The Sneak

Playing sports is an all-out, action-packed adrenaline rush. Watching sports isn’t quite as dramatic. Sure, the occasional foul ball gives us a chance to be heroes, but for the most part, being a spectator is pretty tame. There’s not much risk in buying a ticket and filing through the turnstiles.

Unless, of course, you try to sneak into the stadium. It requires risk, athleticism, and ingenuity, much like the sports you come to watch.

Let me be clear about one thing: I’ve never, ever run bandit in a race or not paid my entry fees for any event. I only sneak in to watch overpaid professional athletes in giant stadiums, and I do it solely for the challenge. It’s a way of turning a normally sedentary, passive activity into an athletic, active one.

My sneak-ins started in 1995, when the Atlanta Braves were about to win their first (and only) World Series. I was in college at the time, and I couldn’t afford a stadium hot dog, much less a $1,000 ticket to the Series. So I headed down to the stadium for the final game, hoping to catch some tailgate parties. I had never witnessed a World Series championship, and I at least wanted to be near the peanut shells and spilled-beer smells of the stadium when it happened.

It was a chilly, windy October evening. For the first few innings, I circled the stadium with thousands of other fans, who were holding up one, two, or three fingers, indicating how many tickets they were seeking. I tried waving a finger for a few laps. No luck.

I kept walking in circles. It was getting really cold. I was ready to head back and watch the rest of the game at the bar when, suddenly, I saw my ticket inside. Beside Gate E, a television station had propped a hydraulic lift cherry picker against the stadium. Its mechanical arm, bent at the elbow, had a platform fist at the top, and the stadium ramps were right across from the platform. It was asking to be climbed. But the lift was only 20 yards from a ticket gate guarded by three security officers. I scouted out their movements and summoned up courage for another half-inning.

Just as I was approaching the lift, a homeless guy with a scraggly yellow beard shuffled over to me, carrying a bottle of whiskey in a paper sack. I was expecting him to ask for money, but instead he raised his eyebrows and said, “You gonna climb it?”

I nodded my head, and a wide, toothless grin spread across his face.

“I’ll see what I can do ‘bout them security guards,” he said.

He stumbled over to the gate and fell down, feigning injury. The guards reached down to move him out of the way. In an instant, I shimmied up the lift’s arm, grabbed the edge of the platform like a chin-up bar, and kicked my body to the top. Then I jumped across the two-foot gap that separated the platform from the stadium. I couldn’t believe it was me—college-educated, law-abiding me—climbing two stories in the air onto a wobbly platform so that I could illegally vault into a stadium.

Suddenly, I heard a shout below. The guards were running up the stadium ramp. I sprinted away and disappeared into the crowd. A few minutes later, I was even lucky enough to find an empty seat in the nosebleeds, just in time to watch David Justice’s series-winning homer clear the right field fence.

My toughest sneak-in challenge was the Super Bowl. I managed to see my hometown St. Louis Rams squeak past the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

St. Louis never had a winning football season when I was growing up, but my dad and I religiously checked the standings every Monday morning and memorized back-page statistics on all the players. He took me to the stadium after home games so that I could get players’ autographs. We suffered through years of cellar-dweller seasons together. Now, St. Louis had finally turned things around and was going to the Super Bowl for the first time.

I arrived at the Georgia Dome wearing a tie and sports jacket, and carrying a clipboard with some blank sheets of paper. I caught the door behind a media crew and crept into the building adjacent to the Dome. Inside, halftime bands were tuning their instruments.

There was only one corridor between the building and the Dome: an outdoor walkway lined by at least 50 cops and security guards. They stood in two parallel rows and checked each person entering and exiting the Dome. It didn’t look like I could get any farther.

Then I heard a faint hymn echoing through the parking deck above the walkway. It grew louder and more powerful. Walking down from the deck were 100 black women from the Georgia Mass Choir singing the praises of God.

Divine intervention.

I mixed myself in with the choir—a skinny, white boy surrounded by a sea of big blue robes—and pretended to be a manager escorting them through the security lines. I smiled, tried to look important, and never, ever made eye contact with a security guard. We passed through the last security post and walked through the ground-level doors to the Dome.

I was in.

The choir was headed straight onto the field for their pre-game performance. I was wedged in with them, headed for the field. I started to panic. For a second, I felt like The Naked Gun’s Frank Drebin about to impersonate Enrico Palazzo singing the national anthem. But I stepped aside at the mouth of the tunnel and ducked into a service elevator. I rode with three already-drunk beer vendors up to the stands.

I watched the game from an empty usher’s seat near the Rams’ goal line where Mike Jones would make his last-second, game-saving tackle on the one yard line. Afterward, I called my dad from the stadium. He could barely hear my voice amid the buzz of the electrified crowd.

“Can you believe it, Dad?”

“I don’t know what is more incredible: St. Louis winning a Super Bowl or you sneaking in to see it.”

My dad—a lifelong police officer—had never been more proud of his son.

Places to Go, Things to See: