Sager on HS Sports: Growing up with a new stadium

Craig Sager II was born and raised in Atlanta and has grown up in the world of sports. He earned his degree at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, where he also walked on the football team for three seasons (2008-10). Craig has worked for Score Atlanta since 2012 and has performed the duties of managing editor since the 2014 high school football season.

I have effortlessly shielded myself with denial, but it is the year 2016, and I realize that a major chapter of my life is coming to a close. The new Braves’ and Falcons’ stadiums set to open in 2017 remains a reality stuck in oscillation. My outlook is melded between   imagining the new fan experience and reminiscing about my childhood experiences. With Turner Field’s final season underway, I’m still trying to gauge how different the fan experience will be a year from now. The same is to be said about the new Falcons stadium.

I grew up with these two stadiums from their beginnings. Even though I was young when they opened and probably did not realize how big of a deal a new stadium was, I still remember these occasions. I was only four-years old when the Georgia Dome opened and my family posed for a family photo on the hood of our blue (two-toned) Astro van in front of the newly christened Dome. We used the picture for our Christmas card that year.

My mom would take my two sisters (ages six and one) and I to every Falcons home game up until we were at the age where our own sports and activities began marking up the weekend calendar. I learned the game of football during this time by watching the live action in this mysterious indoor stadium called ‘the Dome’. I still remember my “Eureka” moment when I finally decrypted what the down markers on the sideline were used for. It is actually one of the earliest memories I have in my life. I can still feel that rush of  information that detonated at this precise moment and how enriching that feeling was. It was the first time I both saw and understood the game of football.

The place where I learned the game of football became the same place that I opened my sophomore season of high school football in the 2003 Corky Kell Classic. I was actually lucky enough to play in three high school football games in the Georgia Dome and got to call the Tucker McEachern game from the booth this past season on Fox Sports South.

I have seen SEC championships, SEC tournaments, Final Fours, state championships, Falcons games, Peach Bowls, Chick-fil-A Bowls, concerts, motor cross, etc. at the Dome, and I can remember it all. I don’t know if I remember it so vividly because of some kind of emotional attachment to the home field or if my brain was just programmed for sports.

THE TED …

As a football fan, I can seem partial to the Dome, but Turner Field is just as memorable to me. I remember life before Turner Field, when I’d watch Fred McGriff play in the old Fulton County Stadium. I sat in Centennial Olympic Stadium for opening ceremonies in 1996 and watched the venue transform to a new, fun and exciting place to watch the Braves. With a giant firework-shooting Coca-Cola bottle in left field and tomahawk-chopping neon lights on top of the scoreboard in center field, this place looked and felt like home. Add the skyline, a guaranteed breathtaking sunset and the Olympic torch painting the backdrop of the stadium and it really didn’t get more “Atlanta” than that. When I hear ‘Atlanta’, this is the image that pops in my head.

Turner Field’s opening came during the same time period of the maligned, but must-see steroid era of baseball. I was one of the spectators at the 2000 Home Run Derby watching the peak of the juicing greats as Sammy Sosa blasted Herculean homers. Sosa’s macho-man performance at the Derby was punctuated with a 508-foot blast that sailed over the center-field TV cameras. I remember every second of that ball’s path from home plate to oblivion and I don’t now if I’ll ever see someone hit the baseball as hard as he did that day.

In 1998, I was sitting behind the Braves dugout days before my birthday. It was a July afternoon game, so as you can imagine, it was miserably hot. I was surviving the heat with my frozen lemonade. As I looked down to take another spoonful, John Smoltz sliced a foul ball that blistered through the muggy summer air and sliced a direct path to my left ring finger. The ball chipped the bone on impact and spilled my lemonade, before ricocheting halfway up the section. The man that eventually wound up with the baseball came down to make sure I was okay and then handed me the ball. I still remember how quickly the pain went away the second that man handed me what was my first-ever foul ball. Thirteen years later, I even got Smoltz to sign it at Tim Hudson’s golf tournament and got an apology and chuckle out of the now Hall of Famer.

The good memories of our stadiums outweigh the bad and even the ugly ones. It will be a sad day to see these landmarks go, but I am excited for the next generation to experience the same path of growth I had with a new Dome and Turner Field. That being said, let us leave the Ipads at home, limit the ‘selfies’ and preserve the authentic experiences that shape our love of the game and the precious memories that come with it.

SAGER ON HS SPORTS ARCHIVE

 

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