The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ultimate gate-crasher reaches the end of the line

Dion Rich, left, helps carry Dallas Coach Tom Landry after the Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII on Jan. 15, 1978, in New Orleans. (AP)

There are Taylor Swift tickets selling for more than $8,000 these days. That’s the kind of stuff that would befuddle Dion Rich. “Why pay when you don’t have to?” he always said.

Dion never figured he had to, having sneaked into more than 30 Super Bowls, a lifetime of Oscars and a few dozen Golden Globes. He could sneak into a zoo, steal the stripes off a zebra and be home by breakfast.

He’d claim he was an NFL ref. He’d dress as a doctor, complete with black bag and stethoscope. He’d pretend to be with the band, the press, the organist. One time he got in by pushing himself in a wheelchair. He had enough disguises to satisfy a studio back lot. I’m still not sure it wasn’t Dion who blew the lights out at the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans just to get in.

That giant sigh of relief you heard a few weeks ago? It was every security guard in the United States hearing he’d died at age 92.

He was Zelig. I covered sports for 36 years and he and his salad-bowl haircut were everywhere I was, only in better seats. He was all elbows, 160 pounds and 153 of that was sheer guts. He’d pretend to be an old man who’d lost his grandchildren; a husband whose wife left her purse inside; Mr. Pacino’s personal assistant.

I saw him in New Orleans for the first Super Bowl after 9/11. The security was manic. Triple fencing. Armored vehicles. National Guardsmen.

“No way you sneak into this one,” I said.

“Watch me.”

I did. It took him six minutes.

There are plenty of good gate-crashers, but what made Dion the greatest was what he could pull off inside. At Super Bowl XII, he somehow finagled his way onto the Denver Broncos’ team bus from their hotel straight into the stadium. As the game clock expired, he and Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry marched together triumphantly onto the field. Some of the players wanted to hoist Landry onto their shoulders, so Dion took the right leg. It’s a classic Super Bowl photo. Dion is the only one looking at the camera.

He was photobombing before there was a word for it. He made a Sports Illustrated cover running on the field with Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Chuck Noll. At some point in their lives, Joe Gibbs and John Madden must’ve looked at their greatest moments of jubilation and thought, “Who the heck is that guy?”

He’s in pictures with Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods. You name the celebrity, I’ll show you Dion’s grinning mug just over their right shoulder. He’s in the shot after the first Super Bowl at the very moment NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle handed the trophy to Green Bay Packers’ Coach Vince Lombardi — before it was even called the Lombardi Trophy.

I’m a little surprised Dion’s face isn’t in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

One of Dion’s proudest possessions was a letter from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who rebuked him in 1999 for busting into their televised soiree. “It looks like you had quite a night last March 21st ... dancing the night away, your pockets bulging with the picture frames that were intended as gifts for our guests,” the director of security wrote. Dion would show you the letter, then an 8x10 of him with his arm around Gwyneth Paltrow.

His gate-crashing wasn’t about the money. Dion owned four bars in San Diego and, ironically, had a big ticket-broker business, so he had scads of dough. And he loved spending it. He never married and had no children, so twice a year, he’d rent a big boat and fill it with underprivileged children and their families so they could fish.

The thrill for Dion was slipping through the net. San Diego was a problem: He got so famous that he had to stop crashing events there. One night he and his banker/occasional co-crasher, Mariana Aguilar, were at an event honoring Harrison Ford. The security guy saw Dion and started dragging them to the door. “No, we actually paid for this!” he protested. The two of them got pitched out anyway. Who would believe Dion Rich?

Nothing scared him, not even death. He used to say he wanted his tombstone to read: “Cause of Death: Living.” But he hated funerals, so with a sizable budget, he’s throwing himself a “Kicking the Bucket” blowout bash instead, sometime in January, for friends and family.

Too bad. I wanted to check his casket to see if he was really in it.

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