The blonde in the Tony Romo jersey grabs my shoulder and shakes it. She can't help herself; this is a moment that must be shared. From a crammed party area she stares at the glow above, as if expecting a tractor beam to descend from the colossal, punter-baiting video screen that hangs 90 feet above the field. "My goodness," she says, "just look at it."
They came for the game, sure, but more so they came for the spectacle, to gaze jaws unhinged at this towering homage to all that is big and American and tax-amenable, to be able to say they were among the 105,121 to attend the first NFL game at the new Cowboys Stadium, the three-million-square-foot steel-and-glass middle finger that owner Jerry Jones has lifted to the recession. And spectacle they got.
It was like Mardi Gras and the Republican National Convention rolled into one on Sunday when the Cowboys hosted the Giants, only with more money, bigger celebrities and better cleavage. LeBron James was there, as was Rudy Giuliani and, on the 50-yard line in Jones's luxury suite, the holy trinity of red-meat America—John Madden, George W. Bush and Roger Goodell. OURS IS BIGGER! proclaimed T-shirts everywhere, and this was of course true; the stadium is the largest column-free structure in the world, so vast that Detroit's Ford Field could fit inside, like a Russian nesting doll. Moments before kickoff a series of captioned photos appeared on the colossal video board in this order: the Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum and, finally, Cowboys Stadium. If the montage was tongue-in-cheek, there was no indication it was received that way.
It's a wonder, yes, but the stadium may also be one of the great revenue generators. Fans paid an average of $159 for a ticket (by far the highest in the league, according to Team Marketing Report), $8 for a beer, $13 for a Kobe beef burger (dry and a bit chalky to my taste) and—cha-ching!—$75 for the privilege of parking in one of the vast asphalt oceans that stretch out in all directions. Some had even paid $150,000 for seat licenses and thousands more for the tickets themselves and ... well, you get the idea.
Not that anyone at the game seemed too concerned about economic symbolism. Cowboys Stadium received a sizable chunk of public funding—$325 million from the generous citizens of Arlington. But in a time of furloughs and layoffs and shriveled-up 401(k)'s, $1 billion for granite countertops and all those pixels could seem a bit unseemly—just don't tell Jones. To him the stadium represents "a small stimulus package for the area" and a "statement that will help our country be where we want it to be, create an attitude that creates jobs and creates buyers for products."
As he told me last Saturday, "We're going to have to sell our way out of this thing," and what Jones meant by that was clear: Recessions are for wusses.
The horde of blue-clad and besotted believers on hand the next day appeared to agree. They were tailgating by 10 a.m., and by the 7:30 kickoff the stadium was compartmentalized bedlam: from the Miller Lite--gargling twentysomethings of the standing-room-only "party pass" area, to the polo-shirted, Peroni-sipping crowd of the reserved section, to the business titans in the swanky downstairs lounges who downed whatever the hell they wanted as they tried to outsmile one another.
Part of the genius of Jones's plan is that these groups remain segregated by ticket stubs, each populace content to have its own experience yet share in the democracy of that 600-ton video board. It's wider than 1½ NBA courts and showed all, from linemen prepping in the locker room to face-painted fans (best sign: NO T.O., NO JESSICA, NO PAC MAN, NO EXCUSES) to the tailgaters and the go-go dancers.
We saw every pore of the Cowboys players as they warmed up, and game replays from four different angles (often simultaneously, the board split into quarters) and at least 10 minutes of close-ups of the Cowboys cheerleaders. Afterward I asked Giants players if they were distracted by the atmosphere. "Not really," said linebacker Michael Boley, "but it was nice to win it in front of all these people." Cornerback Bruce Johnson, who ran back an interception for a touchdown, was more forthcoming, admitting he tried to watch the end of his run on the video board, while kicker Lawrence Tynes ran to retrieve the ball as a memento after kicking the winning field goal.
Which brings up a good point: There was a game too. Romo threw three interceptions, and New York won 33--31 on Tynes's 37-yarder. Which meant that despite all the pageantry, Jones eventually went home unhappy, as did a great number of Cowboys fans.
One of them was 37-year-old Chris Viggiano, who sat on a railing after the game in his Dallas jersey next to two friends, looking dejected. Behind him, the domed shape of Cowboys Stadium remained lit up, like some vast, grounded spaceship. Fans streamed by, many giddy from the experience, but not Viggiano. Asked what he thought of his team's new home, he looked up.
"Stadium's beautiful," he said. Then he shook his head, for even the magic of the moment could not obscure another, more salient fact. "But Romo still sucks."
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Jerry Jones has lifted a big steel-and-glass MIDDLE FINGER to the recession.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW