ARLINGTON – Greg Zuerlein spent years training to control his emotions for the sort of moment that came on Sunday afternoon.
The fans in Section 448 of AT&T Stadium did not.
So when the Cowboys kicker methodically converted a 46-yard field goal as time expired, completing a dramatic 40-39 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons, many of those fans attending an NFL game during the COVID-19 pandemic celebrated organically.
Like there was no pandemic at all.
Before an announced crowd of 21,708 people, the Cowboys were one of six NFL franchises that allowed fans to attend their 2020 home opener. The team established and clearly communicated safety guidelines, but compliance varied noticeably by person and was influenced by events in the game itself.
Many fans expressed both gratitude for being allowed to attend the event and a lack of concern about potentially contracting the virus at the game. Behind each goal post, AT&T Stadium’s large doors were opened to increase airflow. The retractable roof was closed.
“I’m not going to be exposed to anything more than I normally would on a day-to-day basis,” said Tres Tuten, a chemistry teacher at Longview High School. “My family and I have felt fine. Everything seems to be as safe as it can be. I feel pretty comfortable with it.”
The Dallas Morning News obtained a game ticket in order to gain a direct understanding of the fan experience. That seat, purchased online as part of a minimum two-seat pod for $207.72, was located in Row 14 of Section 448.
Any full gameday experience begins with a tailgate.
The franchise typically attracts more than 80,000 fans for a home game; the club reported a paid attendance of 90,353 fans at its 2019 opener. Due to decreased capacity, Sunday’s attendance was 24% of that total, a reduction felt in the tailgate atmosphere.
Some tailgaters arrived at 10 a.m. before the noon kickoff and still found a premium parking space. Dave Steves, 57, described the tailgate scene as a “ghost town.” Gregg Wilson, a longtime Cowboys season-ticket holder who uses the moniker of “Wreckin’ Ball” at local sporting events, called it the “lightest” of any he has seen.
“This season, it’s going to be less fans, more love, more pride and more noise,” Wilson said. “The people that actually make it out here, that’s exactly what you are seeing. These are hardcore fans right here. Fans coming to the game today, you’re battling the odds to come to this game. It’s so refreshing to see people who are having fun and enjoying what I think is a really special moment.
“For the last six months, we’ve all been cooped up. We kind of have a little piece of normal today, even though we are wearing masks and social distancing.”
Wilson and his wife tailgated in Lot 4.
Normalcy was felt whenever a group of Falcons supporters were booed walking past the lot’s row of Cowboys fans. One such group was comprised of six men, all of whom attend the University of Georgia.
Five of those six college students said that they’ve contracted COVID-19 but were cleared of the virus two to three weeks ago.
Daniel Clanton, 44, drove to Arlington from Fort Worth. The commute took about 40 minutes in his black Chevy Silverado 1500. He expressed no concerns about his health and safety once inside the stadium.
“I was way more likely to get killed on the way here in a car wreck than I am to die of coronavirus,” Clanton said.
The Cowboys’ attempts to mitigate COVID-19 risk were noticeable.
Masks are required to be worn at all times, except when actively eating or drinking or if a child younger than 10 years old. The requirement is in effect at all NFL games where fans are allowed. Drinking fountains were closed. In restrooms, sinks and urinals alternated between those in use and those unavailable because of social distancing.
An apparel shop had a maximum occupancy of 10 people. Stadium staffers who noticed fans violating the mask policy often instructed those fans to wear a mask.
While most fans adhered to the rule when walking on the concourse or purchasing prepackaged food with a cashless transaction, the policy noticeably was followed far more loosely once fans returned to their seats.
In Section 448, maybe half the fans followed the policy as instructed.
Some took pride in ignoring it altogether.
Victor Griffith, 25, flew in Sunday morning from Atlanta for the game. He spent much of the early part of the game — as the Falcons forced four fumbles and built a lead of 20-0 in the first quarter — cheering loudly while not wearing a mask.
As part of the stadium’s seat layout, no fans were seated directly in front or behind him.
“If there is a place to catch Corona, it is right now,” said Griffith, who was not approached by stadium personnel when at his seat. “I will catch it for Atlanta any day.”
Alex Stein, 33, sat alone in Row 17 of Section 449. The Dallas car lot owner, who runs a YouTube channel devoted to conspiracy theories, wore a blue suit but, when at his seat, no mask. He explained the decision by saying the media uses “trauma-based mind control to scare us” about COVID-19.
“I choose not to live in that alpha brainwave,” Stein said.
The official U.S. death count has surpassed 200,000 people.
When the Cowboys trailed 20-0 in the first quarter and 26-7 in the second, Curtis Skinner told all in Section 448 who would listen that Dallas could come back and win. The Army platoon sergeant is based at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas.
With shouts of “I told you! I told you!”, he danced up and down Row 15 after Zuerlein completed the Cowboys’ comeback. Around him, fans celebrated wildly. People screamed without wearing face masks. They high-fived people from different pods without wearing gloves. When excitedly reliving what transpired to another person, at least one man visibly projected saliva from his mouth.
Skinner was the last Cowboys fan to leave Section 448.
“I run the risk [of contracting COVID-19] every day, just going to work,” Skinner said. “Being that I run the risk every day, I like the rewards as well. If I’m going to run the risk and leave my house daily for work, I’m going to run the risk as well to enjoy my Dallas Cowboys because that’s just me.”
Skinner smiled and took in the win.
“This risk was worth the reward today,” he said.