Joe Lonke was saying goodbye to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on Sunday afternoon long before he actually left it.
Ever since his mother drove him downtown to see his first big-league baseball game, the 39-year-old sports buff from Maple Grove has been hooked on the sights and sounds of a place where hometown heroes won over hearts and delivered dozens of thrills over three memorable decades.
So Sunday afternoon, as the Vikings played their final game in the soon-to-be-razed 31-year-old venue, Lonke couldn’t help but think about his late mother and the memories they shared.
Kirby Puckett’s 11th-inning, walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Brett Favre’s magical autumn of 2009. The Twins World Series titles in ’87 and ’91. The Vikings’ heartbreaking NFC title game loss to Atlanta in 1999. Game 163 against Detroit.
“I’m not even watching the game at all,” Lonke said as he walked the concourse minutes before the final gun sounded in a 14-13 Vikings victory that closed out the Metrodome era. “I’m just wandering around looking at everything and thinking about the history. It’s as much about me saying goodbye to this place for her as it is for me.”
Lonke was one of 64,000 fans who braved a bitter December chill to bid farewell to the much-maligned Teflon-covered stadium that was often the butt of jokes but served its local teams so very well.
They came from Iowa and North Dakota and as far away as London to catch a piece of history and maybe, in a season of too many “L’s” and too much disappointment, to see a victory.
In coming weeks, the Dome, named for one of the state’s most prominent politicians and home for decades to the Twins, Vikings and University of Minnesota football team, will be razed to make way for a $1 billion, state-of-the-art upgrade.
“People called it a dump,” Lonke said as he looked around the stadium. “But it was our dump. And we loved it.”
Unlike the Metropolitan Stadium finale 30 years earlier, when fans stormed the field, tore down goalposts and scampered up the scoreboard, the Dome went out Sunday with a bit of a whimper.
With extra security officers lining the field at game’s end and an additional 50 off-duty Minneapolis police officers working the concourse and the crowd, damage was slight — folding chairs, cup holders and signs were reportedly the biggest losses.
“No one was injured. Everything was respectful,” said Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which runs the Dome and is overseeing construction of the new stadium. “It was a great day.”
Hours before the Dome’s revolving doors stopped turning for good, fans gathered in nearby parking lots for a final tailgating bash.
Decked out in purple and gold jerseys and stocking caps and beads and face paint, they grilled burgers and brats, guzzled cold beer and sipped stronger spirits in a subzero December chill that made the toasty confines of the Dome, even at its advanced age, seem all the more appealing.
While the stadium goes down and the new one goes up, the Vikings will play the next two seasons outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. The new stadium is scheduled to open in time for the 2016 NFL season.
“It’s a big day,” said Al Moore, a season ticket-holder from Plymouth. “And I’m taking it all in. I just want to say I was here.”
Moore, his wife, Jenni, and their party of eight pulled into a parking lot a few blocks from the stadium well before sunrise after dropping off their kids at grandma’s house in St. Louis Park.
“We were the first ones in the lot,” Jenni Moore said. “We wanted to make sure we got a spot.”
Despite the cold and a stinging wind, the Moores and friends stayed comfy with hot chili and chicken wings.
“It’s the end of an era, but it’s been a lot of fun,” said Sara Peulen, a fan from Chisago City, as she tossed peppers and potato skins on a nearby grill.
By 10 a.m., the sweet scent of both wafted across the parking lot. By 11 a.m., a steady stream of fans hustled up the street and through the stadium gates, where ticket holders received commemorative purple pennants.
By the time the Lions kicked off at noon, the crowd was in a tizzy. For the next three hours fans cheered and groaned and cussed and pumped fists in a game that was more routine than remarkable.
But to most watching, the details didn’t seem to matter.
“This is history going down,” said Patti Lang, 35, who grew up in Bloomington but now lives in Oregon. “It’s a big deal.”
“This is our childhood,” said her friend, Alissa Thorsland, of Hopkins. “We grew up here.”
Three hours later, the Vikings trotted off the artificial turf for a final time with a one-point victory, thanks largely to rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, who ran 50 yards for one touchdown and caught a short pass for another score late in the game to deliver the win.
As the final gun sounded, fans rose to cheer and salute. Cellphone cameras flashed. Some fans blew kisses. Others sang “Skol Vikings” and raced out the revolving doors, slapping their palms against the exit sign to Kirby Puckett Place.
“This stadium, even though it might not have been perfect, it was us,” former Vikings center Matt Birk said in a brief, postgame ceremony at midfield.
A personal souvenir
High in the second deck, sisters Shawn Schmitz, 43, of St. Louis Park and Natalie Crawford, 40, of Billings, Mont., pulled out a purple and gold boa and began plucking feathers. Their mother had made the boa for Crawford, a self-described “serious Vikings fan,” more than 20 years ago.
But now, the sisters thought it only fitting to leave it behind.
As a final round of fireworks sounded and fans headed to the exits, the sisters picked the boa clean, tossing each feather over the side of the second deck railing, fluttering to the seats below.
“Yeah,” Crawford said as she teared up, “it’s kind of sad.”
“It’s very sad,” Schmitz said as she hugged her sister. “But we thought we’d leave the feathers. It seems only fitting that they stay here and go down with the Dome.”
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425