NEW ORLEANS – The first thing you notice on the drive into New Orleans is the giant bronze spaceship that's landed at the foot of a modest skyline. It's sleek, shiny, windowless, and in a town bursting with old-world character and charm, fits in like a disco ball in a room full of rocking chairs.
At first glance, it's an oddity more than a marvel, which is maybe why, despite all the evidence in its favor, no one's really noticed that over the last 30-plus years the Superdome has become the most historically significant sporting venue in America.
You want seminal moments? The Superdome is where a college freshman named Michael Jordan nailed a jumper to lift North Carolina over Georgetown; it's where Roberto Duran told Sugar Ray Leonard, "No más"; it's where William "The Refrigerator" Perry barreled into the end zone in Super Bowl XX; it's where Chris Webber called a timeout Michigan didn't have; it's where Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal as time ran out to give Tom Brady his first Super Bowl win.
And, in 1978, it's where Muhammad Ali won his last fight in front of 65,000 fans.
(Quick aside: During the fight, the ring started to make strange noises, so several engineers crawled underneath it and found that some of the support beams were sagging. Unable to stop the fight for repairs, the engineers did the only thing they could: they held up the beams with their hands as the fight went on above.)
Since the Louisiana Superdome (as it was then known) opened its doors in 1975, it's hosted more Super Bowls (six) than any other venue, more NCAA tournament championships and spawned the spectacle that is the modern-day Final Four.
Within a 13-month span beginning this past January, the Superdome will have hosted the BCS championship game, this weekend's Final Four and Super Bowl XLVII next February. It's unprecedented for one city to play host to three of America's largest annual sporting events in quick succession, but the city welcomes the chance.
In the 1970s, oil and gas provided the jobs and paid the bills in New Orleans. Not so anymore. With one industry moving out, another had to fill the void. Last year tourism pumped $5.5 billion into the local economy.
The Superdome is a big part of the attraction. Since 2006 alone, the dome has had a fiscal impact of $4.1 billion on the Louisiana economy, according to a recent study by the University of New Orleans.
"It's not just the hard dollars, but the image and the brand of New Orleans," said Doug Thornton, who's been in charge of running the Superdome since 1997. "It's the first thing you see when you drive in from the airport. It dominates the skyline. And there've been so many memorable moments that have played out here."
And to think, the dome owes its survival to a hurricane that tried to blow it down.
As with all things in New Orleans, time is measured pre- and post-Katrina.
Pre-Katrina, the Superdome was a place some residents of New Orleans loved and others tolerated. Though just 25 years old at the turn of the century, it was outdated by modern stadium standards and was the lone dome of its day still being utilized. With the Astrodome, Silverdome and Kingdome all replaced, the Superdome stood as a relic. It didn't help that the Saints hadn't done much to generate a great deal of nostalgia toward the place.
And so in the summer of 2005, before Katrina hit, talks were underway about what to do with the dome. Update it? Tear it down and build something new? Both presented problems. The government wasn't keen on forking over a couple hundred million bucks to renovate an antique, but then tearing down the dome and building a new one would come with a price tag of $1 billion and a timeline of about four years. New Orleans didn't have the money or the time.
The decision-makers were at an impasse. Then Hurricane Katrina forced their hand.
When Katrina reached land at 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2005, her 140-mph winds ripped off parts of the Superdome roof. Water poured inside, where 25,000-30,000 refugees sought shelter from the storm. Over the next four days, the Superdome went from a place where games were played to a living hell. Thornton, who was in the dome when the hurricane hit and didn't leave until everyone was evacuated four days later, described the scene inside as "chaotic, inhumane, hot, smelly. The worst that you can think of plus 10."
On Sept. 1, the dome was finally cleared out and Thornton retreated to Baton Rouge. Flying west in a helicopter, he asked the pilot to steer toward his home. He didn't know if it was under water. It was.
"I never will forget looking back over my left shoulder and seeing the dome in the distance and the water glistening the entire four miles to the Superdome, smoke billowing in the background and that was the moment that I said, 'It's over.' " Thornton recalled. "I thought, 'What now? Your city's gone. Can it ever get rebuilt?' I cried all the way to Baton Rouge on that helicopter."
Two days later, he sprung into action. He first set about determining whether or not the Superdome was still structurally sound. A team of engineers determined it was.
Tearing it down and starting over wasn't an option because, one, the city and state didn't have the cash and, two, being without a stadium for four years would have been the catalyst for the Saints to take residence in San Antonio.
"One of the things [Thornton] said that rang home," explained Bill Curl, who worked in public relations at the Superdome for 33 years, "was that if the dome is laying there in a state of disrepair, what would that tell the rest of the world about this city? What message would that send out that our biggest investment was just laying there because of that storm, and our teams had left, our events had left. We'd just be going on about whatever we can make happen here – what was left of us."
Convinced they had to save the dome, Thornton took his case to the governor's office and said, "If you want to keep the city afloat, we gotta put this place back together quickly. It's the symbolism and it's the jobs."
Gov. Kathleen Blanco said yes, and Thornton went back to work.
The proposed two-year, $350-million project took just nine months to complete. The motivation to rush was twofold. One, getting the dome up and running was a symbolic gesture that would declare the city was back. Two, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue wanted the Saints' home opener to be in New Orleans, not Baton Rouge or San Antonio.
While seminal, the finest moment the Superdome has ever witnessed isn't Ali's win, Vinatieri's kick or even the Pope's visit in 1987. It came during a pregame concert on Sept. 25, 2006 – the day the dome re-opened. There, on stage before the Saints were to take on the Atlanta Falcons, was U2 and Green Day singing to a frenzied crowd that hadn't had much to celebrate for a while.
The crowds arrived early that day, many catching up with friends they hadn't seen since the storm hit. Even though they hadn't spoken in more than a year, they didn't have to trade stories to know the pain, because Katrina didn't discriminate. She had affected them all.
Going to their seats inside the dome was a sort of homecoming, a signal that normalcy, a snippet of it anyway, had returned to New Orleans. And there was Bono, telling them as much.
"The SAINTS are coming," he sang. "The SAINTS are coming."
"Look, I'm a football guy. Play the national anthem, get the teams out there and let's play the game. I wasn't big on festivities," recalled Curl. "But when they started to sing, 'The Saints are coming,' oh my goodness. You couldn't find a person that wasn't crying.
"I saw 300-pound football players walking out of that tunnel with tears in their eyes," he continued. "Then, when Steve Gleason blocked that punt and the Saints scored that first touchdown, the celebration started and didn't end until well after that game. The Falcons didn't have a prayer in that game, and you know what, I think they knew it."
As he retold the story Friday morning, more than half a decade after the fact, Curl's eyes filled with tears.
"With the reopening and the emotion after Katrina, this city truly put its arms around the Superdome and said, 'This is our Superdome.' "
The dome is 37 now. Thornton believes it can be viable for another 25 years. Whenever it does go, it will have witnessed more triumph and tragedy than just about any other venue in the world. It will have, quite simply, lived up to its name as a super dome.
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