Editor's note: Hospitalized with a blood infection, Robert Cook watched his Packers win on TV. He died Feb. 10, 2011.
By now, they're as familiar to TV viewers as the players who will take the field on Sunday for Super Bowl XLV. They're the members of the Never Miss a Super Bowl Club — four men who have attended every Super Bowl since 1967. And they've got the ticket stubs, photos and other memorabilia to prove it.
Robert Cook, 79, says it's no surprise to him that his team, the Green Bay Packers, is playing in the big game. "I knew they were going to the Super Bowl all along," says the resident of Brown Deer, Wis.
Pittsburgh Steelers fan Tom Henschel, 69, of Natrona Heights, Pa., and Tampa, Fla., says he has no love for his buddies' teams and that they don't love his Steelers. But nonetheless, "we know we have something special."
"We enjoy the game," says New England Patriots fan Don Crisman, 74, of Kennebunk, Maine. Plus, the Super Bowl is a chance to escape the cold. "When you live in Maine you want to get someplace warmer in winter."
And for Larry Jacobson, 71, of San Francisco, a 49ers fan, the excitement is in cheering for his top pick: "My favorite part of the game? When the team I'm rooting for goes ahead."
The foursome, who met at various Super Bowls over the years, have become America's newest media stars thanks to appearances in Visa's television spots for its "Go Fans" NFL campaign, a sweepstakes in which fans have a chance to attend the Super Bowl for the rest of their lives by using their Visa card.
"Who better to help us than four men who have been to each and every Super Bowl since its inception?" asks Alex Craddock, head of USA Marketing for Visa. "We were looking to reach passionate NFL fans in an authentic and engaging way. Their personal stories and unique experience make for much more compelling viewing than can ever be scripted."
Cook agrees that being there is an experience like no other. "Watching on television is not like being there," says the married father of six. He's retired from his family's UPS franchise. "When you're part of the crowd, you're part of the game."
Their exclusive club has seen it all: every football fantasy, foible and fetish; every missed first down, field goal attempt and fingertip catch.
They were there when Packers quarterback Bart Starr snagged Most Valuable Player honors in Super Bowl I and II. They watched the San Francisco 49ers deliver a beat down to the Denver Broncos, 55-10, in Super Bowl XXIV. And they witnessed history when Tony Dungy became the first African American coach to win a championship when his Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI.
Game on, party on
The Super Bowl extravaganza is one of the most popular parties going. More than 150 million viewers in the United States watched last year. This year's stars include Grammy winners Christina Aguilera, who will sing the national anthem, and the Black Eyed Peas performing the halftime show.
Like thousands of other attendees, the Never Miss guys will check out the events, the media and the players at team hotels. So how do the NFL's elite react to meeting loyal fans?
"There are some guys that are really great and want to spend time with you," says Crisman, who has four grown children with wife Beverley. "There are others … they're always in a hurry."
The four buddies, their wives and friends will also gather for their ritual Saturday pregame luncheon.
"We talk about the same things we talked about the year before. But because of our age we forgot we talked about it," quips Jacobson, retired from San Francisco's school system and city-county government. He and his wife, Jonell, have two grown daughters.
Jacobson's passion for football began at 13, when two uncles gave him a ticket to a 49er game. He says he's been hooked on football and a 49er season ticket holder ever since.
"I've missed weddings. I have missed babies being born, but I have no intention of missing a Super Bowl — ever," Jacobson says. "Every team member has a specific job. That's a metaphor for life."
Cook agrees: "Football is a lot like life with its ups and downs."
The price of celebrity
Cook and Henschel, a Navy veteran and retired airline employee, will carry bragging rights into Super Bowl XLV when Green Bay and Pittsburgh meet Sunday.
"It's like the gladiators in the big arena," says Henschel, who spends summers in Pennsylvania and winters in Florida with his wife, Regina. "Going to the Super Bowl is like the Fourth of July and New Year's put together. I just feel like a kid again."
Despite their years, the guys have managed to retain a boyish exuberance about the game. And being in national TV ads has brought them celebrity.
"I can't walk in the Wal-Mart without people coming up to me and shaking hands," says Crisman, a retired businessman and former NASCAR pit crew member. "I finally had to get an unlisted phone because of so many calls."
Visa officials say the commercials have resonated with NFL fans. Even the NFL considers the Never Miss guys priceless.
"We never know who will be in the Super Bowl any given year, but we can count on these guys," says NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "They are great ambassadors."
Mike Tucker is a writer in Springfield, Va.