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Emory students help make magic for Super Bowl halftime show

As millions tuned into Sunday night’s Super Bowl LIII halftime show, a handful of Emory students took in the much-anticipated spectacle from what were surely among the best seats in the house — directly on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

Under a heavy veil of pre-game secrecy, three of Emory’s student a cappella groups were invited to join the 1,000-member halftime crew that helped make the magic happen, sprinkled among screaming fans surrounding the flaming M-shaped stage and handling high-tech drone-powered paper lanterns that swarmed high above the field. 

It was a celebrity-packed evening of pounding music, pulsing lights, blazing pyrotechnics and never-before attempted special effects. And 26 Emory students were in the thick of it, juggling classes and studies to accommodate 35 hours of an intensive, compressed pre-show rehearsal schedule. 

In return for volunteering, they experienced the thrill of a lifetime.

It was during last semester’s winter break that members of the Emory a cappella singing groups — Dooley Noted, Aural Pleasure and The Gathering — received a mysterious email from Julie Zimmer, a producer and casting manager who has helped produce every halftime show for the Super Bowl since 2011.

But the invitation was vague, offering little information. Most assumed it was spam. 

“We were immediately skeptical,” admits Samuel Kramer, a junior from Madison, Connecticut, who is majoring in business and music performance and joined Dooley Noted during his first week on campus. 

Kramer shoved aside his doubts and called anyway, relieved to discover the invitation was very real. “They were looking for people around Atlanta to help with the show, had seen our website and reached out,” he says.

Almost everyone in the group is pursuing a double major and juggling heavy academic schedules, he notes. In addition, they were in the midst of preparing for an International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) regional quarter-final competition, set for the weekend after the Super Bowl in Athens, Georgia. 

Could they make the timing work? “Once we reached out, everyone was super excited, just over the moon,” Kramer reflects. “As opportunities go, this one was totally insane. I mean, it’s the Super Bowl, one of the most watched sporting events in the world.” 

Super Bowl secrets

Participants were sworn to secrecy; if even a hint slipped onto social media, they were told, the team could be dropped from the show. Smart phones would be collected at rehearsals.

So for weeks, none of the Emory teams knew the others were involved.

“A lot of us are in Emory’s concert choir together,” says Ameya Gangal, a senior from Plano, Texas, majoring in neuroscience and minoring in music, who is president of Dooley Noted.

“Once we got back from break, we had a rehearsal and Dr. Nelson (Eric Nelson, director of choral studies at Emory) was talking about how there would be a lot of people missing from an upcoming choir rehearsal — our first hint that there might be others at the same event.” 

That became apparent when they reported to their first rehearsal at the Georgia World Congress Center. Entering, they found a taped outline of a football field and familiar Emory faces. Each group would have a specific role, though information about exactly what it would be was revealed over time, trickling out in bite-sized fashion, Kramer recalls.

Dooley Noted and Aural Pleasure would join the 150-member “tray cast” — told only that “we would be holding a supercool piece of technology that hadn’t previously been used on this scale, but they couldn’t tell us what it was,” Kramer says. “We were given these things that looked like plastic cafeteria trays and told to walk to a certain point on the field, set it down and walk away.”

It was bizarre, he thought. “We had no idea what it was for.”

At the same time, members of Emory’s all-female a cappella group The Gathering were tapped to join the nearly 400-member “fan cast,” which would crowd the edges of the stage, singing, jumping and waving their hands in time with the music.

“It was like a big puzzle, and each day they would reveal more pieces,” says Nevidita Ravi Potapragada, a senior from Seattle, Washington, majoring in economics and human health. 

“We had six girls from the group participating — everyone was either a huge football fan or just wanted the chance to be part of a production of that magnitude,” she says. “It was just an honor to be there, to be invited to watch it unfold.” 

After long rehearsals Tuesday through Friday at the Georgia World Congress Center, the production shifted to the Super Bowl venue for full dress rehearsals.

The moment that the featured performers appeared — Adam Levine and Maroon 5, Travis Scott and Outkast’s Antwon “Big Boi” Patton — “it took a second or two to realize, ‘okay, this is actually happening,’” Potapragada says, laughing. “There was definitely a moment of internal freak-out.”

Walking into the sweeping interior of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first time was awe-inspiring — it echoed like a massive cathedral, recalls Denny Shin, a senior majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology from Portland, Oregon, who also sings in Dooley Noted.

In time, details were revealed. Instead of cafeteria trays, the Emory volunteers would carry digital paper lanterns affixed to pre-programmed quadricopter drones manufactured by Intel. 

Once they were precisely positioned on the field, as Maroon 5 launched into “She Will Be Loved” some 150 enhanced Shooting Star drones would be choreographed to lift off together, rising above the field to spell out “One Love” — a crowd-pleasing moment and a technological first at the Super Bowl, according to Intel.

“We didn’t realize that until we were actually on the field doing our first dress rehearsal,” Kramer explains. 

Coming together as community 

The intensity of daily rehearsals picked up the week before the show, sometimes stretching up to eight hours a day — a challenge for full-time students.

But the students said they enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at producing a show of such a mammoth scale and the opportunity to unite for what felt like a true community experience. 

“It was 1,000 people and all these gears coming together at once,” says Aural Pleasure member Sam Oppenheim, a senior majoring in business administration and theater studies from Hopewell Junction, New York. “You realize that it takes a whole village.”

They were joined by students from other Atlanta institutions, including more than 300 students and alumni from the Georgia State University Panther marching band who performed a snappy drumline. The Voice of Atlanta gospel choir also performed, offering soaring backup to Levine’s “Girls Like You.”

Each rehearsal was “an endless amount of firsts,” Kramer recalls. First time in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. First time at an NFL football game. First time attending a Super Bowl. “There was a moment during rehearsals when we were tired, leaning against a goal post, and you realize, ‘Hey, you are leaning on a Super Bowl goalpost.”

“You’re not even singing and you’re walking out there feeling nervous,” he adds. “You just realize that there are so many moving parts required to produce a 12-minute show.” 

On game day, the field crew gathered at a nearby school building, arriving at the stadium in a police-escorted motorcade of 22 school buses that streamed past curious onlookers. Entering in a building adjacent to the stadium, they awaited their entrance in tunnels.

Celebrities appeared at every turn. Here was Jon Hamm from “Mad Men” and comedian Kevin Hart, there was Atlanta’s own Ludacris. When someone standing behind Kramer asked him about the drones, he was stunned to turn and discover actor and musician Jamie Foxx.

They entered the stadium to the roar of more than 70,000 fans, an atmosphere both “crazy and electric,” Kramer recalls. Fireworks exploded, as the students received direction through radio earpieces. When the signal came to place the drones on the field, everything came off without a hitch. 

“That was when we really started to breathe,” Kramer says. “Watching them soar up into the air was an utter relief.”

For Shin, watching the lanterns rise left him appreciating the beauty and complexity of being part of such a massive effort — as well as something deeper.

As someone who was born in South Korea, the night also felt like a deeply immersive American experience.

“My parents were so proud that I was invited to be a part of this,” he says. “It’s the Super Bowl. The NFL. Stepping on the same ground as NFL players? I think that was probably the most American experience I’m going to get.”

Emory Super Bowl participants from “Aural Pleasure” included Jem Cedar, Bella Dodd, Todd Doyle, Andrew Johnson, Sam Oppenheim, Gabrielle Ruban, Ben Wang, Matthew Witkin and Bianca Zhou. “Dooley Noted” participants were Sophia Bereaud, Bowei Deng, Ben Fertig, Ameya Gangal, Albert Kim, Joseph Kim, Samuel Kramer, Julia Lega, Caitlin Macdonald, Denny Shin and Sylvia Ware. “The Gathering” members who particated were Anna Glass, Jamie Epstein, Hanna Wagner, Sierra Russell, Nivedita Potapragada and Meredith Starks.

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