by Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com
TAMPA, Fla. (NBCSports.com) -- Seven years ago, when the first post-9/11 Super Bowl was played in New Orleans, the game had a palpable air of anxiety. Despite unprecedented security, people found themselves wondering if the next - and last - sound they would hear would be the Superdome blowing up.
That question isn't raised much anymore. And it's not hyperbole when Milton Ahlerich, the NFL's vice president for security, says that if you're in the stadium watching the Super Bowl, you are in "one of the safest locations you can possibly be on Super Bowl Sunday in the United States of America."
Ever since 9/11, the Super Bowl has been what is known in security speak as a "Level 1 National Security Event." It earned that designation because, Ahlerich said, "it's iconic in nature. It presents a very attractive target to those who would harm the United States and harm its citizenry."
Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies don't always get the best press. And the TSA, which is in charge of security at airports, is constantly criticized by aggravated air travelers.
But few criticize the security at major sporting events. Fans not only expect to be searched and scanned, they almost seem to look forward to it. Over the years, the people who run the operations learned how to move large numbers of spectators through security relatively quickly.
In many ways, Super Bowl security is tighter than the airport variety. After all, a person can enter an airport without a ticket, but not the Super Bowl parking lot. A large area around the stadium is fenced off, and entrances are limited. Specially trained police officers scan the crowd looking for people who exhibit odd behavior.
Unlike airports, your shoes can stay on, but the list of prohibited items is exhaustive.
Fans can't bring containers of any kind, no backpacks, no large bags, no cameras with lenses longer than six inches, no hair spray, no coolers, no cases for cameras or binoculars, no umbrellas, no beach balls and no strollers. That's just part of the list.
The media also must go through the same screening. Photographers and cameramen can't enter until their equipment has undergone a sniff-down by bomb-smelling dogs. Even high-ranking NFL officials have to go through security.
Basically, Ahlerich said, if fans bring bags, they must fit in the palm of the hand. Other than that, he advised fans to bring as little as possible. He even asked - although without much conviction - that people leave their cell phones at home.
The full scope of Super Bowl security is classified information. Ahlerich said that the NFL is spending more than $5 million on security and has hired 3,000 private security personnel and 20 private security experts for the game. But law enforcement officials would not say exactly how much is being spent or how many people are involved in the operation.
At a briefing on Monday, representatives of local law enforcement, Homeland Security, the FBI and the ATF said that at least 20 federal agencies are involved, including the Coast Guard, Air Force, customs and border security, and the Department of Energy, which has provided radiation-detecting equipment to the security effort.
It's somewhat amazing the Super Bowl and other major American sporting events didn't always have these measures in place. The terrorist attacks and murders at the 1972 Olympics in Munich showed what could happen. The Olympics responded by making every Games venue a fenced-off secure zone with multiple layers of protection. Soccer's World Cup did the same.
It wasn't until Sept. 11 that everything changed for the Super Bowl.
Ahlerich said that the basic security template for the Super Bowl is the same as the one originally created for the 2002 game. Each host city spends nearly two years working with federal agencies on the security effort.
The local law enforcement officials in charge of Tampa Bay's efforts attended both the 2007 and 2008 Super Bowls in Miami and Arizona to observe the operations and, as Tampa Police Maj. John Bennett put it, "to define the mission: That is to make the Super Bowl safe."
© 2009 NBC Sports.com
For more Football coverage, visit NBCSports.com.