It just kind of happened. At least, that’s how Bill Swank remembers it. He had gotten a call from Dion Rich the night before, to meet him along the San Diego piers. Swank figured they were getting lunch. But Rich shows up and they start walking and talking and soon they’re headed onboard the USS Midway.
Swank thought nothing of it.
There’s Rich, chatting people up, with Swank figuring he’s seen someone he knows or used to know. But Rich waves him over and now they’re walking through the decommissioned ship’s museum, and it’s quiet and empty, except for a small gathering of a few dozen people. There’s a podium and balloons and a lot of military-ish folks milling about, excited about something. There’s a banner on the wall and when Swank started reading it, he realized what was going on:
Dion Rich and Bill Swank were crashing a birthday party for a 99-year-old man.
John Finn, the Pearl Harbor hero, was being honored at a party attended by only Medal of Honor recipients and local dignitaries. And Rich and Swank.
“This was an invitation-only party,” Swank recalls, laughing. “This was something. Finn was, at the time, the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor and Dion wanted a picture with him. He actually already had a picture with him, but it was a lousy one, so Dion went down there just to get another one. We had gotten there early enough, that when people started showing up, we didn’t leave. Everyone thought we belonged there.”
Hang around Dion Rich long enough and you’re sure to have a story (or several) like Swank’s. Parties at the Playboy Mansion. The Academy Awards. The Olympics. He is the Godfather of the Gatecrash. The Sultan of the Sneak-In. He has been photographed next to Jack Nicholson and Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton. But his biggest claim to fame?
Crashing Super Bowls.
And not just to sit, like some schlub in Section 318 of the nosebleeds. No, when Dion Rich goes to a Super Bowl, he goes to be seen.
“Never, ever in my life, did I think I would be a famous gatecrasher,” Rich says from his home in the San Diego area. “When I was on the podium after Super Bowl I with Pete Rozelle, Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr, I had no idea I would become famous. I just wanted to get my picture taken.”
“Well, it all begins with a bar I used to own. A lot of good-looking chicks used to hang out there.”
This was the ’60s, back when the Chargers had just moved south from Los Angeles to San Diego. Rich was a jack-of-all-trades: he was a ticket-broker, professional schmoozer, general man-about-town. But he also happened to own a number of bars in the city, including one right near where the Chargers practiced. And as the team gained a foothold, his bar became the unofficial watering hole for players, coaches and team personnel.
When opposing teams came to San Diego, they were directed to Rich’s bar. The booze was free, the company was better and the women were likely topless. He began riding to Chargers games with friends on the team, or coaches – never paying to enter and always watching from the sideline. And he quickly learned how things worked.
“I got to know a lot of the Kansas City players real well,” Rich recalls. “So when they made the first World Championship Game and I found out where they were staying in L.A., I got up early, found where the buses were going to park and got there just ahead of them. When they got off the bus, I brought a jacket a Chiefs player had already given me and walked off the bus with them and into the locker room.”
Just like that, he was in.
He spent the first half on the Chiefs’ sideline, evaluating which side to finish the game on. Since he was already in, Rich’s goal was to get on television. Once the Green Bay Packers put up 21 unanswered points in the second half, Rich ditched the Chiefs jacket and stealthily shifted to the winning locker room to ride the victory wave.
Rozelle, the NFL’s commissioner, was on a small podium in front of TV cameras, waiting to award the championship trophy to Vince Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr. But Starr stepped off the stage for another interview and Rich saw his opening – he boldly stepped right up behind Lombardi and the legend of the gatecrasher began.
“That was how I got started,” he says. “I was determined to get to every Super Bowl.”
He did. With the exception of Super Bowl III – when he went on a forgettable ski trip, instead – Rich successfully entered the world’s biggest sporting event 35 times without paying, and made it onto the field at 22 of the games. At first, in the Super Bowl’s infancy, getting in was relatively simple. But as the Super Bowl grew in popularity, security got increasingly more difficult.
Like he’d let that stop him.
He donned wigs, glasses, fake mustaches and beards. He collected old press passes from previous Super Bowls and flashed them at guards. He wore jackets that were the same color as event security and put an earpiece in. Even affixed name tags to a blazer and claimed to be with the NFL. As the years passed and the security increased, Rich raised the stakes.
He had been able to pass by the NFL, undetected, until Super Bowl XII. The league started to notice his face popping up at the most prominent moments – the trophy presentation, usually – and put out an APB for Rich. He made it inside the Louisiana Superdome, thanks to a ride on the Denver Broncos’ team bus and stayed on the side of the field for the game.
Rich made his way to the Dallas Cowboys’ sideline as the second half waned, and as seconds ticked off for the Cowboy victory, he inched closer and closer to head coach Tom Landry.
The final seconds counted down. Rich looked around in the middle of the fray. Then he grabbed Landry’s right leg.
The Associated Press photo of Rich and Cowboys defensive lineman Larry Cole, with Landry on their shoulders, was splashed across newspapers all over the world the next day.
“Really, none of us saw him until right at the end of the game,” Cole recalls from his Colleyville, Texas home. “And then suddenly, he appeared. How he got on the field? I don’t know.”
One problem: His greatest gatecrashing feat immediately started the clock for the NFL to make sure Dion Rich stopped showing up at the biggest moments of the biggest sporting event in the country.
That’s how the NFL finally got Dion Rich. After crashing 19 straight Super Bowls, the NFL finally had enough. It was tired of seeing Rich lurking behind Lombardi. Holding up Landry. (Following Super Bowl VI, Rich was so bold he danced with one of Landry’s daughters at the after party.) Celebrating with winning quarterbacks. So after years of failed APB’s at stadiums across the country, the NFL tried to use the one thing Rich was after at every crash against him: notoriety.
The NFL knew Rich liked to talk about his crashes, so as Super Bowl XXIII in Miami neared, the league hired a team of private investigators to put together a sting operation. Someone posing under the name of “John Kincaid” contacted Rich in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, saying he worked for South Florida Trade Magazine and wanted to do a story on his exploits.
Naturally, Rich agreed, and happily gave him the address and phone number of the condo he would be staying at during Super Bowl week.
“I always joked with Dion,” Swank says, “that if you were going to keep robbing banks, you shouldn’t tell people which bank you’re going to rob!”
When Rich arrived in Miami, Felix Eades – a former Miami cop, now working as a P.I. – met Rich for the interview. Rich told him many (but not all) of the tricks he used to sneak into previous Super Bowls. Eades reported back to the NFL everything he had learned from his meeting: What Rich looked for, how he did things, what he looked like.
“They were no longer amused and were willing to spend some money to get him,” Eades told the Dayton Daily News during an interview about Rich in 1993.
Technically, Rich did sneak into the Super Bowl successfully that year. With the assistance of a friend and a wheelchair, he used the handicap entrance and seating area to get in and watch the game. But, as usual, the main goal was to get down to the field and get in on the trophy presentation after the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals.
The NFL had eyes on Rich the whole evening.
“I had run out of disguises,” Rich laughs.
NFL security pulled Rich into a room and read him the riot act, but said that he could avoid jail time if he promised to never to sneak into a Super Bowl again. The reason? The NFL claimed that Rich’s crashing of the Super Bowl was costing the league thousands of dollars each year, money spent trying to keep track of him.
Rolling Stone attempted to contact three of the eight private investigators involved with the sting on Rich. Eades did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him. Edward Du Bois III said that he was unable to comment because he is still under contract with the NFL.
Stu Weinstein, a former independent investigator involved with the Rich case – who is now head of security for the Miami Dolphins – said he would happily recount the details of the sting when reached on his cell phone, provided he was allowed to by his employer.
The Dolphins then declined to make Weinstein available for comment.
Dion Rich may be old, but he’s not washed up.
He’s 85 now and the crashing has slowed down. Along with Charlie Jones and Swank, both local sportswriters, Rich wrote a book, The Life of Dion Rich: Live Like a Millionaire With No Money Down, detailing his greatest tales of the gatecrashing scene. These days, he spends a lot of time with his assistant, Mariana Aguilar, who he kiddingly refers to as “my girlfriend.” He still lives in San Diego, a place that has always been home to him. He rarely misses Chargers home games or a chance to take friends out on the harbor cruise. (Free of charge, of course.)
“Everywhere we go, he knows somebody,” Aguilar says. “He’s truly an amazing person to be around.”
A local celebrity, Rich uses his fame and connections to do charity work with the city’s underprivileged kids. Not surprisingly, over the years, he’s also gotten to know a number of members of the San Diego Police Department, even taking them out to lunch. (Again, free of charge.) If he sees them while he’s enterting a Chargers or Padres game, he jokes that his disguise these days is of an elderly man looking to catch one final game.
“They tell me, ‘You’ve already tried that gag, Dion – 20 years ago!'” he laughs.
He still gets in through the side door, but it’s at the San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld now. It’s hardly a crash; it’s more through connections he’s made over the years. But crashing another Super Bowl?
“Never again,” he says.
Simply too hard. Too much security to get through. After September 11, the NFL stepped up its security game to safeguard one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Last year, for Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, there were nearly 4,000 police and private security personnel in and around the stadium. (It should be noted, that for a Sports Illustrated story at Super Bowl XXXVI – the first following the terrorist attacks – Rich snuck into the Superdome in six minutes.)
“I miss the thrill of getting away with it,” Rich says. “Doing something that no one is capable of doing. People don’t know how easily you could do it, if you have the expertise. But after the NFL put the sting on me and 9/11 and all the security – and I say this with all sincerity – I could not do today what I did back then.”
Maybe it’s best that way. Maybe it’s best to let Dion Rich’s exploits of showing up next to Vince Lombardi, underneath Tom Landry and beside Don Shula live in a time where things were simpler. Where getting into one of the biggest sporting events in the world was a running gag, as much as it was an adrenaline rush.
Now, it’s a memory. This afternoon, he will board a plane to Phoenix, for another Super Bowl. Rich has a ticket and insists he is not going to crash the game.
“But if I see a side door open with no one around, I might just have to,” he said.
He’s joking. Maybe.
If he is, some folks aren’t laughing. The Glendale Police Department emailed Rolling Stone to say it “would certainly affect an arrest on any individual without a ticket or credential if notified” by building security or the NFL.
So, is Dion Rich still considered Public Enemy No. 1 for the NFL?
An 85-year-old man, who’s slowing down and isn’t as sharp as he once was, couldn’t possibly be a threat to make it in undetected to Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona – 349 miles away from his front door – could he? There’s just no way that a multi-billion dollar corporation is still spending money to guard itself against the greatest gatecrasher of them all, right?
When asked if the NFL still considers Dion Rich an active and potential threat to sneak into the Super Bowl, Brian McCarthy – the league’s vice president of communications –responded with a six-word answer:
“We do not have a comment.”