EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Blood spurted from Eli Manning's forehead early in the second quarter of a preseason game between the New York Jets and the New York Giants -- great crimson geysers of it, dripping onto his shoulder pads, splashing onto the artificial turf as he hurried toward the sideline.
Of course, I only received a full picture of what had happened to the Giants' quarterback, in all its 12-stitch-requiring gruesomeness, more than three hours later, when I finally made it back to my apartment in Manhattan and flipped on the highlights on my HDTV. From my vantage point inside the New Meadowlands Stadium -- Section 328, Row 26, Seat 4, one of the worst seats in the house (capacity: 82,566) -- all I could see was that a number of tiny figures had converged, and that one of them might have been left holding a hand to his forehead. From up there, even the picture on the 40-by-130 HD video boards positioned in each of the stadium's four corners looked small and fuzzy. All one could make out from the replays shown on them that Manning had botched a handoff to -- was that Brandon Jacobs? -- and had subsequently been sandwiched between a pair of onrushing Jets, and seemed to have bumped his head. The gore, the concerned look on Manning's face, the play's particulars: all of that was lost.
Judging the modern experience of attending an NFL game in person based upon a preseason game -- even if it's Giants/Jets, in a brand new stadium -- is something like assessing the current state of American cinema through a single viewing of Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Still, when I received the assignment, I vowed to approach it with an open mind. Things started well enough, when I managed the afternoon before the game to score a trio of tickets off StubHub -- for myself and two old friends, Paul (who has attended every Giants home game but 10 since the end of the 1987 strike, when he was seven) and Mitesh -- for $76.50 apiece including fees, $18.50 below face value. My mind started to close when I stepped out of my apartment at 6 p.m. to begin my journey to the 8 p.m. game, just as a soaking, torrential rain moved over New York. It closed further as we sat in bumper-rubbing rush-hour traffic, as Paul, behind the wheel, aired his grievances about the new stadium -- particularly about its exorbitant Personal Seat Licenses.
"Just be honest with me," Paul said. "The Giants are in an arms race with the rest of the NFC East, and Giants Stadium was one of the league's oldest stadiums. It produced a fraction of other teams' club seating revenues. I understand that.
"But don't try and tell me that you're building the stadium for the fans when you are screwing 80 percent of the fans with the deal. Don't lie to my face. My seats are 100 feet further from the field, and I had to pay $1,000 to keep them. It's gotten to the point where I don't even want to go anymore. Tell me what I should be excited about? So there are more places to buy a $160 jersey? I just want to be as close to the action as possible, be able to get in and out of the stadium and get a beer and get to the bathroom as quickly as possible. That's it."
Mitesh, who had just committed to a season's worth of tickets for the first time, sat quietly in the back seat. Surely, checking out the new, $1.6 billion stadium would be a worthwhile experience, right? And it's Jets-Giants! Fun!
Whatever optimism I'd retained slipped away once we finally reached the New Meadowlands Stadium -- after picking up the tickets from the StubHub desk at the nearby Sheraton Hotel, parking the car there and completing a death-defying walk across a highway and through various swamplands to the stadium. It was new, and it was shiny, and that various lights and LED boards can be changed from green to blue, based upon whether the Jets or Giants are playing (they were on this night green, as it was a Jets home game) is a clever touch. But then we hit the escalator -- and another escalator -- and another escalator -- and then we climbed and climbed the stairs to our last row seats. Then we turned around, and the view was something like that on a coach's tape, if the video camera boasted half a megapixel and a fish-eye lens. Perhaps the only thing down on the field that was clearly visible with the naked eye was Rex Ryan.
"I'm getting dizzy," Paul said, looking distressed.
The guys sitting to our left seemed to be true old-time Jets fans. One wore a hearing aide and a thin, V-necked T-shirt of the lighter hue of green that the Jets used to have. The other peered through binoculars. "Oh, flea flicker!" V-neck kept exclaiming, trying to follow along with the far-off action. "Nope," said binoculars. "Just a handoff."
After the Jets scored their first touchdown -- Mark Sanchez to Brad Smith, the video board replay revealed -- it was time for one of the Jets' beloved in-stadium traditions. "It's Cowboy Bill! Or whatever you call him?" V-neck exclaimed, as the bald, muscular superfan Ed Anzalone -- better known as Fireman Ed -- rose from his lower-level seat to lead what he seems to consider his loving minions in a chant of "J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!" He scowled and he peacocked on the big screens, and didn't seem satisfied with the first effort, so he insisted that everybody try again. It wasn't much louder. The stadium -- which has 2.1 million square feet of space, up from the old place's 900,00 -- simply doesn't seem to hold sound nearly as well.
By the time the brand new Public Address system broke down at the end of the first quarter, there wasn't much sound of any sort, making it difficult indeed to determine what was going on down on the field. The only way we could determine who had been involved in a play, without the announcer's cues, was to try to catch a jersey number on the big screen replay, and then look it up in the glossy pamphlets that had been distributed at the front gates.
The silence seemed particularly deafening at the quarter's very end, when we were treated to a three extended stoppages in play, and 20 or so total seconds of action. The Jets' Nick Folk kicked a 36-yard-field goal. TV timeout -- the players stood around on the field, doing nothing for a couple of minutes. Folk kicked off to (my program told me) Andre Brown. TV timeout (several more minutes of standing around). Manning passes to Ramses Barden for six yards. Quarter over; another break. You forget, when you're watching at home and a commercial means that you can flip to another game, or another show, or call a friend, or check your e-mail, or go to the bathroom, or grab a sandwich, how boring and how plentiful these TV timeouts and such are when you're at the stadium.
It seemed a perfect opportunity for Mitesh -- the only one of us with a wi-fi-enabled phone -- to check out the stadium's highly-publicized smart phone application. "NO NETWORKS FOUND," his phone told him. Perhaps, to be fair, we were doing it wrong.
"If there's one good thing I can say so far," said Paul, who had acclimated to the altitude, "it appears that they used better concrete than they did at Yankee Stadium.
As halftime approached, after Manning had staggered off the field for good and the scrubs started to take over, we walked around the stadium, checking out its ballyhooed amenities. There were many, many obnoxiously branded food stands (see sidebar). The bathrooms were plentiful and clean, even if they featured strangely shaped, undoubtedly water-efficient urinals that seemed to confuse some fans ("What, are you supposed to do the other thing in there, too?" asked one fan in a Giants cap with a mesh back). We ended up eluding a vigilant usher to take some seats in the corner of the mezzanine level -- and the view here was better, and the atmosphere too, but not nearly as good as the seats a few sections over to our right, which were monitored by ushers who were beefy, scowled and had little hair. The seats there were 21 inches wide -- that's three extra inches! -- and offer a midfield view. Tickets there cost up to $500 each, and require a purchase of a $12,500 Personal Seat License. But, you know, the seats are padded.
Some legitimately exciting stuff happened in the second half, after we'd hired Sherpas to lead us back up to our last-row seats. A Giants receiver named Victor Cruz -- the P.A. system was working again -- went nuts, acrobatically catching six balls for 145 yards in the span of about 17 minutes of game time, and becoming the first player with three touchdowns in a preseason game since Terrell Owens in 1998. Cruz, an undrafted rookie from UMass, probably assured himself of a regular-season roster spot. But not many fans saw him do so in person. The stadium was well over half empty by the time he made his first grab, a 64-yard-score -- it was approaching 11 p.m. on a work night, after all, and people wanted to beat the traffic, and to catch up on all they had missed on TV during the six hours (in my case, anyway) they had devoted to attending the game.
V-neck and binoculars were still up in Row 26 of 328, though, and, as they stood on their toes to peek over the concrete wall behind them, and out at the Manhattan skyline, they pondered an important question.
"You think if you jumped off this thing, you'd kill yourself?" asked V-neck.
"Nah," said binoculars. "Look there -- even if you jump out far enough, there's a little ledge about 30 feet down."