Nowacki: NFL coverage amid coronavirus not the same, but we’ll take what we can get

NFL, Vikings trying to make it work.

The Green Bay Packers play the Minnesota Vikings in a stadium without fans during their football game Sunday, September 13, 2020, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn. Dan Powers/Appleton Post-Crescsent-USA TODAY NETWORK

MINNEAPOLIS — As I pulled into downtown on Sunday, the streets were eerily quiet, more typical of mid-July than mid-September.

No throngs of purple people marching toward U.S. Bank Stadium. No smells of brats and beer in the air or music or carnival sounds to fill the ears.

Yes, this wasn’t your typical Minnesota Vikings season opener. This felt more like a funeral procession in a ghost town.

Instead, I simply turned onto 11th Avenue, waited a handful of seconds for the Blue Line to roll through and found a primo parking spot on the corner of Sixth Street, as simple as a Sunday stroll, with U.S. Bank Stadium in my rearview mirror. I swiped my credit card at the parking meter. Three bucks and I was good to go for the rest of the day when normally spots around here would be pushing 50 bucks and would be long gone an hour before the game.

I can’t imagine the economic impact of all this. That Sunday gravy train, gone.


I walked across the street and found my entrance and then gradually weaved my way through security. I already had signed my waiver of liability agreement electronically, so that saved me a step. A security worker took my temperature and I was asked to read a series of questions, including if I had been to any foreign countries. I was tempted to say, “Only Wisconsin,” but I refrained (it’s a joke, people).

I’ve covered enough bigger events now, post COVID-19, where it’s starting to feel routine. Dare I say I’m getting used to it? The new normal.

I exited the elevator and found my spot. The Vikings have always been good to us, the front row of the press box and not too far down, not stuck in the corner. Media sit in the southeastern end of the stadium, opposite the wonderful glass doors that make the stadium unique.

This year, of course, accommodating the media is trickier.

Media liaison Jon Ekstrom said the Vikings normally have about 300 media members present for a Vikings-Packers game. This year, it was cut to about half that. Per Ekstrom, the team reduced the press box number to about 50% and moved the visiting team’s staff — and some internal staff — to what would have been, in this year, unused suites on the press level.

Believe me, with a stadium that accommodates 73,000, there’s room to spare. Media members were spread out about six feet apart, with folks in the front row having a plastic divider between them and nothing but rows of folded purple seats in front of them. Better bring your binoculars.

The players, way down below, moving about, haphazardly, could pass for the old electronic football game, and based on the Vikings’ play-calling Sunday, had about the same level of direction.

One question a co-worker asked was if they would provide food during COVID. I assumed they would. One of the perks of being a sportswriter is free eats, even if it sometimes resembles, and tastes, like reconstituted carcass (rare cases here, people).


The Vikings normally have the best stuff, made-to-order omelets, full salad bar, roasted chicken, uh, yeah, no. Not happening this time. After getting settled in, I walked over to the dining area and …


I expected this and ultimately, I don’t care. I’m there to cover the game, but no Mountain Dew, c’mon, man. Just water (in the cooler). How ’bout, just Dew? Of course, they had coffee. Coffee sucks.

At halftime, they sent us to the feeding trough in waves, again, a COVID precaution. The media feasted on pre-packaged meals. Bananas, cookies, chips, club sandwiches … if you wanted just turkey, or ham, nope. They were all the same, as we were told going through the line … i.e. just grab one, speed up the process, here. Believe me, otherwise, every scribe, this one included, will snoop till he finds filet mignon, the endless search for the fountain of food. This wasn’t it.


Was the sandwich good? No, even with three mayo packets, but having driven down from Duluth, holding out hope for a made-to-order omelet, even if I knew it wasn’t true, like that first crush in high school, come halftime, it tasted like filet mignon and I was homecoming king. The sandwich was gigantic, like biting into a football. I didn’t care if I fumbled most of it. By that time, I was ready to start chewing on my arm. I just appreciated the effort, something, anything, during this crazy time.

I think we all know what happened in the game.

The Vikings’ production team is considered one of the best in the business, helping create a normally raucous environment at U.S. Bank Stadium. That undoubtedly gives the home team an advantage, but with no fans allowed, that production crew had no one to cater to and by rule, were limited. It was all fake crowd noise, for both sides, and not even loud at that (believe me, I was here for the Minnesota Miracle, I know loud).

This, this here, was the Boy Scouts.

In the Vikings’ 43-34 loss, it probably wouldn’t have mattered because it really wasn’t that close. Production geeks don’t play D, either.

Afterward, like so many things these days, interviews were handled via Zoom, no one-on-ones here.

Of course, it wasn’t all the defense’s fault.

Perhaps it was a joke, or a goof, a dry run, a rehearsal, whatever you want to call it, but one time when the Vikings had the ball early in Sunday’s game they posted on the big screens, “Quiet: offense at work.”


There were times by the Vikings’ offense, certainly in the first half, where it was hard to tell.

At any rate, the cardboard fan cutouts, displayed at one end of U.S. Bank Stadium, purchased by real fans, reportedly for $150 a pop, certainly didn’t appear to be offended when told to shut up. Or at least, didn’t get any quieter.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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