Memorable NFL stadium farewells: Patriots, Chiefs lead top 10
A football game, though you might view it on a television, laptop or tablet, takes place on a field in a stadium in front of onlookers. Over time, these stadia become a home away from home to the fans who frequently visit, a theater of competition where dreams come true and just as often die.
But due to things like the passage of time, economic constraints and rust — sometimes all of the above — stadia often don’t last forever. No current NFL franchise born before 1995 has played in the same stadium for its entire existence. So for as long as there has been professional football in America, and fans to support the enterprise, there have been farewells to stadiums.
With NFL teams entering their six-week summer break between the end of minicamps and the start of training camp, it seemed to me an apropos time to rank the most memorable of these stadium farewells.
Why does this come to mind in the middle of June when the sun is out and the beer is cold, you ask? Well, a trio of farewells for pro teams in the Bay Area in the recent past, present and future have helped spark this interest. The retirement of NaVorro Bowman earlier this month called to mind the 49ers’ departure from Candlestick Park in 2013. The Raiders’ exit from Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for Las Vegas looms (although the Oakland A’s will continue to call the stadium home); and, across the street, the Golden State Warriors’ move from the East Bay’s Oracle Arena for a new stadium in San Francisco is now officially underway after the Toronto Raptors’ Thursday night win in the NBA Finals.
All of these endings were announced well in advance, and that isn’t always the case (see: Mayflower trucks). But they are endings, final salvos for players and fans in a place (their place) that they hold dear, strewn with moments that will last a lifetime in their associative memories. These are important moments worth remembering.
Not all stadium finales are made equal. Most end with a whimper in games without postseason implications. But some end with a flourish, a dramatic finish or a triumphant clinch or surprising result. Those are the games that are remembered, or at least should be. And so, this list:
10) Giants Stadium (New York Jets)
Opened: 1976 (Jets’ home beginning in 1984)
Last NFL game: Jets 37, Bengals 0; Jan. 3, 2010
Memorable play: Brad Smith’s second-quarter 32-yard TD run
All right, so this one’s personal. There are a few nondescript playoff games or those with better finishes that could have slid in here at No. 10, but this one means the most to me because, well, it’s the one I attended. As Jets season-ticket holders, my father and I braved the bitter cold on a Sunday night in Week 17 to attend the final game at Giants Stadium before both New York teams moved to MetLife Stadium. We watched from the nosebleeds, two rows from the sky in section 303, row 29, wearing two blankets and three pairs of socks. There was added significance to the affair because the Jets, whose boisterous coach had declared them out of playoff contention two weeks prior, were in a win-and-in situation on "Sunday Night Football." Their opponents from Cincinnati had already clinched the AFC North and played like it. The aforementioned Smith, one of the great weapons of the Wildcat Era, set up New York’s first score with a 57-yard scamper within the first three minutes and finished the Bengals off with a 32-yard TD run in the second quarter. It was a rout for the Jets, a woebegone franchise with a pessimistic fanbase, in their final game at a stadium named for that other team, setting up a wild-card rematch with the Bengals a week later and what would be the first of back-to-back AFC Championship Game runs. It was surreal, laughable and frickin’ freezing. I took my seat home as a souvenir. (Added bonus: The Giants were obliterated by the Matt Moore-led Panthers, 41-9, in their stadium finale the week prior and went on to miss the playoffs. Blue hoo.)
Quotable: "Who cares? It’s nothing to us. Tear it down. Nothing good ever happened here, anyway." — Chris Kinsley, a fan (via The Star-Ledger)
9) RCA Dome (Indianapolis Colts)
Last NFL game: Chargers 28, Colts 24 (2007 AFC Divisional Round); Jan. 13, 2008
Memorable play: Anthony Gonzalez’s fourth-quarter 55-yard TD reception
Indy’s last stand in the Hoosier Dome is one of a few home losses on this list, but just because the hosts fall short of completing a perfect sendoff doesn’t mean the game wasn’t memorable. With the perfect Patriots waiting in the AFC Championship Game, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers traded blows deep into the fourth quarter of this contest. The back-and-forth affair featured four touchdown passes of at least 25 yards, including Gonzalez’s balancing act along the sideline, which gave Indy the lead early in the fourth quarter. San Diego marched right back down the field but not with LaDainian Tomlinson and Rivers, both of whom had suffered knee injuries, but quarterback Billy Volek and running back Michael Turner! Down a field goal, Volek completed three of four passes to Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson and Legedu Naanee (his lone catch of the postseason) to get into the red zone before sneaking in the game-winning TD. That’s right: In Manning’s last game at the Dome, the last TD was scored by Billy Volek.
Quotable: "I’m glad to see it go. Give me an outside stadium any day." — Jeff Schweiger, a fan (via The Herald Bulletin)
8) Kingdome (Seattle Seahawks)
Last NFL game: Dolphins 20, Seahawks 17 (1999 NFC Wild Card Game); Jan. 9, 2000
Memorable play: Charlie Rogers’ third-quarter 90-yard kickoff return to take lead
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Another home playoff defeat to retire an aging dome, Seattle’s loss to Miami on the second football weekend of the millennium was notable not just because it ended an era of Seahawks football. It was also the final victory of Dan Marino’s career. (Little did he know that the following week the Jaguars would provide him a, er, rousing sendoff.) Though the bout’s biggest play was Rogers’ brilliant kickoff return that ignited the nascent 12s, perhaps the greatest sequence is Marino’s game-winning drive — an 11-play, 85-yard march to set up a J.J. Johnson goal-line TD run. Seattle’s mixed emotions were such at the end of this one that Jon Kitna was quoted as saying he hoped Marino "will get the Super Bowl ring he deserves to cap off a great career." Narrator: He did not.
Quotable: "I’ll miss staying dry. Seattle winter is lousy in January. We can look forward to new stadiums, new memories and maybe a new winning tradition." — Jack Middleton, a fan (via The Associated Press)
7) Orange Bowl (Miami Dolphins)
Opened: 1937 (Dolphins’ home beginning in 1966)
Last NFL game: Patriots 34, Dolphins 27; Dec. 22, 1986
Memorable play: Stanley Morgan’s game-winning 30-yard TD reception with 44 seconds left
A top installment in an old AFC East rivalry, the 1986 regular season finale makes the list because of its back-and-forth nature, New England’s late-game heroics and the fact that the Patriots clinched a division title for the first time in nearly a decade. On a warm night in South Florida and on national television, Steve Grogan, taking over for the injured Tony Eason in the second quarter, and Dan Marino went shot for shot down to the wire, a duel between teams that had won the AFC title in the last two years. With less than a minute to go and the Pats tied with Miami at 27, Grogan reared back and launched a 30-yard strike to Morgan, angling toward the end zone’s right pylon and a playoff berth. New England failed to advance in the postseason, and the Orange Bowl would exist as the home for Miami Hurricanes football for two decades to come, but that last-second strike stands as the memorable end to the Dolphins’ storied stay there.
Quotable: "So much else in Miami is new; the Orange Bowl is not. So many stadia in America are measured by architects with no feel for sports, no love of sight lines, no fondness for the proximity to the action that should be the sports fan’s birthright. The Orange Bowl lacks so much but has so much more." — Michael Madden, columnist for The Boston Globe
6) Candlestick Park (San Francisco 49ers)
Opened: 1960 (49ers’ home beginning in 1971)
Last NFL game: 49ers 34, Falcons 24; Dec. 23, 2013
Memorable play: NaVorro Bowman’s game-sealing, 89-yard pick-six with 1:10 left (aka The Pick at the Stick)
For Niners fans pining for the days of traveling less than 43 miles from the city’s center to attend a football game, this game marks the end of something truly glorious. This was the last great team of the Jim Harbaugh Era. In 2013, the 49ers went 12-4 and finished second in the NFC West to the team that would eventually eliminate them from the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks. However, when this game was played, the division crown had not yet been clinched, which made Bowman’s death-knell field-long pick-six that much more dramatic. In a locale that featured so many legendary plays, from The Catch to The Catch II to The Catch III, Bowman’s closing number was a fitting one.
Quotable: "We don’t want to be the guys who screw up the final game in Candlestick." — Jim Harbaugh, 49ers head coach
5) Cleveland Stadium (Cleveland Browns)
Opened: 1931 (Browns’ home beginning in 1946)
Last NFL game: Browns 26, Bengals 10, Dec. 17, 1995
Memorable play: Keenan McCardell’s 16-yard TD reception late in the second quarter
A Week 16 snoozer for a team that finished 5-11 makes it into the top five of this list? Well, its placement here has more to do with the circumstances around the game than the game itself. The Browns’ 1995 home finale wasn’t just their last game at Cleveland Stadium — it was to be their last in Cleveland, and unlike the Colts’ move from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984, fans knew about owner Art Modell’s decision to leave Cleveland for Baltimore, where the team became the Ravens, in advance. What followed was an emotional affair where the play on the field was secondary to the antics in the stands, where Browns fans were hurling expletives, lighting firecrackers and ripping out wooden benches. At game’s end, Browns players ran unprompted to celebrate their victory and share the pain of their departure with the Dawg Pound.
Quotable: "The best way to describe it is you just found out your best friend is lying in the hospital, and you found out he’s going to die. And you know the date he’s going to pass away, which is today." — John "Big Dawg" Thompson, a fan (via The New York Times)
4) Georgia Dome (Atlanta Falcons)
Last NFL game: Falcons 44, Packers 21 (2016 NFC Championship Game); Jan. 22, 2017
Memorable play: Julio Jones’ 73-yard TD reception early in the third quarter
Let’s get happy for a hot sec, shall we? Some stadium sendoffs are fun, like Atlanta’s closing of the Georgia Dome. That the Dome was not regarded as one of the NFL’s premier venues or that the game was a blowout/shutout at halftime doesn’t diminish the memory of this one. After all, a happy ending was no sure thing. Atlanta was avenging some Dome demons: The top-seeded Falcons were throttled in the 2010 Divisional Round by Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, and in Atlanta’s last NFC Championship Game appearance, it fell to the visiting 49ers after taking a 10-point lead into halftime. But these Falcons came out of the gates on fire, taking a 24-point lead into halftime, and salted fears of a meltdown away on their first drive out of halftime, when Jones took a crosser 73 yards to paydirt. Pay no mind to the Falcons’ historic collapse in the Super Bowl two weeks later. Remember them, and their fans, as they were: "A buzz saw."
Quotable: "If a building could, the Dome would have dropped the mike and invited the wrecking ball to bring it on." — Steve Hummer, columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
3) Veterans Stadium (Philadelphia Eagles)
Last NFL game: Bucs 27, Eagles 10 (2002 NFC Championship Game); Jan. 19, 2003
Memorable play: Ronde Barber’s game-sealing 92-yard pick-six with 3:12 to go
On the other end of the spectrum, Philadelphia’s goodbye to the Vet was historically cruel. Hosting the NFC title game for the first time in 22 years, the Eagles welcomed the Buccaneers to 26-degree weather along the frigid Delaware River. And Philly got off to a hot start with a Duce Staley TD run within the game’s first minute. But the Eagles would not find six for the remaining 59. Meanwhile, the Bucs, led by Jon Gruden, who had coached alongside Eagles skipper Andy Reid in Green Bay, contained and frustrated Philly, taking a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter. With less than four minutes to go, the Eagles were not out of it and had reached the red zone with a chance to pull within a score. But Donovan McNabb’s pass intended for Antonio Freeman found Barber instead, who strolled 92 yards to the opposite end zone, sending Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl and mercilessly closing down the Vet for eternity.
Quotable: "I can’t believe it’s over and we lost the way we did. I’m finishing my beer and then I’m out of here." — Brian Whartenby, a fan (via The Philadelphia Inquirer)
2) Kansas City Municipal Stadium (Kansas City Chiefs)
Opened: 1923 (Chiefs’ home beginning in 1963)
Last NFL game: Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24 (1971 AFC Divisional Round), Dec. 25, 1971
Memorable play: Garo Yepremian’s game-winning 37-yard field goal in the second overtime
Football in Kansas City is inextricably linked with Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs’ home since 1972. But before the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, there was Municipal Stadium. It had played host to teams from a slew of professional sports leagues. Eventually, the old multi-purpose venue had to RIP. The last professional football game played there was a historic one: the longest game in NFL history (in terms of playing time), between Don Shula’s Dolphins and Hank Stram’s Chiefs. A muddy affair on Christmas Day, Miami and K.C. alternated scores through the second half. The Chiefs stayed in it thanks to Ed Podolak’s playoff-record 350 total yards; the Dolphins did the same because of Nick Buoniconti’s 20 tackles. Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud had a chance to hit a potential game-winner with 35 seconds to play, but he missed to the right (his second of three missed kicks that day). The contest lasted 82 minutes, 40 seconds and ended with 7:20 left in the second overtime after a Larry Csonka run set up Yepremian’s game-winning kick. And with it, the Chiefs moved on to Arrowhead, where they did not host an AFC Championship Game until 47 years later.
Quotable: "I think that game had a lot of effect on our legacy. The ’71 team was better than the one that won the Super Bowl two years earlier. If we had beaten Miami, I think we would have won the Super Bowl, and then we’d be mentioned with the great teams of all time." — Podolak in 2012 (via The New York Times)
1) Foxboro Stadium (New England Patriots)
Last NFL game: Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (2001 AFC Divisional Round), Jan. 19, 2002
Memorable play: Tom Brady’s incomplete pass in the fourth quarter (aka the Tuck Rule play)
This one had everything: Snow. Clutch field goals. Jon Gruden. Oh, and two more words: Tuck. Rule. It was arguably the most significant American sports result of the 21st century, and it hinged on a controversial — to say the least — call rooted in a rule that was scrapped more than a decade later. The game helped establish the legacies of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri, launched a dynasty in New England, ended a burgeoning one in Oakland and is legally required to be featured on 68 percent of all NFL Network’s Top 10 programs in perpetuity. Foxboro Stadium’s closure is but a footnote in this game’s legacy, but try to find a stadium sendoff, let alone a game, more memorable than this one.
Quotable: "’A few people were inebriated but there were no major incidents,’ said (Foxboro Stadium director of security Mark) Briggs. ‘The atmosphere, to be honest, has been great. It’s been a good day.’
"Foxboro Police did say, however, they made 32 arrests." — Tim Casey, The Boston Globe
Just missed the cut:
— Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (Minnesota Vikings): Vikings 14, Lions 13; Dec. 19. 2013
— Texas Stadium (Dallas Cowboys): Ravens 33, Cowboys 24; Dec. 20, 2008
— Pontiac Silverdome (Detroit Lions): Lions 15, Cowboys 10; Jan. 6, 2002
— Three Rivers Stadium (Pittsburgh Steelers): Steelers 24, Redskins 3; Dec. 16, 2000
— Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field (Cincinnati Bengals): Bengals 44, Browns 28; Dec. 12, 1999
— Tampa Stadium/Houlihan’s Stadium (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): Buccaneers 20, Lions 10; Dec. 28, 1997 (Wild Card Round)
— War Memorial Stadium (Buffalo Bills): Bills 21, Lions 21; Dec. 10, 1972
— Sportsman’s Park (St. Louis Cardinals): Browns 27, Cardinals 24; Dec. 19, 1965
Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.
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