Calkins: On a historic night in Memphis, 901 FC proves that fans in the stands can be done

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 27, 2020 10:17 PM CT | Published: July 25, 2020 11:59 PM CT
Geoff Calkins
Daily Memphian

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

The soccer ball came flying into the stands, where it was deflected by a lone fan eating — and protecting — his pizza in section 119.

The lone fan was Dr. Jon McCullers, the expert on influenza who has helped shape the region’s response to COVID-19.

McCullers had been invited to this historic match as the ceremonial guitar-smasher. Let’s just say he did an emphatically better job than Dr. Fauci did throwing out the first pitch.

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But here it was, more than an hour later, after McCullers had a chance to survey the entire scene.

His verdict?

“It works,” he said. “I feel safe.”

Which is even better than a smashed guitar.

Memphis 901 FC and Charlotte Independence played to a 2-2 draw at AutoZone Park Saturday night, in the first professional sporting event in the city held with fans since the pandemic began.

If it wasn’t quite the raucous, colorful, singing soccer festival that these matches were last year, it was a significant success.

“We were aware that all eyes were upon us,” said Craig Unger, the president of the franchise. “We did something a lot of people thought couldn’t be done.”

It seemed like a risky enterprise, when first announced. Just this week, it was revealed that a person attending an event in Shelby County with 10 attendees has a 40 percent chance of encountering someone with COVID-19.

This event was to have up 1,000 attendees. How could that possibly be safe?

“We worked with them to come up with protocols,” McCullers said. “We felt very comfortable with what we worked out.”

So it was that the gates to the ballpark opened at 6 p.m., to welcome fans back for the first time since March 7.

“Oh my God, we’re ecstatic,” said Christy Dye, a season ticket holder. “It feels so good to be back.”

Typically, Dye would have joined the rest of the diehard Memphis fans in a parade — with smoke bombs! — to the park.

“No parade today,” she said. “Some police officers usually stop traffic for us. We saw them standing out there today and told them, ‘It’s just us.’”

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Inside the park, clusters of fans were seated 12 feet apart. That’s 12 feet in all directions, which cut the stadium’s capacity from 10,000 to 1,000 for the match.

Fans had their temperatures taken as they entered the park. They were required to wear masks at all times. If fans removed the masks once they made it to their seats, they were approached by an usher — I saw this happen multiple times — and reminded to put it back on.

If that seems extreme, get used to it. It’s what living with COVID-19 will look like.

The bluff was sectioned off into seven square swatches of grass. Nachos were served in a bag along with a little cup of warm cheese — like a yogurt cup — for dipping the chips.

Everything was meticulously planned and executed. Fans were dismissed section-by-section, when the match was done. 

But it was joyful, too, more joyful than I would have believed.

“It makes you appreciate everything about it even more,” said Emily Powell, another season-ticket holder. “We’re willing to do anything they want us to do because we want to be back.”

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It’s hard to imagine they won’t be back, given that McCullers himself pronounced it safe. I felt a lot better about the scene at AutoZone Park Saturday night than I did about the scene at some restaurants I passed on the way home.

“We wanted to be the first,” Unger said. “We’re hoping this will set the stage for the University of Memphis, the Grizzlies and other venues. We wanted to show it can be done.”

The catch, of course, is how it has to be done. Not many people will fit in the Liberty Bowl if they have to be 12-feet apart.

“They’ll probably be able to get 3,000 in there,” McCullers said. “It’s just a question of what is economically feasible.”

That will be for the University of Memphis to decide.

But for one night, a Memphis ballpark was crackling again. For one night, life was a little closer to normal than it was before.

“I can’t put into words what it means,” said Alex Hall, one of the leaders of the team’s fan group.

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Hall wasn’t actually in the ballpark. He was in an apartment overlooking the game. His wife, Magan, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer nearly a year ago. She is even now receiving radiation treatments. So the Halls — including their son, Loxley — have been holed up for months.,

“We don’t really go anywhere,” Hall said. “It isn’t worth the risk of bringing COVID home.”

But someone came up with the idea of putting the Halls in an apartment overlooking the game. As it turned out, Magan wasn’t feeling well after getting another radiation treatment Friday. So she stayed home in bed. But there were Alex and Loxley, on a balcony, taking it all in.

“For 90 minutes we can put aside everything we’ve been going through,” Hall said. “Life is hard, but we’re smiling through it. A night like tonight helps.”

It wasn’t exactly the same as a match before the pandemic. But to those who were there, it had may have had even more of an impact.

“You start to realize there are some things you have no control over,” said a fan named Matt Sorg. “We’re treating every game as a gift.”





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