Curious how the Georgia Dome might be Sunday, I asked the man who has spent more Sundays in the Dome than anyone. Khalil Johnson ran the building from the day it opened in 1992 until retiring as chief operating office of the World Congress Center earlier this year. Of Michael Vick’s return to Northside Drive, Johnson said this:
“I don’t think it’ll be a big thing.”
Here’s the man who understands better than anyone — better even than Arthur M. Blank, who declined this week to comment on Vick’s impending arrival as a Philadelphia backup — what Michael Vick meant to this city. Johnson began working at the World Congress Center in 1976. Widely considered the best in his industry, Johnson was a key reason why so many big events kept coming to the Dome, and even in retirement he remains involved in the annual staging of the Final Four.
“He was great for Georgia Dome business,” said Johnson, speaking of Vick. “Other than the run we had to the Super Bowl in 1998 with Jamal [Anderson] and the Dirty Birds, he was the best thing that happened to us concerning the Falcons. He turned the Dome from a sleepy place on Sundays into a place with a college atmosphere.”
Remember the complaints in the Dome’s early days that the building wasn’t a good football venue? Vick washed those away. Johnson again: “He lit it up. He made it the place to be.” And yes, he sold out the place as a matter of course.
But then he was indicted for dogfighting and the Falcons moved on. There are folks — at least two or three, as we know from AJC.com message boards — who feel the team abandoned its franchise quarterback. Said Johnson: “[The Falcons] made a business decision. I don’t think anybody can blame them for that.”
He’s an Eagle now, and the Eagles play here Sunday. From the moment Vick signed with Philly back in August, we Atlantans have had the game circled. Will the crowd be for a visiting player or the home team? Will there be more Vick shirts than jerseys of current Falcons on display? Will the two sides clash in the stands?
Johnson: “I expect there’ll be a lot of Falcons No. 7 jerseys in the stands. People will come to support the kid, and he needs and deserves support.”
Then this: “If Vick was starting, there’d be a whole different dynamic. There will be a lot more people interested in how the Falcons’ defense does than what’s happening on the Philly bench.”
In his dealings with the Falcons, Johnson came to know Vick, he said, “a little bit. He seemed to me a fairly quiet young man who kept to himself and had his own friends. By no means did I ever see him as some kind of gangster or thug or hard guy.”
In his return to the NFL, Johnson believes Vick “has made real strides. I think this year has been a positive for him.” That in mind, he envisions the setting Sunday not as a divisive thing but as something heartening.
“He has some real supporters, and I think they’re going to be as positive as he has been this season,” Johnson said. “And there’s still reason to be excited about the Falcons. Maybe not as excited as we thought … ”
Here he laughed. Back to football now. Referring to the franchise’s inability to stack consecutive winning seasons together, Johnson said: “But they still might break the jinx.”