Scene at Falcons opener sadly unlike any other

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Ever since Grady Jarrett was a pee wee — as hard as it is to imagine the 6-foot, 305-pound Falcons defensive tackle was ever that — he and his mother have ritually connected before each game.

But this is 2020, and the coronavirus laughs at even the most dearly held habits.

So, as Jarrett arrived for Sunday’s opener at Mercedes-Benz Sunday, Elisha Jarrett could get no closer than an overlook above the players' parking lot. It was a matter of a few hundred feet, but it felt like miles. There, she and family yelled down their encouragement, telling their favorite Falcon to go all “Beast Mode!” Mother and son shared a long-distance, disconnected fist bump.

“This is the first time I won’t be able to touch him,” Elisha Jarrett told AJC photographer Curtis Compton. "We always share a fist bump before the start of each game.

“Today will be a little different.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Yes, isn’t everything different?

No reason for the Falcons opener to be exempt. Before, during, after, it was all wrapped in odd. The football part was distressingly familiar in one aspect — for the third-straight season the Falcons lost their opener, this time to Seattle 38-25. But all else that played out in the vacuum of a game without fans rang slightly hollow.

ExplorePhotos: Scene at Falcons' season opener in empty Mercedes-Benz Stadium

No revelers filling the streets and parking lots around Mercedes-Benz before or after the game.

No fans urging their team on, trying to will the Falcons back after they fell behind 28-12 in the third quarter. No fans to exalt early when newly acquired runner Todd Gurley gained 20 yards on his first two carries as a Falcon or when Takk McKinley sacked Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson on the Falcons first play on defense. (Ah, it had all began with such promise.)

In such a setting, you must take your fan love where you find it.

“For my family to show up for me as I went into the stadium meant the world to me,” Jarrett said. “They were going to see me some way regardless, some way, somehow.”

With the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium open, bright sunlight flooded the field and illuminated the emptiness of the place. All those red chairbacks, their seats upright and unoccupied, wooden soldiers all in a row where happy human chaos should be. Rather than working the field, a skeleton crew of five masked cheerleaders waved their pompoms on an end zone deck atop the first level of seats. Mascot Freddie the Falcon worked the empty aisles, with not a soul to engage.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Two NFL home teams were allowing partial attendance on Week One — Kansas City Thursday night and Jacksonville Sunday — with everyone else banning fans due to the pandemic.

Outside, parking lots normally teeming with tailgaters were a couple tumbleweeds short of a ghost town.

Directly across Northside Drive, three hours before kickoff, there wafted the enticing aroma of one grill burning. Jerome Wilkerson tended his ribs, beneath the lone Falcons tent set up in a lot that could accommodate at least 60 cars.

“You can still be a Falcons fan, be safe and have a good time,” Wilkerson said. He had driven all the way from Phenix City, Ala., to prove that point.

“I still think it’s important to be here, the Falcons need our support,” said Angela Stamper, a longtime tailgater in the same lot who came to spend time with Wilkerson Sunday.

When Wayland “I was born a Falcons fan and I’ll die a Falcons fan” Rucker drove into the lot west of the stadium that he always occupies pregame, he was shocked.

“What’s going on here?” he said. The answer: Nothing.

Normally, when he arrives from Athens at 9 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game, he has to weave through all the other tailgate sites already fully pitched. Sunday, there was no one else. He and a gathering of a dozen friends had the lot to themselves for the bulk of the morning.

Over the hum of the portable generator, music blared and a TV was all powered up to show that afternoon’s game. Wilkerson admitted he was a little sad that more of the tailgating fraternity didn’t come out just to mark the season opener — even if they couldn’t get inside the stadium. But with enough food and drink, they’d try their best to make this day a party anyway.

With no fans in attendance, both teams still felt the need for some pregame messaging.

A half-hour before kickoff, the Falcons and Seahawks lined up on opposite goal lines and linked arms with teammates. Overhead on the halo screen was a video montage of the Falcons social justice committee at work. On video, Alicia Keys belted out, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Every opener now comes with the renewed question of how teams will react to the playing of the national anthem. As the Falcons and Seahawks demonstrated, there is no one way to bring attention to the need for social justice. The Falcons stood as a team during the anthem. On the Seattle side, some players stood, some knelt, one raised his fist near midfield, others sat on the bench and still others waited inside their locker room until the anthem was done.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

And by mutual agreement — Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Seattle’s Russell Wilson had talked about the gesture earlier in the week — both teams knelt during the opening kickoff. “I’m glad how it worked out,” Jarrett said. “I think it’s going to continue to spark conversation about how we can have a better system in this country.”

As to the positives of a season-opener without fans, tailgater Rucker pointed to an easy retreat back to Athens. “We usually have to let traffic die down. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem today,” he said.

Also on the plus side, at least no one was there to boo as the Falcons left the field 0-1 in 2020.