Dion Rich never met a Super Bowl security detail he couldn’t juke like a flat-footed defender.
The San Diego man said he has slipped into more than 30 Super Bowls without a ticket, and made his way onto the field almost two dozen times.
The roguery has been immortalized in photos with Rich on the winner’s podium with coach Vince Lombardi and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle at the first Super Bowl and helping lift Cowboys coach Tom Landry off the field after Dallas’ triumph in Super Bowl XII.
Rich and fellow rapscallions are those rare social creatures who enjoy the big dodge more than the big game.
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“It’s not a game for me, it’s a way of life,” said the man celebrated for his stealth-like ability to enter high-profile events without tickets or invitations.
The raconteur has bragged about getting into Olympics, World Series games, title fights, America’s Cup races, the Kentucky Derby and the Academy Awards.
The brazen exploits that left security brass red-faced have become as much a part of Super Bowl mythology as Joe Namath’s guarantee – at least beyond the serious halls of NFL headquarters.
But the NFL can relax this year. It apparently won’t have Dion Rich to snuff out at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. The league’s most colorful gate-crasher says he has gone legit: He’s coming to the Bay Area with plans to buy a ticket.
“I hate paying, but I am 86 and I’m not going to live forever,” he said.
Rich, who is searching for the cheapest ticket available, probably won’t be found in his seat in the “nosebleed” section once the game commences. It’s not his nature to sit idly by when there is security to be breached.
“I’ll just wander around to see what mischief I can get into,” he said.
It was the mid-1940s when Rich began sneaking into midget auto races at San Diego’s Balboa Stadium. But he forgot about those youthful transgressions while opening cocktail lounges in San Diego after serving in the military. The San Diego Chargers’ season-ticket holder hobnobbed with players and coaches who frequented one of his bars, including those from visiting teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs.
When the Chiefs advanced to the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967 in Los Angeles, Rich reverted to his teenage high jinks by meeting Kansas City buses at the Memorial Coliseum and walking unnoticed into the locker room with the team.
Rich borrowed a coach’s team jacket and stayed on the sideline throughout the game. He shed the jacket and walked into Green Bay’s locker room when it was evident the Packers would win. That’s how Rich got on the podium with Lombardi and Rozelle during the awards ceremony.
The stunts caught NFL officials’ attention because Rich kept landing on television and in newspapers during those memorable after-game moments. He missed Super Bowl III while on a Lake Tahoe ski trip, but otherwise attended every game.
“Once I became famous I became very nervous because they were looking for me,” said Rich, who would wear wigs, fake glasses and other disguises to elude security guards.
The man who viewed life through ruse-colored glasses once had a friend push him into a Super Bowl in a wheelchair.
Authorities warned, threatened and otherwise cajoled Rich to stop. He didn’t. Officials set up a sting to scare him into retirement in 1989 in Miami.
The man known in San Diego for his philanthropy continued his capers until security grew more sophisticated heading into the 2000s. However, Rich was game to show Sports Illustrated his bag of Super Bowl tricks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The da Vinci of Deception infiltrated the Louisiana Superdome in six minutes.
That was Rich’s final Super Bowl coup. The law caught up with him at the 2005 game in Jacksonville, Fla., as he tried to enter with ticket in hand.
Authorities didn’t nab Rich for sneaking. They got him for possessing a counterfeit ticket that Rich says had cost him $1,500. He spent a night in lockup and had to pay a $1,000 fine.
Eventually, the gatecrasher revealed his secrets to authorities so they could improve security.
When it comes to gate-crashing, as the act of sneaking into exclusive events is known, the Super Bowl has the Mount Everest factor.
“It’s too big to ignore,” Temple University psychologist Frank Farley said.
Psychologists say the phenomena of crashing mega events appeals to risk takers’ need for excitement. The more the NFL spends on security, the more attractive the risk becomes.
“It’s like riding a big wave at Mavericks,” said Keith Johnsgard, San Jose State emeritus professor of psychology.
Gate-crashers fit somewhere on the shelf next to hackers, pranksters and other mischief makers. Repercussions such as arrest don’t seem to act as a strong deterrent when their actions often lead to media attention and public fascination.
“We love the little guy tweaking the nose of the system,” said Farley, former American Psychology Association president. “People view it as sort of heroic.”
Well, not everyone, according to Mark Ellis, managing director of Gatecrash Security in Australia.
“If they are showing disregard for one rule, they generally disregard all the rules,” he said.
The NFL says it won’t comment on security issues.
A league dealing with concussions, domestic violence and performance-enhancing drugs might have bigger concerns than the vagaries of a guy looking for free passage.
But NFL officials never forgave Rich his trespasses. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Officials at the 1982 Super Bowl apprehended “The Great Impostor” Barry Bremen as he tried to enter the gates disguised as the San Diego Chicken mascot.
But they don’t catch everyone.
Richard Whelan and Paul McEvoy didn’t have a grand scheme last year when sneaking into University of Phoenix Stadium for Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz.
They just couldn’t afford the steep ticket prices of $9,000 minimum after arriving from Ireland. Whelan and McEvoy sat in a Scottsdale, Ariz., bar the morning of the Super Bowl commiserating about their misfortune.
Then an idea percolated.
“I flew 18 hours just for this game,” said Whelan, a longtime Seahawks fans. “If there is a 2 percent chance that we get in, I didn’t want to look back and say I didn’t try.”
The game had started by the time they arrived at the stadium, still not sure what they would do. Whelan wore his Seattle Seahawks jersey, McEvoy, his New England Patriots gear.
The men greeted everyone with big smiles and acted as if they belonged as they walked through the first secured gate. They followed medical workers who were being checked at the door to the stadium when Whelan and McEvoy noticed a lone security guard on his phone at a nearby gate. They pushed through there, but still needed tickets to reach the seats. Their solution: carry so much concession food they couldn’t easily show ushers ticket stubs.
The men eventually landed in the fourth row where they met two ticketless kids who also had walked in without getting caught.
“Security had been working hard and they just seemed to be not completely on point,” said Whelan, 25.
Rich also attended Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale. By then he had quit crashing games. But senior citizenship wouldn’t stop him from sneaking into an exclusive Rolling Stone magazine party connected to the game.
Author Bill Swank said his friend just “walked right down the red carpet and through the door without any questions asked.”
All for a little mischief.