MIAMI — The Chiefs were minutes away from walking onto the stage for Super Bowl Opening Night when the NFL honored Kobe Bryant.
The fallen basketball legend was shown on a video board, and a moment of silence was held. Fans inside Marlins Park chanted “Ko-be! Ko-be!”
Super Bowl Week officially kicked off Monday night, but everyone was thinking about and talking about Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday that also took the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
Two of the other victims also were teenage girls, friends of Gianna’s who were on their way to play in a basketball tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy, co-founded by Bryant.
The Chiefs were flying to Miami when news broke about Bryant’s death. It left the players in shock and disbelief.
Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill said Bryant was a role model for him when he was growing up in a small town in Georgia, and he felt as if he lost a family member. He emulated Bryant on the playground when he was a young boy. Hill also said the tragedy made him question the meaning of life.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. “Kobe was such a big inspiration, especially where I’m from, a black kid from a very small city. I remember going outside and I’d be counting down the shot clock, shooting fadeaway shots, saying, ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and fading away like Kobe. I still don’t want to believe it.
“Seeing things like that makes me not understand life. Those kids had to die in such a tragic way. I feel like I lost a family member. I don’t even know Kobe like that. He’s just like a role model to me. His daughter. I got a daughter myself, so I can only imagine what they’re feeling. Prayers up for Kobe and his family and his city.”
Hill said he never met Bryant, but he posted something on Snapchat on Sunday as a tribute to him.
“I got a bunch of little kids that follow me on Snapchat,” Hill said. “So I was trying to pay homage to the G.O.A.T.”
Niners cornerback Richard Sherman grew up in Compton, California. He was a Lakers fan and Bryant was his favorite player. They ultimately met and formed a relationship.
Sherman said Bryant had “a tremendous impact on my life as a player and a person.” His killer instinct, aggressiveness and “clutch factor” all were inspired by Bryant. Sherman said he’s still processing what happened and that he is “down in the dumps.” But then he thought about what Bryant would have said to him.
“He would have told me, ‘Stop being a baby, play this game and lead your team to the championship,’ ” Sherman said. “That’s what I’m going to try to do. The Mamba Mentality lives on.
“We want to do this for him. I want to do this for him. You want to go out and win this game and play to the best of your ability. You want to honor this man.”
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was a multisport star from outside of Cleveland. He listed Deion Sanders, Kenny Lofton and LeBron James among his idols, but Kelce also has admiration for Bryant.
“It’s an extremely sad story,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words exactly how everyone feels. It felt like Kobe was immortal. It feels unreal to me.”
That feeling was shared. The former Lakers great was a larger-than-life person and athlete and had a transcendent appeal that crossed all sports.
“I’m shocked and sad,” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “I thought guys like him lived forever.”
Mathieu has a heavy heart as he prepares to play in his first Super Bowl, but he’s trying to enjoy an experience that might not have been possible if not for Bryant’s influence.
“I think Kobe really sparked the mind of every competitor,” he said. “He made us all dig a little deeper. He made us want to be great. And in order to be great, we understood we had to work toward it. It wasn’t always going to be easy but it’s the right thing to do. I think that’s Kobe.”