HOUSTON − This time, Dwight Freeney is trying as hard as he can to drink it all in − the sights and sounds, the excitement and anticipation, the sheer spectacle that is the biggest of all sporting events.
Freeney is in the Super Bowl for the third time in his NFL career, but this also is the end of his 15th season, which is many times longer than players typically last in the game. He's a little more than two weeks from his 37th birthday, making him old for most positions and ancient for a defensive end. And he doesn't start, working instead in a situational capacity.
“You think you’re going to go (to the Super Bowl) all the time once you go the first time," said Freeney, who had three sacks in the regular season.
For Freeney, that first Super Bowl came after the 2006 season with the Indianapolis Colts. He helped them beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, then helped them beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Freeney would make it back to the big game one more time with the Colts, in their loss to the New Orleans Saints after the 2009 season.
And now, after stints with the San Diego Chargers (2013-2014) and the Arizona Cardinals (2015), he's getting one more shot at another Super Bowl ring − and the Patriots − with the Atlanta Falcons.
"I just think just the moments like this," he said, looking around at the hundreds of reporters and all of the fans in the stands at Super Bowl LI Opening Night at Minute Maid Park, "and the moments I go through, I just take a second to really appreciate it, you know? Kind of just like take it all in. Take a deep breath. Don’t just be in the moment and not realize what moment you’re in.”
At this point in his career and life, Freeney has all sorts of sage advice for his younger teammates. Some of the youngest are with him on defense, where the Falcons start four rookies.
Freeney has told other player on the team they're in for an "amazing" process. He has warned them about not getting too hyped up for a game that takes hype to levels they've never imagined. He has talked a lot about maintaining focus.
"Keeping Wednesday’s focus, Wednesday’s focus," he said. "If you’re worried about Sunday on Wednesday, that’s a problem. You’re losing focus trying to bring it back in. I think (Falcons coach) Dan Quinn does a great job of keeping everybody on that focus.”
The Falcons were able to do that during the season after their defense got off to a slow start. On the way to 3-1, they gave up 124 points.
Things steadily improved before their 11-5 finish, but Freeney understood that he had to do his part to keep things together.
"Yeah, things in the beginning of this year weren’t necessarily the greatest for our defense," Freeney said. "Yeah, we gave up some points there and we had some growing aches and pains. That’s going to happen in the year.
"I don’t think any team, period, would say and sit here, even the Patriots, and say they didn’t have their growing pains at some point in some phase of the game. Obviously with us, one of our issues in the beginning of the year definitely was our defense and giving up as many points as we had.
"And then we had a run where we were in the top three in points allowed in the last eight games or something like that. So there’s been a transition there in understanding that one thing is that we want to play our best football now. That’s the biggest thing."
The ability to see the big picture has served Freeney well throughout his career, during which he has produced 122.5 sacks and developed his signature spin move that has left many offensive tackles frustrated.
When he joined the Colts in 2002, as a first-round draft pick from Syracuse, his goal was to play for 10 years.
"Get 10 years in and you’ll retire after year 10 and you’ll be done and you’ll be happy," Freeney remembered thinking. "I think that never happens the way that players think that’s going to happen as you plan."
After his 10th season, Freeney said, "OK, this is probably it for me." He proceeded to play an 11th year. Then a 12th and 13th, with San Diego. Then a 14th, with Arizona. And now a 15th.
"I keep coming back, keep coming back," Freeney said. "But I never envisioned all of this. I just wanted to go out and play the best way I could and help out the team however I could. If that’s getting sacks, that’s getting sacks. If that’s helping guys get in the right place for them to make sacks, that’s what it is. I just want to be an impact and play in these moments as often as possible.”
Has he thought about following the script of his former Colts teammate, Peyton Manning, who retired after he helped the Denver Broncos win Super Bowl 50?
"I don't know," Freeney said. "I always say, after the year, you've got to give it a couple months to let things die down, let the emotion of whatever's happening die down little bit, so that you can make the best decision for you and your family. Sometimes guys make those decisions right when they lose. Obviously, they're upset. Sometimes they make rush decisions when they win. I like to try to take all that emotion out and then make that decision when it comes.
"(2015) was real close. Last year, I was training until weeks five or six, and I was done. I was like, 'Man, look, I'm tried of training. I'm tried of being ready, no one's calling.' All these coaches said, 'Oh, just stay ready, stay ready.' I'm like, 'Forget that, I'm done.' I was thinking about doing media.
"And then, all of sudden, I get a call from (Cardinals coach) Bruce (Arians). Bruce says, 'Hey, you ready?' I'm like, 'Ahh … Alright, let's go.' And I went and did that, and that was a whole great experience."
Freeney is having another great one, with a chance for it to get even better with a victory Sunday.
In the meantime, he's savoring every bit of it.