DEATH IS neverpretty, but sitting in a condemned stadium is like watching a great man in hislast throes. You can't believe it has come to this. On Saturday the Universityof Miami football team will play its 473rd and final home game at thehorseshoe-shaped hulk known as the Orange Bowl, trading its creaky confines forthe antiseptic squareness of Dolphins Stadium. Demolition looms. No one canargue that it's not time. Yet as Miami city commissioner Tomas Regalado says,"The Orange Bowl is part of our soul." When that's lost, a bit ofattention must be paid.
Understand: Miamiis a fever dream of a city, built on sand and swamp. Its fabulously torturedgrowth has had but two constants— the ocean and the Orange Bowl, which began in1937 as a 22,000-seat facility and blossomed into a national championship game,a parade, a cheery signal sent to the winter-bitten masses up North every Jan.1 that, in at least one hot corner of America, someone was downing daiquirispoolside and hoping to score. One New Year's Day, 1940, an 11-year-old boy satin his Athens, Ga., home soaking up the broadcast and banging out play-by-playon his Christmas typewriter; he biked it to his local newspaper and got a jobas a reporter. In 1953, Edwin Pope went to his first game. "I thought I'dgone to heaven," he says, and as The Miami Herald's great and gracefulcolumnist, he's been there ever since.
"So manygreat memories," says former Dolphins coach Don Shula. Yet none meant morethan his worst: Without that loss to Joe Namath's upstart Jets in Super BowlIII, Shula might never have clashed with his Baltimore Colts boss, then fled toMiami and football immortality. "In the Orange Bowl fans were right on topof you," he says. "That's where they first realized they could affectthe outcome, by making it tough for the opposing team to hear signals. And onbad days they worked me over."
But the OrangeBowl spawned more than just local heroes. As the site of 14 nationalchampionships and five Super Bowls, it served as a national proving ground.Namath became a New York legend, Doug Flutie a Boston legend, Bear Byrant anAlabama legend, Tom Osborne a Nebraska legend, Barry Switzer an Oklahomalegend, Kellen Winslow a San Diego legend—all because of their exploits in theneighborhood now known as Little Havana.
The Cuban influxtransformed Miami, of course, and remade the Orange Bowl into more than just abig-time sports venue. Not a few who fled Fidel Castro survived by hawkingsodas at UM games; current Miami mayor Manny Diaz bashed baseballs off itswalls as a kid. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy stood on the field with theflag of Brigade 2506—the band of Cuban exiles who fought at the Bay of Pigs—andpromised that "this flag will be returned to this brigade in a freeHavana." The Cuban-American vote has gone Republican in nearly everyelection since. When Castro hovered near death last year, city officialsdesignated the stadium as ground zero for the celebration. "But now,"Regalado says, "I guess that s.o.b. is going to outlive the OrangeBowl."
Ghoulish, sure,but that's the nature of a deathwatch. The Dolphins fled the Orange Bowl in1986; the postseason college football game left in 1996. Still, so long as theHurricanes played there, even an outdated O-Bowl retained its aura. TheHurricanes won an NCAA record 58 straight home games from 1985--94, team andfield and city fused into a hard-bitten whole.
Now that's over.The Hurricanes have slipped out of the elite; the Orange Bowl is crumbling. Afew Saturdays ago UM entered the fourth quarter trailing Georgia Tech by atouchdown. The 52,416 in attendance held up their traditional four fingers—Weown the fourth quarter—Mayor Diaz stood on the sideline barking at officials,players from the glory years tried to impart some magic. Nothing helped. TheYellow Jackets ran over the UM defense in a way unthinkable once.
Time ran out. Afan held up a sign reading, GOODBYE ORANGE BOWL. The losing team gathered in acorner and the band played the alma mater like a dirge, players pledging withfans to "stand forever, on Biscayne's wondrous shore." The air washumid and still; hurricane weather, they say. But it felt only like theend.
AL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM (STADIUM)
SWEET MEMORIES Among the stadium's notable performers: Namath (above), Flutie (right), Super Bowl II winner Vince Lombardi (below left) and JFK.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (FLUTIE)
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NEIL LEIFER (LOMBARDI)
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BARTON SILVERMAN (NAMATH)
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¬© CORBIS (PRESIDENT KENNEDY)