When Mercedes-Benz Stadium officially opens Saturday for an Atlanta Falcons preseason game, this city will witness the return to action of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the rest of the team that made "Rise Up" its rallying cry on the way to the Super Bowl last year.
Still, it’s a brand-new bird who’s hands down the biggest player in town these days.
Rising 41 1/2 feet tall and weighing 73,000 pounds (that includes the MVP: Most Valuable Pedestal) the majestic figure of a falcon appears to be rising in triumphant touchdown-scoring or interception-snatching flight with a bronze football clutched in its talons.
It’s the largest bird sculpture in the world and the “hallmark” of the stadium’s unique public art program, said Chris Holdsworth of stadium project manager Darden & Co.
Beyond the cold, hard numbers, though, the statue also is a heartfelt homage from Szoke to the Deep South city whose history and spirit he says he fell in love with during the design and construction process.
Related video: Fly through the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium
“It’s also a phoenix,” Berta Hauer, the artist’s business and life partner, said during a dual phone interview from Budapest where she translated for the 32-year-old Szoke.
“I was really inspired that your city was burned down and rose up every time,” Szoke said.
“It’s not just about power, it’s also about belief,” Szoke said of the feelings he wanted the statue to convey. “That belief is very important for the Atlanta community.”
Once he dug out the errant email and viewed its “fly through” video of the stadium with its “beautiful retractable roof,” Szoke “couldn’t say no” to this project. Time spent here last summer getting to know the city and its people only deepened his commitment.
Szoke “really fell in love with Atlanta,” where the falcon statue he created will look different at various times of the day as the sun reflects off it (It also will be illuminated at night). “It reflects this dynamic and always changing city,” he said.
But building a big bird takes equally big logistics and planning. And, undoubtedly, big bucks, although Holdsworth says the overall cost of the falcon isn’t being publicly released. Some 200 people were involved in the process, Hauer says, working at first in Szoke’s 3,000-square-meter design studio in Budapest, where various parts of the bird were created and welded together. Then everything was shipped to Atlanta, where a team that included 50 people from Hungary started assembling the statue at an off-site location in March.
“It took almost three months and Gabor was coordinating day and night,” Holdsworth recalled of the massive project that moved over to the stadium site around the end of April for the “hoisting of the wings” and other significant finishing touches. “It came at a great time. As people came in to do their daily work to bring the stadium (construction) process to a close, the statue was sort of a ‘We can do it’ affirmation.”
Of course, one man’s affirmation is another one’s infection: Somewhere along the way, it seems, Szoke caught a bit of “Rise Up” fever himself. He and Hauer followed the Falcons on their run to the Super Bowl last season and he plans on coming back for a game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this fall.
Szoze described himself as "amazed" by the NFL, American football and sports in general in the U.S.
"It was inspiring to see how people can collaborate for one common goal, by the will power they have to make something so huge and interesting for so many generations."