1. The timing.
The horrific events of 9/11 had an effect on everyone and everything in the United States. That included the NFL, which made the unprecedented decision to postpone their Week 2 schedule following the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. This was a vulnerable time for the nation, and Super Bowl XXXVI turned into a de-facto pre-July 4 celebration of all things American. The special circumstances around the game explains how Paul McCartney (a super Beatle!) was booked to play the pregame show, and how U2 -- at that point well on the road to reestablishing itself as the country's most beloved rock act -- was brought on for a special halftime show that would honor the victims of the September 11, 2001. This was always going to be a memorable Super Bowl -- that the game itself turned into a classic ended up as a nice bonus.
2. The band.
Nobody does big like U2. They know how to deliver the grand gesture, but what makes them truly special -- especially in a live setting -- is their ability to match spectacle with intimacy. That's U2's thing, as signature as The Edge's ringing guitar. That duality served the band incredibly well on this particular assignment. In the early 2000s, U2 was experiencing a popular renaissance stateside following the release and subsequent tour behind their 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind. Their halftime performance was the moment they officially reclaimed the title of biggest band in the world. Not bad for four guys from Dublin who'd already been around two decades by that point.
3. The presentation.
U2 toured for most of 2001, playing 113 shows over nine months on both sides of the pond. The final leg of the trek took the band across America immediately after 9/11. It was during this leg that U2 worked out the elements that would serve as the foundation of the halftime show. On Halloween 2001, my buddy Mike and I drove from our college in Boston to catch the tour at the Dunkin Donuts Arena in Providence, R.I. Seeing the band at this time provided a sneak peak of what would eventually come in New Orleans. These post-9/11 shows have become a source of legend for U2 fans. The band was as vital as ever and were touring behind a record that had a message of hope and optimism that clearly resonated after everything that had happened. If you caught them that fall, you'd already seen the stage, the lighting, the songs, the jacket (more on the jacket later). U2 was a well-oiled machine by the time it got to the Superdome.
4. The precedent.
Those are the opening words of "MLK", a thoughtful dirge from U2's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. Bono and The Edge handled vocals as a stories-high screen lifted toward the roof to serve as a canvas for a scroll of 9/11 victims. This remains a major goosebumps moment. That such a touching tribute exists smack in the middle of the damn Super Bowl speaks to what U2 achieved that night.
It's about context. The year before U2 took the stage, the halftime show featured a medley from Aerosmith, 'N Sync, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige and Nelly (Nelly played the Super Bowl!). The year after U2, the headliner was another Ghidorah pop monster made up of Shania Twain, No Doubt and Sting. The Super Bowl halftime show had always been flashy, disposable entertainment. It pretty much remains that way now, give or take a Left Shark. But on Feb. 3, 2002, a single band created something lasting and important. U2 have been criticized often during their career for trying too hard to be important, but in this case they were the exact right band at the exact right time.
5. The jacket.
If Justin Timberlake tried to pull the same thing off in Minneapolis, he would get crushed for pandering jingoism. For taking sides. Maybe something worse. "Even Bono wouldn't stoop to this!", Twitter might decry. But in February 2002? The world's biggest rock star at America's greatest spectacle repping freedom and brotherhood in trying times? It's the same Bono we have today, but it was a different country. His jacket closer felt like an atomic FU shot right up the hidden passageway of Bin Laden's Terrorcave. I watched this at my buddy's off-campus apartment with a group of about 20 people, only a few of which were actual U2 fans. But everyone loved it. For 12 minutes, a single band hit every note, musically and otherwise. It will always be my proudest moment of U2 fandom.