I miss sports. I can stream a game on my laptop but that doesn’t have the energy of a crowded arena, a packed living room cheering on your home team or a city buzzing with the excitement coming off a win. I was reminded the other week of how much I love the sports community and how close we are to returning to the excitement we have lost to the pandemic.
On March 24, I sped to Mercedes-Benz Stadium between classes. The enormous structure located in downtown Atlanta is home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta United FC of the MLS. However, that day, it was home to vaccine appointments for myself and thousands of other Georgians.
But this is not the first time “The Benz” has undergone a large-scale transformation to serve public good. In December 2020, the stadium became an early-voting site for the Jan. 5 Senate runoff election. Both State Farm Arena, home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium were valuable mass voting locations in December because their large spaces made them optimal for social distancing.
By January, the stadium became a mass vaccination site. While it seems odd for a stadium to host non-entertainment events, the facility’s owner, billionaire co-founder of The Home Depot Arthur Blank, has always kept the stadium’s community impact in mind.
“Mercedes-Benz Stadium was always envisioned as much more than a place,” Blank wrote in his book “Good Company.” “We wanted to impact people inside our soaring walls, of course … but that wasn’t enough. We also wanted to impact those outside — our community, our city, our league, our culture.”
In the frantic moments during which I booked my COVID-19 vaccine appointment, I failed to realize the grandeur that would come with getting my vaccine at the largest vaccination site in the Southeast.
As my appointment date approached, I found myself weighed down by the anxiety of both stepping into an unfamiliar environment and receiving the jab that would hopefully return my life to “normal.” As I rolled up to the stadium’s second gate, I was met with lines of fellow vaccine-goers.
Thankfully, the outside lines moved fast. In a matter of minutes, my line neighbors and I were hurried through a metal detector, confirmed our appointments and were inside the stadium.
Lines are usually a bore, but this one was thrilling. As I swiftly moved through a second line inside the stadium, I felt the same adrenaline pumping through my veins at the end of a nail-biting game. My patience was awarded with a neon-yellow wristband boasting the Mercedes-Benz logo and a “C” classification, directing me to where in the stadium I’d receive the vaccine.
We ascended a nearby escalator and quickly peered around pillars to catch glimpses of the field. You could feel the anticipation building in the air. Then, another line, at the end of which was the much-coveted CDC COVID-19 vaccination record card. For a moment, I felt like I was in a deli as they handed me a slip with my number — lucky number 1345.
After I received my cards, I rounded a corner that showed an open view of the field and bleachers, which after copious lines, was a breathtaking view.
I sat in one of the designated bleacher seats that look at a perfectly groomed field, rows of Falcon-red seats and the jumbotrons thanking me for my participation.
In a matter of minutes, the intercom called my number and I was whisked into another room. I sat down at one of 50 tables where members of the National Guard administered shots. Within two minutes of sitting down, I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the least painful shot of my life, and hopefully most rewarding.
As I sat in the observation room looking out at the field, waiting out the possibility of an allergic reaction and snapping a couple of selfies for my family, the surrealness of the moment hit me.
I realized sitting in the bleachers how much I missed the communal element of sports. Albeit not the biggest NFL fan, I used to go to baseball games with my dad all the time. I didn’t think of those games as a big deal, but after a year of quarantine, separated from the people I love, I realized how much I missed those experiences.
I was reminded of what crowds were like, and although I wasn’t cheering on my home team or eating the crème de la crème stadium food, sitting in the bleachers at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium offered me the same communal feeling I get at a game. The “ra-ra” of hoping your team would win was swapped for hoping your country will recover from the pandemic. We all sat there, looking out and hoping for the same goal.
I’m not only grateful that I was vaccinated, but I’m also thankful I got a taste of what I’ve been missing so much: community.
So if you can, get vaccinated wherever you can. But if you find yourself in section 247, consider yourself even luckier.