In my mind's eye, it is Jan. 1, 1988 and Auburn is kicking a field goal to settle for a 16-16 tie with Syracuse, the only blemish on the Orangemen's brilliant return-to-glory season. The Syracuse fans are booing (Auburn coach Pat Dye is forever knows as "Pat Tie'' in Central New York). The Auburn fans are doing almost nothing. The big dome is strangely muted. A week earlier I had walked into the big building for the first time and swiveled my neck 360 degrees, accepting the vastness in my brain. I walked to the highest seat in the building and from up there I could scarcely see the floor. Who would pay for this seat?
It is New Year's Day in 1993, in the belly of the wild Miami dynasty of the late '80s and early '90s. The Hurricanes are trying to win their fourth national championship in six years, playing Alabama. Crimson Tide fans take over New Orleans and when the players take the field, the Superdome quivers with a noise like I've seldom heard in my life. The game is never close, and the Miami dynasty is crushed.
It is the second day of January in 1997 and Florida finally wins a national title under Steve Spurrier, routing rival Florida State, 52-20. In one of the wide, curving corridors on the field level of the building, I meet Spurrier's wife, Jerri. A strong lady, she is nonetheless near tears at this, her husband's first -- and still, only -- national title.
Or it is four days into the year 2000 and Florida State wins Bobby Bowden's second national title. That championship is a footnote to the stunning performance that night by Virginia Tech redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick, whose cutbacks personally cause two FSU linebackers to blow out their ACLs on the dome's artificial turf.
The memories go deeper. A year after Vick's coming-out, I saw Miami dismantle Florida and before I left the building I stood in the main lobby as Hurricanes' coach Butch Davis dissected his team's performance for me. It occurs to me now that the tiles we were standing on that night are now underwater. The walk I made back to the Hyatt Hotel that night is now nearly a dreadful swim. The hotel itself is in shambles.
I can't say strongly enough that my memories are worth nothing more than anybody else's. They're just mine. Seven Super Bowls have been played in the Superdome, more than in any other stadium. Four times the Final Four has been played in the Superdome. Michael Jordan beat Georgetown here in '82. Keith Smart beat Syracuse for Indiana in '87. In 1993, Chris Webber called a timeout that Michigan didn't have. I was there for that one, stunned that North Carolina could win another national title on somebody's mistake.
So many others must have the same memories. The fact that great games were played in this mammoth building in the last three decades is an afterthought to the suffering that it has witnessed in just the last three days. Is there a connection between a city's collapse and suffering and man's jump shot or field goal?
I know there is this: A man sitting on a couch, a giant stadium once filled with happiness now only sad. And it is the happiness gone that makes the distance melt away and turns the sadness real.