ATLANTA — On the night of Jan. 24, 1987, Phil Simms settled into his Pasadena, Calif., hotel room and flicked on the TV. On the eve of Super Bowl XXI, Simms watched Joe Montana host “Saturday Night Live.”
“I went, ‘Damn, Joe is pretty good!’ And then I thought, ‘If we win, will I get to do “Saturday Night Live”?’ I’m serious, Joe was really good on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” Simms said this week. “And then I watched a movie, and then I thought, well, I guess I’ll take a little nap. I slept for a couple hours, got up, went to the lobby and that was it.”
So, the night before the biggest game of his life, in which he threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns, completing 22 of 25 passes, and earning the game’s MVP award in the Giants’ 39-20 win, Simms stayed up until 3 a.m. watching television and competed on just a couple hours of sleep.
“I could have ate dirt and made it work,” Simms said. “I’m serious. When you’re an athlete and you’re in your prime, you really can’t screw your body up. I’d eat whatever. I’d go home and eat anything . . . It’s not like now. What’s Tom’s thing, avocado ice cream?”
Avocado ice cream and an early bedtime, usually before 9 p.m. for the Patriots quarterback. There aren’t many Simms-types left playing in the NFL, with most teams drumming the fundamentals of sleep science into their players, and players such as Tom Brady taking rest and recovery to the extreme.
So for those players, the ones who normally would prioritize a good night’s sleep, what happens when excitement gets in the way? On the night before a big game, how do players sleep?
“I toss and turn a lot,” said Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty, who will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday. “My wife credits the fact that she’s not there that I don’t always get a greater amount of sleep, but that’s also a night without any kids. So I’m somewhere in between a great night’s sleep and a lot of tossing and turning and I don’t expect it to be any different this time.”
Last year, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy was in McCourty’s shoes as a Super Bowl newbie, and lulled himself to sleep with episodes of “Family Guy.” Offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle said he takes melatonin when necessary. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower said he sleeps fine as long as he’s comfortable with the game plan. On the other side of Sunday’s matchup, Rams linebacker Mark Barron said he always lies awake the night before a big game envisioning himself making big plays.
It makes sense. Making a Super Bowl is a pinnacle achievement in a football career. It’s nerve wracking and exciting, like an extra-stressful Christmas Eve. But kids don’t wake up on Christmas needing to run, block, and tackle at their absolute best. Since the Simms approach is out of vogue, players have to recognize that even though they might not get a perfect night’s sleep, they should try to get a good one.
“They can either be a perfectionist in their habits, which I think can be problematic, right, because they’re going, ‘Oh, my God, if I don’t get 10 hours of sleep, I’m in trouble.’ And just the fact that you’re worrying about the perfect sleep doesn’t let you get the perfect sleep and it creeps into everything,” said Dr. Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist and lead consultant for Telos Sport Psychology Coaching. “Or there’s the ones that don’t take care of it. So it’s almost like you want to be able to fall in the middle. And to me, especially on a week like this you’ve got to go, ‘Hey, my goal is a good, decent quiet room.’ ”
Former Vikings, Seahawks, and Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson said he remembered many conversations with teammates in the locker room about restless sleep during his career, though he didn’t have trouble himself.
“I would say the majority of the team couldn’t sleep,” Burleson said. “We get in the locker room or we’re eating breakfast, everybody starts tossing around questions. ‘How did you sleep? How do you feel? How’s your body? How’s your mind?’ And most of the guys would say, ‘I couldn’t sleep.’ And that has an impact on you on gameday when you’re running off a lack of sleep.”
Teams know it’s important. Patriots nutritionist Ted Harper also works with players on rest habits. The Rams track the hours and times their players are sleeping and tell them to shoot for 6-8 hours a night. It’s not supposed to be punitive, but if a player has a noticeable drop in performance, the team will check his sleep records to see if that might be a factor.
“Hopefully they just get enough,” said Rams COO Kevin Demoff.
Ahead of the Super Bowl, there’s not a lot players can do but accept that they might be a little jittery. Professional athletes have spent enough time on the road that they’re usually conscious of what they need to be comfortable. That said, making sure they have all those things, particularly when roommates come into the conversation, is sometimes easier said than done.
“I always go to sleep, I just wake up throughout the night,” McCourty said. “Younger in my career I used to . . . room with Jared Cook, who’s on the Raiders right now, and Cook liked the room hot and he snored. So, some of my worst sleep came that season.”
Several players, such as Patriots Phillip Dorsett and Elandon Roberts, said they sleep like babies, game or no game. They have teammates who envy them, especially on the night before the Super Bowl. At least this year they have this: “Saturday Night Live” is on a break.