May 15, 2014 at 10:52 am

John Niyo

Silverdome: Field of forgotten dreams

Pontiac — The Lions don’t suck you in quite the way they used to a generation ago at the Pontiac Silverdome, in through those pressurized revolving doors on fall Sundays.

But one last time, they’re drawing the fans back here to the old stadium, just to look around and perhaps take home a souvenir.

The roof is in tatters, hanging from the rafters in giant, Teflon-coated strips. The field is afloat, with weeds sprouting here and there, a sandbar having mysteriously formed at one end. A mechanical failure after the roof was deflated early last year hastened the Silverdome’s demise.

And now what was once one of the rowdiest atmospheres in professional sports is no more, as workers tag and bag the place, preparing for a major auction beginning next week.

“It’s like a ghost town in here — it’s so quiet,” said Ron Crachiola, a longtime Lions season-ticket holder — and one of the team’s most colorful fans — as he traipsed through the empty concourse Wednesday. “But walking down this hallway, I can just reminisce — the crowd, the scene, the chants.”

Moments later, Crachiola belted out the Lions’ fight song, “Gridiron Heroes,” one final time, for old time’s sake. Because it won’t be long now, as he put it wistfully, “before all of this will be gone.”

Just when, or how, isn’t exactly clear. The building’s owner, Detroit-based Triple Investment Group LLC, hasn’t revealed its plans for the site, purchased from the City of Pontiac back in 2009 for the bargain-basement price of $583,000 at an auction. So for now, it’s a salvage operation on a huge scale.

RJM Auctioneers of Plymouth is in charge of the effort. And while the group has handled bigger jobs — railway equipment companies, for one — “this is in the top 10, for sure,” said Rick Montgomery, the company’s president.

Mother Nature hasn’t made it any easier, either. The Silverdome roof came down in January 2013 — it’s still coming down in pieces, actually — and a record-setting winter left behind plenty of challenges as Montgomery’s staff tried to take inventory of the place the last month or so.

The no-reserve online auction begins Wednesday, and the company will host guided tours the first two days, with another planned for May 27. The auction will begin closing May 28 and 29.

Special seats

Stadium seats are already on sale, however, along with certificates of authenticity that include laminated swatches of the roof. They’re hoping to sell as many as 10,000 seats — that’s probably a long shot, Montgomery admits — ranging in price from $90 to $175.

That latter figure only applies to the 20th seat in each row, owing to that number’s football significance. The Lions officially retired No. 20 in Barry Sanders’ honor, but it previously was worn by fellow Hall of Famer Lem Barney and fan favorite Billy Sims. And it’s in this building — or what’s left of it — that No. 20 thrilled so many fans with breathtaking runs.

Representatives from NFL Films have been in contact, inquiring about bringing Sanders back for one last look at his old stomping grounds. And Crachiola, who was there that day in December 1997 when Sanders topped the 2,000-yard mark against the Jets, broke into a “Barry! Barry!” chant Wednesday as he recalled some of the highlights.

But like many others, Crachiola, who started going to games in the 1960s with his father at Tiger Stadium, wanted to find his old seats at the Silverdome. The first ones up the corner of the 200-level, where he’d watched the Lions trounce the Cowboys in that divisional playoff game in January 1992. And the last ones, tucked away in Section 116, where he’d suffered through that stunning season-ending loss to the Bears in 2000.

“Lot of memories, baby,” said Crachiola, 62, of Macomb Township.

He’s hardly alone. The lower bowl of the stadium is pockmarked by missing seats, where fans have already claimed their keepsakes with custom orders.

“You know, they had season tickets with their dad or whatever out here forever,” said Conrad Bowman, RJM’s Silverdome project manager. “These guys get so pumped, they get emotional when we’re pulling their seats out.”

Memorable events

In all, Montgomery estimates there will be 3,000-3,500 lots for sale. Some of it is for industrial use — furnaces, forklifts, substations, generators, even the parking-lot lights. Much of it is food-service equipment — everything from pretzel warmers to cappuccino machines. But there’s also some memorabilia left behind: stadium signage, portable beer stands, you name it.

Anybody interested in some game-used goal posts? The AstroTurf field the Lions played on before they packed up and moved downtown to Ford Field is up for bid, too. The painted end zones already have been pulled out and saved to sell whole at the auction, while the rest might be sold off in pieces. Ditto the turf Sanders wore out in ’97, still tucked away on rollers in the warehouse.

There’s also a boxing ring, a soccer field, and the old basketball scoreboard from when the Pistons played at the Silverdome. And just the other day, workers stumbled across some 25th anniversary posters that highlight the history of the place.

It wasn’t just the Lions’ den, after all. Elvis Presley performed here, and so did Pope John Paul II. The Who and The Jacksons. Pink Floyd and Madonna. Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen. There was the millennium New Year’s Eve concert with Kid Rock and Ted Nugent opening for Metallica.

And don’t forget that epic pro wrestling show back in 1987 which set a North American attendance record (93,173) for a live indoor sporting event that lasted nearly a quarter-century.

“I actually was here for Wrestlemania III,” laughed RJM vice president Robert Poole, recalling that night’s main event. “Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant.”

The Silverdome also hosted soccer’s World Cup, an NBA All-Star game, NCAA basketball regionals and so much more, including Super Bowl XVI back in 1982 on a icy-cold day when the roof overhead was a godsend.

But now that the roof is gone — or going, at least, like all the rest — what’s left is mostly the nostalgia.

“It’s sad to look out and see this,” Crachiola said, gazing out at the empty stadium. “But I can still see the people. … It was quite an era.”

* For more information on the Silverdome auction go to rjmauctions.com.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/John_Niyo

Lions super fan Ron 'Crackman' Crachiola overlooks the field at the Pontiac Silverdome. RJM Auctions will be selling off the contents of the stadium. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
More John Niyo