Wiedmer: Falcons officially begin Mercedes-Benz era in style

Wiedmer: Falcons officially begin Mercedes-Benz era in style

September 18th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

From left, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Angela Macuga, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Sandra Dunagan and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal walk to the center of the field for a ribbon cutting before the Falcons' game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night in Atlanta.

Photo by John Bazemore

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ATLANTA — Despite the Atlanta jersey she wore, the Falcons logo painted on her right cheek and the bag she was carrying filled with Falcons merchandise that she had just purchased from one of the team's many gift shops inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Shannon Elliott insisted she wasn't a huge fan.

"I'm really more of an Eagles fan," said the Tampa, Fla., resident as she watched folks feverishly file into the stadium Sunday evening to watch Atlanta host Green Bay — the first official NFL game in the new playpen. "My husband David is the real Falcons fan."

Indeed, at that moment up walked David Elliott, every piece of clothing on his body boldly supporting the Falcons.

But that's not what most screamed of his 38 years of loyalty to the Big Peach's NFL franchise. There on the back of his left calf, tattooed on top of an American flag, was the Falcons logo. Elliott — who moved to Atlanta in 1979, when he was 7 — plans to eventually get two more Falcons tattoos on the same calf. He had also planned to get a tattoo of the Super Bowl trophy on the front of that calf when Atlanta surged to a 28-3 lead over New England last winter, but then the Falcons lost, so that portion of his left leg remains ink-free.

"It took about eight weeks to get over the Super Bowl," he said, echoing the thoughts of Atlanta fans throughout the South. "But I think we'll bounce back and win it all this year."

Though a good many of the 71,000-plus that filled Mercedes-Benz to the rim of its retractable roof were short on Falcons body art Sunday night, they were long on praise for the new $1.5 billion facility.

"It's more set up for fans of football," said David Elliott, who bought season tickets in section 313, despite residing in Tampa. "The Georgia Dome was more about hosting lots of different events."

Larry Smith had been coming to the Dome for years thanks to a friend's season tickets. That same friend called to offer him a seat in the new stadium for the Green Bay game.

"This is basically the same setup as over there," said Smith as he pointed toward the adjacent Georgia Dome. "But I am excited to see the halo (video board). I haven't been inside yet, but I hear it's got a little bit of everything."

Indeed, the halo video board at the top of the ceiling is the largest of its kind in the world, measuring 58 feet tall with 360-degree HD technology.

"This is for the fans," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said a few weeks ago. "I wanted this for them and for the city of Atlanta. I want them to have the best of the best."

Cleveland, Tenn., resident Ben Oder was standing outside the stadium with his 9-year-old son, Michael Logan Oder, a little more than two hours from kickoff, hoping they'd see the Falcons at their best. The Oders will be moving to Atlanta in October, and when a business client offered Ben a couple of tickets for Sunday's game, he was more than happy to accept.

"This is our first Falcons game," he said. "We're really more college football fans. We're big Florida State fans. But we're excited to see the new stadium."

Added young Michael Logan, who is homeschooled: "Our seats are right at the goalposts. I'm looking forward to seeing touchdowns and field goals up close."

Much to the chagrin of Atlanta resident but Green Bay Packers fan Avery Sebastian, most of the first-half touchdowns and field goals went to the Falcons, who led 24-7 at halftime, their offense piling up 257 yards to but 102 for the visitors by the break.

"We're about to kill them," Sebastian had confidently predicted before the game. "Couldn't pick a more perfect night to beat them here."

Atlanta, of course, killed Green Bay 44-21 in last year's NFC title game to reach the Super Bowl. And when the Falcons wrapped up a 34-23 victory Sunday, it was the third time in less than a year they had topped the Pack in Atlanta.

As for the perfect night to rightfully christen this supposedly perfect stadium, it certainly seemed that way both before and during the game.

Jazz saxophonist Mike Phillips performed a soft and soulful rendition of the national anthem. Various dignitaries — including Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and Blank — were saluted before the opening kickoff. Military personnel led the team onto the field, with five American flags and one Falcons flag leading the charge. Much of the crowd even gave former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick — whose cruelty to animals landed him in prison for a time — a standing ovation during one break in play.

Finally, at halftime, all-time Georgia great Herschel Walker helped the Mercedes-Benz corporate guys give away a car.

It was the kind of grand opening one might expect for a structure as stunning as Mercedes-Benz, and the Falcons' near-flawless start only added to the night.

"This stadium is beautiful," Shannon Elliott said. "It's everything you could ever want in a stadium."

And for at least one Sunday night in September, the Falcons were playing beautiful football, looking like everything you could ever want in an NFL franchise.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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