Heat and overpriced drinks: I missed stadiums

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It’d been 618 days since I last attended a major sporting event.

On Dec. 12, 2019, I visited Baltimore for the sole purpose of watching the Ravens — then 12-2 en route to one of the best seasons in franchise history — kick the snot out of the lowly New York Jets (5-9).

And that they did, winning 42-21 on Thursday Night Football and clinching the AFC North division title with minimal effort needed.

My friend and I sat on the top row at M&T Bank Stadium, powering through what had to be similar temperatures to those typically displayed on the thermostats used by penguins and polar bears.

But all of the shivering and complaining aside, it was glorious.

And I’ve been riding the high of that night all of the way through the COVID-19 pandemic, through the image of empty stadiums around the world, through the suspension and resumption of both the NBA and NHL seasons last year and through the reintroduction of fans to arenas over the last few months.

As many sports fans have over the last 18 months, I’ve been fiending for the opportunity to watch a game in-person, to cheer in unison with thousands of people who share the same passion as you, to act foolish when your team does something exciting and not be judged for it.

I’ve obviously been to plenty of high school games over the last seven months since joining the News + Record — too many to count at this point — and I’ve even attended a couple of minor league baseball games, but nothing compares to the atmosphere of a stadium that fits tens of thousands of people.

Professional (and college) sports just hit different.

And after a long wait of nearly two full years, that streak of 618 days — unlike my Orioles’ current 18-game losing streak, longest in MLB since the 2005 Royals — was finally broken this past weekend.

Those same Ravens were in Charlotte last Saturday night to take on the Panthers in a preseason NFL contest, so it would have been a travesty for me not to be there.

Donning my no. 44 jersey with the last name of Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey on the back, I strode into Bank of America Stadium alongside my girlfriend, best friend from college and his girlfriend, with a grin on my face and a slight feeling of anxiety beginning to wash over me.

Was I incredibly excited to be there? No doubt.

Was it a tad overwhelming being around a large group of people for the first time since the pandemic began? You bet.

According to ESPN, there were 68,061 fans in attendance for the Panthers’ first home game of the season, 92% of the stadium’s total capacity.

With the Delta variant leading to a large spike in COVID cases in N.C. — including a daily average of nearly 5,000 new cases per day in late August, compared to a little less than 2,000 cases per day at the end of July, per the NCDHHS — being around that many folks at once was, to put it simply, nerve-wracking, despite my vaccination status.

However, in our section, which was again towards the very top corner of the stadium, we weren’t sitting side-by-side with anyone else, so once the game got started, my nerves settled down and things actually started to feel ... normal … again.

While there have always been plenty of things I disliked about attending games, I found that this time, after having them stripped away from me for so long, I was actually grateful for the minor inconveniences that give stadiums their personality.

The trek from the base of the stadium to its summit — including the winding ramps and long staircases that are required to be taken to get there — in the August heat was miserable, but yet, I was happy to do it.

I found myself unbothered by the closeness of the bathroom’s urinals, the long lines to do just about anything and the occasional family of spectators that force you to stand up out of your seat so they can get by you.

I even handed the vendor my debit card with a smile as he charged me over $25 for two beverages.

Ah, how I missed overpriced stadium food.

All in all, my favorite player, Lamar Jackson, may not have taken a snap in a fairly meaningless preseason contest — nor did plenty of other Ravens and Panthers starters — and the game might not have been game-of-the-year material (the Ravens won, 20-3, after the game was tied 3-3 at halftime), but simply being at an NFL game after so many days away made it just as fun, just as exciting and just as worth it as that frigid December night back in 2019.

Plus, the Ravens’ win gave them their 19th-straight preseason victory, an NFL record streak that dates back to 2015.

Now that’s one streak I’d be happy to see continue for eternity.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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