Thank you, Giants Stadium, and good night. Giants Stadium -- which has a March 2010 date with the wrecking ball -- won't go down in history as a pillar of fine architecture, great acoustics, or anything like that, but there's no denying that plenty of history was made at the old place. Ground was broken in November 1972, and the stadium opened on Oct. 10, 1976, with 78,042 fans on hand to witness the Cowboys defeat the Giants by a score of 24-14. Subsequently, events of every kind attracted tens of thousands of people at a time. Professional sports teams that took to the field include the Giants, New York Jets, New York/New Jersey MetroStars (later Red Bulls), New York Cosmos, and New Jersey Generals. College and high school football games unfolded there, too. Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there during a rainstorm on October 5, 1995, though hardly anyone among the 82,948 faithful let the inclement weather dampen their spirit.
And who can forget the music? Giants Stadium hosted a Who's Who of top acts, kicking off on June 25, 1978, when The Beach Boys, Steve Miller Band, and Pablo Cruise arrived in town. Other groups that performed there: Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, The Three Tenors, The Grateful Dead, Green Day, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Genesis, The Who, U2, and The Rolling Stones. Major music events staged at Giants Stadium included NetAid (1999) and Live Earth (2007). Then, of course, there's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Springsteen made Giants Stadium his own, settling in for 24 concerts over the years, including six shows during the "Born in the USA" tour in 1985, 10 nights in 2003 in support of "The Rising," three more evenings in 2008 behind "Magic," and, finally, five nights in September and October, 2009, to bring down the curtain on the stadium.
Awaking a Sleeping Giant
The date was Oct. 1, 1976 and Harry Carson can still remember his first glimpse at the new stadium, blinking back his disbelief at the way the upper deck seemed to reach all the way into the clouds. The Giants' linebacker swore he'd woken up in some alternate universe; that's how big the place was.
Carson struggled to find the right description -- from overwhelming to surreal to too good to be true -- before finally settling on one that stuck for the next 13 years of his NFL career: home sweet home.
"My first reaction was, like, 'wow.' I'd never seen anything like it..." Carson recalls. "I wasn't one of those guys who went to [the University of] Michigan, where you get 100,000 people every week. I played at little South Carolina State, and we had something like 12,000 at homecoming. So, to me, it was awesome."
Carson was talking about Giants Stadium on the day of its unveiling, a ceremony that created a new identity not just for the Giants, but for New Jersey. This was the state's first major sporting venue, and it eventually became a mecca of big times, good times, crazy times, enough to fill up the hard drive of any local sports fan's memory.
Of course, by the end of its 33-year run Giants Stadium's legacy had not outgrown just the Giants. Almost everyone, it seemed, had a reason to remember the place. The Jets lived there, too, having arrived in 1984 (although it was known simply known as The Meadowlands during their home games). Even the New Orleans Saints used the site for the 2005 opener in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Summer of Love
The Cosmos migrated to Giants Stadium in 1977 and made it possible for America to fall in love with soccer that summer. The building sold out every Sunday afternoon and could've been re-named The House That Pele Built, as the Cosmos won the NASL Soccer Bowl on Aug. 27, 1978, in front of a crowd of 74,901. The Cosmos ended up deeding their home to the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, who moved to Jersey for the 1996 season and stayed 13 seasons until the stadium's close.
The NCAA was drawn to the football-perfect dimensions, too, choosing it for the Garden State Bowl from 1978-81, and the Kickoff Classic from 1982-2002.
Even high school football found its niche off Exit 16W. From the opening until 2000, and from 2003 until its final season, Giants Stadium hosted the championship games from the New Jersey state championships.
This was all part of the plan when officials broke ground in 1972, hoping to turn the Meadowlands -- and Giants Stadium in particular -- into a home, if not for daily events, then at least the major ones.
Robert Mulcahy, who was president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority at the time, says the stadium's planners, "knew we could never (rival) Madison Square Garden" but otherwise succeeded in making the stadium, "something that gave New Jersey a certain pride.
"We've always had a terrible identity," Mulcahy says of the Garden State. "We don't have a major city, we're not New York; we're not Philadelphia. But the Sports Complex gained a reputation that went beyond the barriers of the U.S."
The ability to generate buzz was forged almost instantly, burgeoning one sell-out event after another. Question was, after four decades, who would dare compile a Top Ten?
Both Carson and Mulcahy laugh at the impossibility of the request, although the linebacker, who was recently inducted into the NFL's Hall of Fame, eventually settled on the Giants' Conference Championship game against the Redskins January 11, 1987 as the No. 1 souvenir.
"We'd made it to the playoffs a couple of times before that, but we'd never had the home field advantage in such a big game," Carson says of the 17-0 victory. Any Giants' historian can tell you how fiercely the winds whipped through the stadium that day (upwards of 30-mph) and how the Redskins were unable to cope with the weather once they trailed by more than two touchdowns.
That game was the Giants' last obstacle to the Super Bowl, wrapping up a season that saw them win all ten games at home. Two weeks later, Carson and his teammates flattened the Broncos, 39-20 for the franchise's first championship.
For his part, Mulcahy settled on two favorite achievements. The first was the closing ceremony for the Operation Sail extravaganza, held on July 6, 1976. The second was the 1994 World Cup, which chose Giants Stadium as its host site for seven matches.
The Impossible Dream
The diversity of events reinforced Mulcahy's belief that Giants Stadium's legacy will live on. Still, the real miracle was the structure's ability to serve as a home field for two NFL teams -- a historic agreement between the Giants and Jets that ranks as just that, a corporate impossibility.
"You'll never see it again," Mulcahy says of the 1984 merger. "You'll never see two NFL teams acting as partners in this day and age. It was all built on relationships: if Wellington Mara and Leon Hess didn't have the relationship they did, (the joint tenancy) would've never happened."
The finished product "allowed Jersey football fans to be NFL fans," Mulcahy says, as the percentage of Jets' loyalists from the Garden State continued to grow over the years.
Today, the list of big, crazy, unforgettable sports moments go off into infinity. Mulcahy and Carson were right -- there's no way to properly rank them, not if you consider the Giants' 31-3 playoff rout of the Bears on July 13, 1991, on the way to winning Super Bowl XXV.
Or the Jets' defensive end, Dennis Byrd's return on September 5, 1993, less than a year after breaking his neck against the Chiefs, partially paralyzing him. Byrd's miracle recovery continued all the way up to his walking onto the field for the coin toss, then for the halftime ceremony where he received the Dennis Byrd Trophy, now awarded each year to the most inspirational Jets player.
However they're arranged, ranked and memorialized, the stories all come back to an irrefutable conclusion: Giants Stadium wasn't just a building -- it represented a state of mind.
"You can say it's just concrete and steel, but it's the memories that make it special. My teammates would tell you the same thing," Carson says. "Those stay with you forever."