M.I.A., who hit the stage with Madonna at the Super Bowl, put up her middle finger during the performance, which also included Nicki Minaj, Cee Lo and LMFAO.

If you’ve played the game of pro football, it turns out, you can’t just be a fan on Super Bowl Sunday, though Natrone Means said he’s tried. Means, from Harrisburg, N.C., appeared in Super Bowl XXIX, when his San Diego Chargers lost to the San Francisco 49ers.

When you’ve been playing all your life, he said, “You look at the game with an analytical eye; you’re watching it and grading it at the same time.”

Whether they now make their living in business or medical sales, real estate or executive coaching, you get a feeling of wistfulness from former players, when memories of past glories or chances missed intrude.

For James Anderson, though, his game-day eye looked to the future. He’s an active player, a linebacker for the Panthers, hungry to be where the Giants were Sunday night. For Anderson, Super Bowl XLVI was more than a night out for fun and charity with other current and former players at the Charlotte chapter of the NFL Retired Players Association. “We can get there,” he told me, seeing possibilities on the big screen.

Yes, the pros and former pros are different than the rest of us and not just because they’re bigger. (One plus? They do make you feel incredibly petite in comparison, and since I was wearing slimming black jeans, well, I was a wisp of a thing.)

The jewelry is much more impressive, for one thing. A Super Bowl ring sits like a sculpture on someone’s finger. The one I got to see up close belonged to Troy Pelshak, who earned it as a linebacker with the St. Louis Rams and only breaks it out for special occasions. It is sparkling, jewel-encrusted and gaudy in any other situation — but not on Super Bowl Sunday.

Members of the chapter invited me to this special party at the Charlotte City Club after my feature on their Super Food Bowl efforts to benefit Loaves and Fishes, a local food pantry.

On Super Bowl Sunday, their nonprofit was still raising money with a silent auction of signed footballs and NFL paraphernalia. These guys, who mentor students at a struggling high school and reach into the community in other ways, use their sports fame as much as it’s said the sport has used them.

As Hess Hempstead, a former Detroit Lions guard, said, “You’ll never find someone in pro sports who’s been successful who didn’t have someone help them.”

Some ended their playing days in Charlotte, and liked it enough to stay. Others, such as Roman Phifer, returned. With three Super Bowl rings earned with the New England Patriots, he holds that record in the ex-NFL players group here. “I don’t brag,” he said, but in answer to a question said he “took a nap” during halftime in one of his Super Bowls, a study in cool.

As my husband and I took our places, I stressed over the etiquette. Do you offer mid-game commentary when everyone else in the room has experience you lack, in tackling people and such?

I don’t share the disdain my colleague Bonnie Goldstein has for the big game, and unlike Suzi Parker, I could take or leave Madonna. (I found her half-time spectacle probably the worse adjective the diva and her entourage could imagine — boring.)

I was there to see the Patriots and the Giants play. My bona fides? I grew up in Baltimore when it was Colts country and remember when Robert Irsay moved the team in the wee hours, incurring the wrath of fans bleeding blue.

When the Panthers played in Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, I was the only woman on a Charlotte reporting team that traveled to Houston to see Carolina come so close to beating the Patriots. (Are they in every Super Bowl?) I remained neutral in the press room, though when Jake Delhomme connected with Muhsin Muhammad I yelled a little inside.

On Sunday, I learned how they felt from Mo Collins, a Charlotte native, whose Oakland Raiders lost a Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Bucs. “I hated it.”

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.