a funny story for him to be in the middle of that.”
Spander: “And even Newsday, a paper I have done a lot of work for over the years, wanted me to write a first-person piece. I thought it was funny, but it kept on going. I went to spring training a while later and [then Giants manager Bruce] Bochy says, ‘Is that your backpack?’ And I’m still getting it even now. It refuses to die. Honestly, though, it doesn’t bother me at all. I know all these people and I can take a joke and crack a joke.”
Gantt: “Part of the reason I love it is that it’s Art Spander. Everyone in this business who has ever met him loves Art Spander and what he means to sports writing. He’s such a gracious gentleman. There are several I can think of who, if they picked up the backpack, I’d think they were a jerk. Nobody’s going to say that about Mr. Spander. I think, for me, this was a fun story because the NFL has become so regimented and structured and buttoned-down, with Is dotted and Ts crossed, that somehow the offensive coordinator’s bag goes missing. It’s almost like Tom Brady’s jersey being stolen. You almost wonder how it even happened. It obviously takes a criminal mastermind like Art Spander to pull that off.”
Shanahan: “I forgave him fast, but I was stressed for a while.”