John Finch literally rose up when he walked into Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first time.
Walking into the Atlanta Falcons’ new home for Saturday’s exhibition game against the Arizona Cardinals, he took a deep breath and threw his hands in the air.
“Amazing,” he uttered. “Breathtaking. Wow.”
His daughter, Chanee Reese, in Atlanta Falcons earrings, T-shirt and cherry-red sneakers, sounded emotional.
“I feel like crying,” she said. “We have been looking forward to this for a long, long time. It is even better than we expected.”
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They were among the sea of fans who streamed in starting hours before kickoff, their smartphone cameras capturing images and video of the historic moment. They looked up at a steel retractable roof, which, for all of its complexity and challenges — is dramatic, stunning and unique. They stared at a massive halo-shaped video board that measures 58 feet tall and is 1,100 feet around.
Arthur Blank’s goal (in addition to luring a Super Bowl, no doubt), was to put fans first with amenities like wider seats, enhanced Wi-Fi (no password needed) and a 61,000-square foot outdoor fan plaza for ticketed guests. Blank has been particularly proud of the affordable food and drinks (as in $2 soft drinks and water that come with unlimited refills, popcorn and hotdogs priced at $2, and a 12-ounce domestic draft beer for $5).
Even the less-than-die-hard Falcons fans fell in love with the new space.
Dr. Gary Stewart of McDonough is originally from New Jersey and admits to being much more of a Philadelphia Eagles fan. But the orthopedic surgeon, who moved to Atlanta about a decade ago, has grown to also develop a passion for the Atlanta Falcons. And as he watched the Mercedes-Benz building take shape, and then took a virtual tour online, he decided it was time to go all-in and become a season ticket holder. You can find him in the 107 section.
“I was like I have to be in on this. This is going to be exciting,” he said. He and his wife, Africa Stewart, reveled in their first impressions, posing for a photo together in front of the 41.5-foot tall statue of a falcon, hailed as the largest bird sculpture in the world. The giant bird, with a wingspan of more than 64 feet, was constructed by Hungarian artist Gabor Miklos Szoke and captures the moment of a touchdown.
Once inside, the Stewarts continued to be wowed by the unique architecture, wall of windows framing a view of the city behind one end zone, the halo board with stunning visuals and the many food options. And they liked the idea of moving on from the Georgia Dome, literally and figuratively. The Super Bowl collapse? Let that fade into history along with the Falcons’ former home.
“This is like a clean slate,” Stewart said. “We have a new stadium. The Falcons got to get back to win it. This stadium is a new era. I love it.”
Bobby Benson of Calhoun grew up in Arizona. How better to start the new season than with a game against the Cardinals?
“I figured I’d knock out two birds with one stone, so to speak,” he said, displaying the jersey of retired Cardinals player Anquan Boldin.
Shortly after the stadium opened to fans, Benson had found his spot in the very first row. The game was a surprise gift to his nephew, who hasn’t been to a Falcons game before, he said. Springing for tickets instantly made him Uncle of the Year.
“They weren’t cheap,” he mused.
“This is new for everybody,” said Mike Gomes, senior vice president of fan experience for AMB Sports and Entertainment, parent company of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United. “It’s even new for the team. So it’s new for the players, and new for the fans and upwards of 3,000 to 4,000 staff. And my hope is two things: that fans react like they did at the open house with fans saying it was awesome, and wow.”
And even though wow and awesome sure seemed like two of the most common words spoken inside the stadium, Gomes recognized there may be some issues with signage or getting around the arena they still need to work out.
“We built this for fans; we are committed to the fans,” recognizing some fine-tuning may be in order. He encourages fans to give feedback to an usher or a guest services employee or for season ticket holders, not to hesitate to share feedback to their account representative, or fill out a survey on the mobile app.
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Two hours before kickoff, Atlanta Falcons super-fan Joey Bellows took a head-turning stroll around the concourse, visually bridging the journey from the Georgia Dome to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I’ve always been the Dome Defender,” said Bellows, who wore a cape identifying him as such as part of his elaborately created game-day gear. His custom-made helmet, gleaming scepter, shining shoes and hefty pads announced to one and all he was here not merely here to cheer for a Falcons victory but to guarantee it.
“When the defense is on the field, I’m on duty,” bellowed Bellows, a sales guy from Peachtree City when he isn’t performing his officially unofficial function. (No, he answered to one stranger after another who posed for selfies, he doesn’t get in free. Outrageous, right?) He and his wife Cassandra have been season ticket holders for years, so of course they were at Saturday’s exhibition game against Arizona. We wondered, though, if he might be planning to retire part of his official wardrobe, or if he was sort of sad to see the Dome fade into the Falcons’ past.
The Defender set us straight.
“I fell in love with the Falcons when they were under the Dome, but this place can still be a dome,” he said, looking up. “They have the roof closed tonight, so I’ll be on duty.”