Titans coaches and players use Monday's eclipse as a chance to hit pause on the preseason grind. (Michael Silver/NFL.com)
NASHVILLE -- Marcus Mariota stood near the south end zone of the Tennessee Titans' practice field, his eyes locked on a rapidly disappearing sun. As one of the NFL's brightest young stars, the third-year quarterback spends most of his time fixated on football -- but this was something bigger than the game, and he and his Titans teammates felt it in a way they hadn't anticipated.
"That's crazy," Mariota said, removing the safety glasses that team officials had handed out after a spirited practice timed to coincide with Monday's solar eclipse. Then, as Bruce Springsteen's seminal classic, "Blinded By The Light," blared from the loudspeakers, Mariota put the glasses on once again and snuck another look.
"Just awesome," he said to no one in particular. It was 1:24 p.m. CT, three minutes after practice ended and less than four minutes before The Totality -- a two-minute stretch of mid-day darkness during which all but a small, outer ring of the sun was obscured by the moon. Many of the Titans' players and even coaches reclined on the grass and experienced the rare event with a sense of eerie wonderment, some whooping gleefully, others simply mesmerized by the might of the moment. It was a nice break from the typical tunnel vision of NFL-centric existence, particularly in the immediate aftermath of crucial preseason practice, with jobs hanging in the balance.
A little more than an hour later, as he sat in the corner of a bustling Nashville eatery digging into a hearty and healthy chicken plate, Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray put it this way: "You know, we'd heard all about the eclipse, and we knew the basics. But man -- when practice ended, and it started getting dark, and we felt that breeze ... I'm not gonna lie, it was pretty weird."
Or, as Mariota put it as he walked to the locker room shortly after The Totality's conclusion: "I had no idea ... It was so cool to be able to experience that with the guys. Kinda during the middle of practice, the light started to dim a little bit, and it felt like we were in the middle of a dream. And when I finally got to look ... it was just awesome."
There's a lot of hype about the 2017 Titans, whose physicality and well-rounded efficiency caught opponents off guard a year ago, en route to a 9-7 season that gave observers a glimpse of the team's potential. Alas, Tennessee's playoff hopes collapsed in the third quarter of a Week 16 defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when Mariota was carted off with a broken right fibula after being sacked by Sheldon Day.
Now, with the dynamic Mariota back under center and Murray fueling a punishing running attack, there's a growing sense that it may well be the Titans' time to shine. And as much as head coach Mike Mularkey has taken great pains to keep his players from buying into their ever-expanding hype, he's not obsessing over it, and he wisely made sure to schedule Monday's practice with the gravity of the moment in mind. After all, this was the first total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous 48 states since 1979 (another was visible in Hawaii in 1991, more than two years before Mariota, a Honolulu native, was born), and Nashville was the largest U.S. city in the path of The Totality.
"I've been working to calm down the hype, to be honest with you," Mularkey said following Monday's practice. "I think it can be a negative, if everybody buys in. I told the team, 'The reason there's hype is because you've earned it with your play last year.' I don't want to take away what they've earned. But you want to warn them it can come back and bite you if you don't handle it right. And I'm not sure that didn't happen in our first preseason game.
"As much as you're trying to hype us," he added, nodding at me with a smile, "I'm trying just as hard to tone it down."
Mularkey also made a point of warning his players about the dangers posed by the eclipse -- specifically, the possibility that in the absence of protective glasses, staring at the partially obscured sun could cause permanent and significant vision damage.
"He only [warned us] about 50 times," veteran tight end Delanie Walker said of his coach. "He said, 'Don't do it. I just watched a documentary of a guy who looked up at an eclipse during the '60s, and he still has problems with his eyes.' Who knows how true that is, but trust me, he drove home the message."
Mularkey reiterated the warning during a team meeting Monday morning, reminding players that the safety glasses would be passed out after practice. As the Titans prepared to take the field, general manager Jon Robinson revealed that he had already double-checked the authenticity of the protective eyewear, even subjecting his own eyes to a test run.
"I checked the numbers on all of them to make sure they were legit, and one day last week, I pulled out a pair and physically put them on and stared at the sun," he said. "It was like a warm glow, and as far as I know, I still have 20-15 vision."
Robinson remembered that, as a child growing up in West Tennessee, he watched his father and uncle attempt to weld a Volkswagen part and dared to look at the torch without protective glasses. "They were trying to do something to the transaxle at my uncle's show, and I thought, 'Oh, that's kind of cool.' Even though I knew I wasn't supposed to, I looked at it for about 15 seconds. I was fuzzy afterwards, but no permanent damage. But I'd rather not chance it again ...
"Mike and I felt it was important to have our players experience this. We're in a unique location here to be part of something historic, and we're ready. We've got the lights ready to cut on when it gets dark ... the whole nine yards. It should be pretty interesting. We'll see if any nocturnal animals come out of the woods."
That didn't happen during practice, but as the moon began to cover up portions of the sun, some Titans players couldn't help but give in to temptation. Shortly after 1 p.m., receiver Rishard Matthews briefly glanced up at the spectacle without protective glasses before squinting and quickly turning away.
Others standing on the sideline borrowed glasses from reporters and team staffers to sneak a peek. Tackle Taylor Lewan initially faced away from the eclipse after placing the glasses over his eyes and muttered, "Can't see nothing." Then, after turning his head toward the disappearing sun, he exclaimed, "Oh, s--- ... that's dope!"
And yet, despite the sporadic sideline conversations, the Titans remained engaged through the end of practice. After the final horn sounded at 1:21 p.m., Mularkey called the players to the middle of the field and lauded them for their focus as the skies grew darker and the atmosphere turned spooky. And, of course, the coach gave them one, last warning: Don't look up at the sun without the glasses!
Then, all hell broke loose: Players were whooping and Springsteen was blaring and the famed New Jersey rocker was dispensing wisdom. Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun ... whoa, but mama, that's where the fun is.
That was followed by another Springsteen song, "Dancing In The Dark," and finally by Corey Hart's regrettable one-hit wonder "Sunglasses at Night." And as the Titans' players and coaches snapped photos and videos and shook their heads in awestruck astonishment, it was clear that the impact had exceeded expectations.
"I've gotta be honest with you -- I thought this was gonna be like the Y2K thing ... a ton of hype, and then the event comes and it's a whole lot of nothing," said Terry Robiskie, the Titans' 62-year-old offensive coordinator. "But that was real ... and that was some weird s---.
"Everybody always talks about how bright the sun is, how hot the sun is, how you can't mess with the sun. But let me tell you something: The moon is a m-----f----- ..."
Walker, now in his 12th year as an NFL player and fresh off his 33rd birthday, was still blown away by the experience as he sat at his locker long after practice.
"That was intense," he said. "You hear a lot about what [a solar] eclipse is, but you never really understand it until you see it for yourself. Going through it as a team was cool ... but when it started to get really dark, I kinda got away from all the players and went off to a spot by myself. I just wanted to take it all in.
"This world is unique, man, and when you see something like that, you really feel it. At the moment the sun was totally covered, I took the glasses off and took a quick look and saw the ring and just said to myself, 'Man ... that's just crazy.' "
On Tuesday morning, the sun will once again rise in the east, and the Titans will begin the next day of the rest of their 2017 season. This was a Monday, however, that most of them will never forget.