Old and utilitarian Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the concrete doughnut the Falcons shared with the Braves for many years, never thrilled Mark Chapman. But he thought he’d give the Falcons a chance when the new Georgia Dome opened in 1992.
He purchased a four-game ticket package that first season, and went to two other games in the comfort of climate control. He was hooked.
“Something about the dome, it just sucked me in there,” said Chapman, a season ticket holder with his wife Nancy who hasn’t missed a home game since 1993.
Saturday’s playoff game between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks could be the last NFL game ever played at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons will move into the new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season. The Georgia Dome, meanwhile, will meet the wrecking ball, the land destined to become premium parking for tailgaters and a park, with a portion reserved for a future luxury hotel for the neighboring Georgia World Congress Center.
As the No. 2 seed in the NFC, the Falcons are only guaranteed one home playoff game.
But if Atlanta is lucky, and the Dirty Birds beat Seattle on Saturday, and Green Bay downs Dallas, the Falcons will get one more game in their old roost. One last chance to say goodbye to the 25-year-old stadium with an NFC Championship and Super Bowl berth on the line.
Chapman said he’s grateful for Saturday’s game, but hopeful to see two.
“There’s nothing wrong with the Dome. I hate to see them tear it down,” said Chapman, who will move to new seats in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Motocross and monster truck rallies will close out the dome’s schedule in March.
The Georgia Dome was controversial from the start. The facility launched as both a stadium for the Falcons, and convention space for the World Congress Center. Former owner Rankin Smith Sr. had threaten to bolt for Jacksonville if the state didn’t build the Falcons a new home.
When the state and Smith signed a deal to keep the Falcons in the city for 20 years in the new dome, then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris said the Georgia Dome would be “a project that is going to have as much impact on the future of our state and our city as even maybe the Atlanta Airport.”
But the Dome — a very 1990s mauve and teal when it opened in time for the 1992 NFL preseason — elevated Atlanta in the sports world. It would go on to land two Super Bowls, several NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments and became the home of the Peach Bowl and SEC Championship football game.
When the Falcons weren’t playing, the Georgia Dome calendar was dotted with motocross exhibitions, monster truck rallies, marching band competitions, high school football playoffs, concerts and conventions.
Perhaps the Dome’s signature highlight was when the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won gold during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
It also saved lives. The facility sustained damage from the deadly tornado that struck downtown during an Alabama-Mississippi State game during the 2008 Men’s SEC Championship basketball tournament.
The Teflon-coated fiberglass roof soared over triumph and heartache. The Georgia Bulldogs won two SEC Championship football games there, and lost three others, including a heartbreaker to the Alabama Crimson Tide with a national title game berth on the line in 2012.
A few weeks later, the Falcons blew a lead over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
Clay Hall, a former Falcons season ticket holder who lives near Grovetown in East Georgia, attended the first preseason game in the Georgia Dome against the Philadelphia Eagles, a 20-10 Falcons win.
“I still have my ticket from that game,” he said. “I even saved my paper from that day. I think the headline was ‘Dawn of the Dome.’” (It was.)
Hall said he saw a lot of good football in the dome and a lot of bad. One of his favorite memories, he said, was quarterback Matt Ryan’s first game. The rookie, brought in to replace the disgraced Michael Vick, tossed a bomb for a touchdown in his first-ever pass in a blowout win over the Detroit Lions.
“I can’t tell you what an emotional lift that was,” Hall said. “It was a feeling in that place that we’d started a new era. We’d turned a page and moved on.”
Soon, Falcons fans will move on from the dome.
Chapman isn’t eager for that day.
“The worst thing about it is I’ve gotten to know all the people around me there,” he said of fellow fans near his end zone seats. “It’s a family. We send emails and talk on the phone throughout the year. We keep in touch, Christmas cards, you know.”
Some of his seat mates won’t be season ticket holders in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and others have moved to cheaper seats.
“It’s kind of like they’re breaking up a family in a way,” Chapman said.
Asked his favorite memory of the Georgia Dome, Chapman rattled off some signature Falcons moments — a last-second Ryan drive and field goal to beat the Bears, a key Jesse Tuggle interception.
Then, Chapman paused.
“I’m hoping that memory hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “I hope the NFC Championship comes here. I hope we win.
“I’m hoping that’s what everyone remembers.”