The crowd at Super Bowl LV won't be anything near the numbers the NFL has become accustomed to at the biggest game of the year, but among the 25,000 fans who will be in attendance, 7,500 of them will be vaccinated healthcare workers, there as the guests of the NFL to thank and honor them for their service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four of those 7,500 will be employees of UPMC hospitals in Pittsburgh, as the league partnered with the Steelers and each of the other 31 NFL clubs to select four vaccinated healthcare workers from their communities to be rewarded with an all-expense paid trip to attend the game on Sunday, Feb. 7.
All the vaccinated workers will follow the strict COVID-19 protocols the league has in place for the game, which includes mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing.
"These dedicated health care workers continue to put their own lives at risk to serve others, and we owe them our ongoing gratitude," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement. "We hope in a small way that this initiative will inspire our country and recognize these true American heroes. This is also an opportunity to promote the importance of vaccination and appropriate health practices, including wearing masks in public settings."
In January, the NFL and the Steelers surprised four frontline workers who were nominated by co-workers for the trip, including Registered Nurse Justin Gossett (UPMC Mercy), Director of Maintenance and Engineering Pat Hogan (UPMC Shadyside), Respiratory Team Member Marcus Paxton (UPMC Mercy) and Director of Respiratory Care Services Breen Smith (UPMC Shadyside).
The exciting news was shared with the winners by Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson via a video message.
"We are so thankful for what you have done to care for those with COVID-19 in the Pittsburgh community over the past year," said Dawson in the messages. "As a very special thank you, on behalf of the Steelers and the National Football League, we are so happy send you on an all-expense paid trip to Super Bowl LV in Tampa."
The reaction from the four winners was shock, excitement and just pure joy.
"What…what…Oh my God," said Paxton as Dawson shared the news. "Oh man, thank you so much. Thanks for everybody that wrote about me. I appreciate it. Thank you so much."
Gossett, who got the good news at UMPC Mercy just moments after Paxton, had a similar reaction.
"Wow. Thank you. I am in shock," said Gossett, who thought he was attending a meeting when he was given the news. "I was expecting something different today. This means the world to me. I am happy to be there to help."
The reaction and happiness at UMPC Shadyside was the same.
"I really appreciate this honor," said Hogan, a Steelers fan since he was a kid. "For me, I am just part of a team. That is the way my staff thinks. Everything we did, we did for the hospital because that is what we do, that is what our job is. They did the same thing at all of the other hospitals. It's not that I am unique. It's just that I did what you asked me to do.
"I am excited to travel down to Tampa for the Super Bowl. Having the vaccine, both doses of it, gives me a little more comfort, but that doesn't mean you are invincible. The CDC and everyone that knows way more than I do still make the recommendations to wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands. We are still in the infancy of this thing. To get to this point and it's not impacted me, I am going to listen to what the experts say and not be foolish."
For Smith, a lifelong Steelers fan, is thankful for the opportunity and grateful to the Steelers and NFL for honoring healthcare workers.
"I am still overwhelmed, taken aback," said Smith. "I felt humbled. I have always been a Steelers fan. My father is a season ticket holder. It's been in my family. My oldest brother, he was disabled, and to spend time with him we watched a lot of sporting events. We would reenact Franco's (Harris) big play. I can't remember a Sunday without watching Steelers football. It's been a very important part of my life."