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He got game

Having no tickets doesn't stop stealthy sports fans from getting into the game

Playing sports is an all-out, action-packed adrenaline rush. Nothing beats stepping to the plate in a ninth-inning nailbiter, swishing a fade-away jumper at the buzzer, or netting the game-winning goal. Watching sports isn't quite as dramatic. Sure, the occasional foul ball gives us a chance to be heroes. But for the most part, being a spectator is pretty tame. There's not much risk in buying a ticket and filing through the turnstiles.

Unless, of course, you try to sneak into the stadium.

I've snuck into just about every major Atlanta sporting event in the past five years — the World Series, the Super Bowl even the Centennial Olympics. I saw some good games and impressive athletic feats. But mostly I wanted to see if I could sneak in without getting caught.

My sneak-ins started in 1995, when the Braves were about to win their first — and only — World Series in Atlanta. I was in college at the time, and I couldn't afford a stadium hot dog, much less a $1,000 ticket to the Series. So I headed down to Fulton County Stadium for the final game, hoping to catch some tailgate parties. I had never witnessed a World Series championship live, and I at least wanted to be near the peanut-shell and spilled-beer smells of the stadium when it happened.

It was a chilly, windy October evening. For the first few innings, I circled the stadium with thousands of other fans. Almost all of them held up one, two or three fingers — indicating how many tickets they were hoping to get their hands on. I tried waving a finger for a few laps. No luck.

I kept walking in circles. It was getting really cold. I was ready to head back home and watch the rest of the game on the tube when, suddenly, I saw my ticket inside. Beside Gate E, a television station had propped a small crane lift like those the telephone company repairmen use to reach blown transformers. Its mechanical arm, bent at the elbow, had a platform fist at the top, and the stadium ramps were right across from the platform. It was asking to be climbed. But the lift was only 20 yards from a ticket gate guarded by three security officers. I scouted out their movements and summoned up courage for another half-inning.

Just as I was approaching the lift, a drunk bum with a scraggly yellow beard shuffled over to me, carrying a bottle of whiskey in a paper sack. I was expecting him to beg for money, but instead he raised his eyebrows and asked, "You gonna climb it?"

I nodded my head once, and a big, toothless grin spread across his face.

"I'll see what I can do 'bout them security guards," he said.

My new-found accomplice stumbled over to the gate guards and started talking to them. Somehow, he got the guards to turn their backs for a few seconds. I had to act quickly, so I shimmied up the lift's arm, grabbed the edge of the platform like a chin-up bar and frog-leg kicked my body to the top. Then I jumped across the two-foot gap that separated the platform from the stadium. I couldn't believe it was me — college-educated, law-abiding me — climbing two stories up in the air onto a wobbly platform so that I could illegally vault into Fulton County Stadium.

Suddenly, I heard a shout below. Two guards ran toward the lift, while the other headed up the ramp. I never looked back, and they never saw me again. I sprinted up the ramp and disappeared into the crowd. A few minutes later, I was even lucky enough to find an empty seat in the nosebleeds — just in time to watch David Justice's Series-winning homer clear the right field fence.

That was just the beginning of my career as a sneak. The following summer, I slipped into several Olympic events, which doesn't say much for the souped-up security surrounding the Centennial Games. I watched Muhammad Ali light the torch, Michael Johnson scorch the track and the Dream Team slam-dunk the Slavs. I even caught a few Olympic soccer matches in Athens, including Nigeria's victory over Argentina in the gold medal game.

But my toughest sneak-in was last year's Super Bowl between the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams at the Georgia Dome.

Born and raised in St. Louis, I was obligated — as my father's son — to get into that football game. St. Louis never had a winning season when I was growing up, but my dad and I religiously checked the standings every Monday morning and memorized back page statistics on all the players. He used to take me to the stadium after home games so that I could get their autographs. We suffered through years of cellar-dweller seasons together. Now, St. Louis had finally turned things around and was going to the Super Bowl for the first time.

I headed down to the Dome wearing a tie and sports jacket, and carrying a clipboard with some blank sheets of paper. I caught the door behind a media crew and crept into the World Congress Center adjacent to the Dome. Inside, pre-game bands and halftime performers were tuning their instruments.

There was only one corridor between the Congress Center and the Dome: an outdoor walkway lined by at least 50 cops and security guards. They stood in two parallel rows and checked each person entering and exiting the Dome. It didn't look like I could get any farther.

Then I heard a faint hymn echoing through the parking deck above the walkway. It grew louder and louder still. Walking down from the deck were 100 large black women from the Georgia Mass Choir singing the praises of God.

Divine intervention.

I mixed myself in with the choir — a skinny, white boy surrounded by a sea of big blue robes — and pretended to escort them through the security lines. I smiled, tried to look important and never, ever made eye contact with a security guard. We passed through the last security post and walked through the ground-level doors to the Dome.

I was in.

The choir gathered in one of the tunnels and was about to walk onto the field for their pre-game performance. I was wedged in with them, headed for the field. Through the tunnel, I could see Rams QB Kurt Warner warming up on the turf, and the referees huddled at midfield. I started to panic. For a second, I felt like The Naked Gun's Frank Drebin about to impersonate Enrico Palazzo singing the national anthem. But I stepped aside at the mouth of the tunnel and scribbled something on my clipboard, while the choir proceeded past me onto the field.

I had to get out of that tunnel fast. It was crawling with cops and security guards, who were checking for proper Dome credentials. I held my clipboard across my badge-less chest and ducked past them. Then I quickly found a service elevator and rode with three beer vendors up to the seating.

I watched the game from an empty usher's seat on the Rams goal line where Mike Jones would make his last-second, game saving tackle. Afterward, I dialed up my dad on the pay phone outside the restroom:

"Dad! We won the Super Bowl! Can you believe it?" I told him where I was, and I promised to bring him home a few souvenirs.

My dad — a police officer — had never been more proud of his son.??



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