Before the battle for Super Bowl glory was decided Sunday, there already was a winner - a cuddly and feisty one, for the cutest showing of athleticism.
This year's Puppy Bowl Bissell "Most Valuable Puppy" prize goes to the most courageous pooch on the field: Marta, a Schnauzer/Beagle mix, from the adoption organization AHeinz57 Pet Rescue & Transport. She out-hustled and out-muscled dogs twice her size to take the MVP title.
"Marta's tiny, but she's not delicate, and she is deceptively athletic, which kind of tricked the bigger dogs," says Daniel Schachner, who acted as "The Ref" on the field. It was his job to call puppy penalties including whining, illegal napping ("That was a big one this year") and excessive cuteness ("when the burly cameramen stop what they're doing to say 'awww,' that's when you know").
Here are some highlights from the game, and facts about the show from Schachner:
-- It's not just adorable puppies on display. Hedgehog cheerleaders pump the crowd up with pom-pons, and high above the stadium, intrepid hamster pilots will give a "hamster's eye view" in the blimp. And Meep the bird tweeted live throughout the game, literally.
-- After the puppies get an introduction, they're off! Who's in the starting lineup? Highlights include a 12-week old dachshund mix named Harry and his soulmate, 12-week old sachshund-basset mix, Sally. Can't forget siblings Simba and Nala!
-- It's a tug-of-war! Puppies Fitz and Nala fight for a toy until Fitz falls into the "hydration station." Meanwhile, dachshund Harry and Sally tussle on the field. The two-hour show features puppy love and fights, but no excessive "ruffness."
-- Shelters see a big spike in adoptions surrounding the Puppy Bowl. Sixty-three puppies participated this year from shelters around the country. In the past, all have been adopted, and this year is no exception. "These puppies get scooped up quickly. We've teamed up with petfinder.com that will match viewers to puppies in their area," says Schachner.
-- Daisy and Peyton nuzzle the camera and "The Ref" steps in! "No no no, excessive cuteness, you two! And you know it. Ten-yard penalty. You know what? Fifteen-yard penalty. It's that cute."
-- Tough gig! To audition for the role of "The Ref," Schachner, 38, sent in a tape of him in New York City "staging mini games in parks with people's dogs. I got some looks, but I guess it worked!"
-- Sally speeds past Simba and Nala from her own 30-yard line for Puppy Bowl IX's first touchdown! The hedgehog cheerleaders go wild! Meep the bird tweets, obviously. Then Unity and Agatha score!
-- It's time for the Puppy Bowl Kiss Cam, featuring home videos of puppy pets being kissed. And you can't forget about the slow-motion Fluff Cam for recaps.
-- Behind the scenes, "You're not seeing all of the volunteers and handlers who have come out just because they want to help out with Puppy Bowl and be a part of a good cause," says Schachner.
-- While the big pups are getting personal fouls for unnecessary "ruffness," future MVP Marta hatches her plan and backs into the end zone for a touchdown! The hedgehogs go wild. The other dogs shower her with kisses.
-- Who needs Beyoncé or Madonna? It's time for the Bissell Kitten Halftime Show! Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet's series My Cat From Hell, introduces the show full of "kitty-cute overload, kitty-cute coma!" The cats are showered with confetti as they play with their toys.
-- No-poo zone! "Whenever the dogs would poop, we'd have a team swoop in like it's toxic waste. They worked really quickly," says Schachner.
-- And so ends another year of Puppy Bowl madness. The show's 10th anniversary next year promises surprises galore, and of course, adorable puppies.