In finale for Orange Bowl, storied stadium is the star

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

November 12, 2007|By DAN LEBATARD | DAN LEBATARD,THE MIAMI HERALD

MIAMI -- A phonograph in a wireless world.

That's what the Orange Bowl was at the end.

All around the antique, there are iPods and computers and digital downloads. But the old lady, scratched and weary, could still be cranked up to transport you to that magical place where yesterday feels better than today. And she did it again Saturday night, one last time. Like the phonograph, she allowed you to close your eyes and let the music wash over you along with the memories.

Soon, the wrecking balls will come. And it will feel like they've paved over a piece of your childhood. As Bette Davis famously said, "Old age is no place for sissies." But Saturday was the celebratory toast before the tears. And it didn't much matter that Miami's beloved Hurricanes were losing 31-0 by halftime. This last night couldn't be marred by the scoreboard any more than a happy couple celebrating their 50th anniversary could be dampened because someone spilled a drink on the table.

The Orange Bowl has been the regal queen of this old neighborhood for more than seven decades, pulling everyone in the surroundings closer to all her lights and all her life. From a different time, she was. Old Miami. Standing regally even in old age amid the barbershops and joyerias and bakeries and coin laundries and locksmiths and dollar stores and cafeterias. Part beacon, part landmark. You could see her lights at night from far away. Feel them, too.

So at 7:14 p.m., when former Hurricane Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson introduced the Hurricanes through that tunnel smoke for the final time, you could hear the noise reverberating throughout the old neighborhood in a way that all of South Florida's languages could understand. People of all colors and creeds had gravitated toward her warmth again to laugh and to live and to make the kind of good noise that always echoed well beyond her rusty gates on the most memorable nights.

Too bad Miami's team couldn't live up to the night, or that the noise couldn't echo much beyond kickoff.

You know the scene that repeated itself most often before the game, though? Pals gathering for photos with the Orange Bowl in the backdrop, like an old friend. College pals three decades removed from campus who had flown in from all over. Police officers on duty. Sorority sisters who hadn't tailgated together since before having husbands and kids.

Put all those snapshots in the scrapbook as a representation for what this place always did for them.

And remember, forever, that all of those people with their arms around each other in all those photos were smiling.

The game between Miami and Virginia? It was ancillary. And that says plenty in our fickle, bandwagon town. Because the only other times this old lady could feel this full and swaying at kickoff is when the stakes and consequences were ratcheted up to that wonderful place at the very top of sports. But this night wasn't about a game or a team or even a single season, given that Miami is mediocre this year and had four turnovers and a blocked punt in the first half. It was about remembering a building and its history. It was one last chance to say thank you and goodbye.

That's odd, when you think about it. Because, by itself, the building isn't anything special - leaking and rickety, an orange Dumpster by modern standards that have turned sports into a multibillion-dollar industry. It was never the building that made this place feel special; it was always the dominant teams winning inside it. Those swaggering Hurricanes of the early 1990s would have been interesting and exciting playing inside a landfill. But, on her last night, the Orange Bowl got to be the star for all those moments involving Joe Namath and Kellen Winslow and Doug Flutie and Kenny Calhoun when she was merely the framing around the biggest stage in sports.

You have to have been a part of it to understand. Viewed from the outside, without feeling, the Orange Bowl looks like just another worn-down building that time passed. But an heirloom is never worth as much to an outsider as it is to the family member who knows what kind of treasure it is. Former Hurricanes Michael Irvin and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis have won championships at the highest levels of professional football, but they'll tell you that running through that tunnel smoke in this building is unlike anything they've ever known. Irvin compares it to the Greeks entering the gladiator arena. Upon hearing this, an emotional Lewis recognizes the feeling again and starts shouting: "That's it! That's it!"

That feeling is gone now, forever, remembered but never replaced.

To quote Lewis as the curtain drops:

That's it.

That's it.

Dan LeBatard writes for The Miami Herald.

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