'Thrill of a lifetime'
WHEN THE topic is Super Bowl XLVI, Betty Burns will argue a point with you.
Despite what the television showed, New England receiver Wes Welker did not drop the ball. At least when it comes to the soon-to-be 74-year-old St. Albans grandmother.
OK, OK. So, yes, Welker's drop of a slightly high Tom Brady pass hurt the Patriots' chances of defeating the New York Giants. As much as the game will be remembered for an Eli Manning pass threaded to Giants receiver Mario Manningham, it will also be remembered for the failed, twisting attempt by Welker.
With the Pats holding a late two-point lead, driving for the game-clinching touchdown, Welker was wide open on a second-and-11 situation for what could have been a 23-yard first down at the Giants' 20. Instead, the ball glanced off his hands. The Giants rallied to win. And the snapshot of Welker, hands on head, aching on the turf over the miss, was etched in our memories.
What is burned into Burns' memory, however, is the kindness of Welker. See, the receiver paid for her ticket to the game. And Burns ended up sitting in the 15th row on the 20-yard line for one of the most memorable Super Bowls in history.
"It was the thrill of a lifetime," Burns said.
Here's the lowdown. Burns is the grandmother of Welker's fiancee, Anna Burns, known for modeling and her title of Miss Hooters International in 2005. The granddaughter, who spent a year living in St. Albans before her high school years in Fayetteville, N.C., and Grandma are close and hatched a plan to meet and take in a Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers game.
"I didn't get to go," said the St. Albans resident, "so [Welker] said, 'Well, the next time there's a game that's close enough, Grandma should get to go.' Indianapolis was the closest."
The father of Anna Burns, Richard, also lives in St. Albans, but Grandma got the nod this time. ("I try not to rub it in too much," said Betty with a smile.)
The unfortunate part for Betty Burns was she didn't get the chance to visit with Welker beforehand because of practice and meetings. Instead, she had dinner with her granddaughter and Welker's family at a Japanese restaurant.
Overall, though, the experience was full. She stayed in a suite with her granddaughter's mother, Vivian Schoonover. She had passes to a reception and breakfast. And, of course, there was the game.
"I'd never been to a pro game before," Betty Burns said. "Can you imagine how terrific it was? I've been a football fan all my life, but mostly just a WVU fan. But there I got to see how the television cameras work, how the teams practice, the game, everything."
She took her lucky New England shirt to wear, but was discouraged from wearing it by Anna.
"I rolled it up, though, and took it anyway," Betty said. "Every time I'd worn it, they'd won. At halftime, Anna said, 'Put the shirt on.' "
Betty not only saw the game, but the halftime show with Madonna. She saw Earth, Wind & Fire, Maroon 5 and Steven Tyler at the Pats post-game party. And, yes, that's where tight end Rob Gronkowski was caught celebrating after the loss. ("I didn't see him," she said. "It was a little dark in there.")
"The party was supposed to be a victory party," Betty said. "It was under a tent as big as a football field. [Patriots owner] Mr. [Robert] Kraft came out and spoke of his wife, who passed away. The team had promised to play their best to win for her."
The St. Albans native's heart went out to Kraft, but also to Welker after the drop.
"I felt so sorry for him," Betty said. "It's easy to blame, but teams win as teams. He twisted around and almost caught it.
"Afterward, I went to the party with his parents, who are such nice, gracious people. On the way, Mr. Welker offered me his arm. Some people were talking and said, 'You know, if Welker would have just caught that ball ...' But Mr. Welker was gracious and didn't say a word. He just stared straight ahead."
The player, according to Betty, didn't go to the post-game party. ("He was devastated," she said.) But all seems better.
"He got good support," said Betty. "He's fine."
Grandma, meanwhile, has a memory for the ages.
"My daughter Beth said, 'Mom, your bucket list is looking pretty good,' " Betty said. "It was a wonderful, wonderful experience."
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.