The Joint Color Guard practices for the Super Bowl at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, La. (Jennifer Villaume / Army)
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Army Sgt. 1st Class Ervin Davis thought his first sergeant was joking.
He was being put in charge of the Super Bowl color guard. He would bear the national flag in front of, oh, about 100 million people.
"Sure, I am," the New Orleans-area recruiter said to himself. "I thought it had to be a practical joke."
Then he got the call from the Pentagon.
Only a few years earlier, Davis remembers watching the Super Bowl during a convoy pit stop from Iraq into Kuwait.
"Man, I wish that was me," he remembers saying to himself as he watched the color guard perform on football's biggest stage. "How do you get that job?"
Now he knows.
It all starts with Adrien Starks, a special projects coordinator at the Pentagon for military support to big high-visibility sporting events. "I do get a lot of the fun stuff," she says with a laugh. "But I don't get to go. Isn't that a bummer? And I'm a huge football fan."
Perhaps not surprisingly for the military, the process begins with some paperwork.
"The NFL has to do the exact same thing anyone else would do," Starks says. "If they want a band, they would submit a DD Form 2536. For aviation support, or flyovers, it's a DD-2535. The military has to have its forms."
From there, "It's a little bit of a negotiation back and forth, as to what specifically they'd like to have."
This year, for example, a flyover by the either Navy Blue Angles or the Air Force's Thunderbirds — they usually alternate Super Bowl duty every other year — was off the list because of scheduling conflicts. Besides, New Orleans' Superdome is closed-topped, which is kind of a buzz kill for flybys anyway.
From there, Starks says, it's a matter of linking local assets whenever possible, to whatever support is approved.
For the 10-person Joint Service Color Guard — which in addition the national flag bearer, includes troops from all five services bearing their respective service colors, as well as flanking drummers and rifle-bearers — the trick is putting together a team that is representative of the services, but also the diversity of the country.
Plus, there needs to be a whole back-up crew of alternates ready to jump in at the last minute.
"We always like to be prepared. Anything can happen — they can get sick, stuck in traffic, anything — but the show must go on," Starks says. "Unfortunately, I also have to be the person who provides the bad news there." All parties, primaries and alternates, have to make every rehearsal, but only the primaries actually go out on field. And, you know, get to see the game.
In fact, even the troops who perform don't always get to stay for the game itself.
For the 2011 Super Bowl, for example, the military contingent was so big — a color guard, the Air Force singing group Tops in Blue, among others — the NFL wouldn't provide seats for them, she says.
"It hurts, it does, but I tell them, ‘Think about the fact that you're representing the Department of Defense and your service before millions. We can't pay for this type of publicity and showcase the very best of our Armed Forces.'"
Every year, she gives the performers an over-the-phone pep talk just before they take the field, hopefully to help calm their nerves as well as remind them why they're there.
Davis says he could have used that pep talk when he first got the call from Starks, just after the New Year, saying he'd gotten the nod to lead this year's team.
"At first I was pretty nervous. I was like, I'm not sure I want to do this after all."
But he's feeling much more confident now.
"We've been practicing at least twice a week. We've got it down."
So how did he get the job? It simply boiled down to the fact that his chain of command thought he was the right guy for it.
A lifelong pro football fan, this will be his very first chance to see an NFL game in person.
"I can't wait. It's going to be amazing."