Falcons look back warmly on Georgia Dome before it dies

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan celebrates after defeating the Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22 in Atlanta. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan celebrates after defeating the Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22 in Atlanta. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.

Matt Ryan probably will shed no tears Monday when the roof of the Georgia Dome falls and the building caves in moments later. Yet the Falcons’ quarterback will forever have a soft spot in his heart for a place that’s about to be imploded.

As the Dome is leveled Monday morning, Ryan will be in Seattle before the Falcons’ night game against the Seahawks, but he’ll never forget when black, red and silver confetti fell from the same roof shortly after the Falcons beat the Packers 44-21 on Jan. 22 to punch a ticket to Super Bowl LI.

“One game? The last one there was a pretty good one. Playing in the NFC Championship last year, that was a fun memory of that Dome,” Ryan said. “That will be something I’ll always remember.

“I think my first game in there, too, in the NFL was special, playing the Detroit Lions back in 2008, first time playing in the NFL.”

Dan Reeves doesn’t think back to a specific game, but rather that 1998 season, when the Falcons were 8-0 in the Georgia Dome in the regular season on their way to Super Bowl XXXIII.

Reeves missed the final two games of that regular season after undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery, and returned to the Dome to helm a 20-18 playoff win over the 49ers. That set up a trip to the NFC Championship Game, where the Falcons upset the Vikings in overtime in the Metrodome.

“I think the Georgia Dome was so special, a huge part of us turning it around in ’98. The fans were just awesome at home,” said Reeves, the Falcons head coach from 1997 through the first 13 games of 2003. “I didn’t think I would be crazy about an indoor facility, but the fans were such a big part of it.

“The first game back after my heart surgery all the signs really touched me.”

Jamal Anderson loved the ’98 season, when he led the NFL with 1,846 rushing yards on a then-NFL-record 410 carries, and he had a couple favorite games in it. On Nov. 15, the 49ers visited, and he rushed 31 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-19 win over Atlanta’s long-time NFC West nemesis.

That was the Falcons’ third straight win in what became an 11-game streak leading up to the Super Bowl. The playoff win over the 49ers was No. 10, and Anderson rushed 29 times for 113 yards and two scores in that one.

“I’ll never forget the Dirty Birds, and we nearly took them apart,” Anderson said. “We were waiting for them the second game [after losing in San Francisco earlier in the season], and we beat their butts. We just wanted to beat their butts. ‘You’ve had plenty of run, but it’s not your year.’

“Then, we had to beat them to go to the NFC Championship Game. I didn’t want to play them again. I wasn’t worried about them, but nobody is going, ‘Hey Jerry Rice, and Steve Young, and Garrison Hearst, let’s play again.”

Going further back in time, former Falcons tackle Bob Whitfield doesn’t recall a single game in the Georgia Dome that stands out so much he remembers the way the atmosphere in the building changed over time.

He played in 11 games as rookie reserve in 1992, the first year the Dome opened, and in 1993 began a streak of 123 consecutive starts (third in franchise history) and logged 167 starts through the 2003 season.

“It wasn’t just that lone season going to the Super Bowl as the first Falcons team to go. It was every game leading up to all the other games,” Whitfield said. “The first ones with [former cornerback] Deion Sanders, and MC Hammer on the sidelines, the run and shoot under [former head coach] Jerry Glanville and the music and dressed in black with silver pants versus black with white pants.

“[Former head coach] June [Jones] kept that high-flying run-and-shoot machine going. Dan Reeves game in and the football style changed, the imagery changed. It was the Dirty Birds, and there was a tough football aura in the stands, and with the music industry growing in Atlanta there were always musicians there.”

Julio Jones made some sweet music in the Georgia Dome, and you might think that his favorite moment there was the NFC Championship Game, when he caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers.

Or, perhaps he’d give the nod to the game against the Panthers last Oct. 2, when he caught 12 passes for 300 yards and a score.

Guess again.

“[In] 2008, we beat Clemson,” Jones said the other day. “Roll Tide.”

In the first college game for a lean freshman from Foley, Ala., Jones and No. 24-ranked Alabama trounced No. 9 Clemson 34-10 in the Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game on Aug. 31, 2008, in the Georgia Dome.

“I got a lot of stories,” Jones said. “That was just my first time playing in it so why not your best moment is your first moment playing in it? And I got a W.”

The Dome made an odd impression on Anderson when he saw it for the first time, after the Falcons drafted him in the seventh round out of Utah in 1994. It hardly seemed to him like an NFL stadium.

“First time I went in there, I was like, ‘This is where we were playing?’ It had orange and green, no Falcons colors,” he recalled. “Then, it was trimmed in red and black, significant changes [in 2003] when [owner] Arthur Blank took over.”

Whitfield liked the Georgia Dome’s translucent roof.

“It was awesome to me when the sun hit that canopy it just had a glow,” he said. “Even though you were enclosed, you could get that glow like sunshine.”

Reeves liked the body guards he had near him on the sideline when he returned from heart surgery for the playoff game against the 49ers after the 1998 season.

“Again, I came back and all the signs were just incredible. That was big,” he said. “And I had two people in case somebody went out of bounds I wouldn’t get hit. I don’t remember who it was. I don’t know that they ever would have taken a lick anyway.

“Just for the Smith family, I was so happy to work for them. They didn’t have the most money of the owners in the league, but there wasn’t anything that I asked for that they didn’t give us. They were great people to work for, and the Dome was a great place to play. I was tickled to death to go to the Super Bowl.”

Anderson fancies the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium where the Falcons are now playing next door, but he had no lasting beef with the Georgia Dome.

“It’s hard to believe because it still looks so good. It is what it is. ... It’s funny, we went to see Beyonce just a year ago, and it was hosting another SEC championship. I know it’s time for a new stadium and the amenities, but the Georgia Dome was still handling its business. I never felt like the Georgia Dome was lacking anything.”

WSB-TV is partnering with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority for a LIVE broadcast of the Georgia Dome demolition. WATCH Channel 2 Action News This Morning starting at 4:30 a.m. for LIVE Team 2 Coverage.