Barry Sanders, World Cup and WrestleMania: The requiem of the Pontiac Silverdome

It's vacant now, a deflated, dilapidated structure at the corner of Featherstone Rd. and Opdyke Rd. The Pontiac Silverdome, what's left of it, has been this way for years -- an eyesore sold and resold, almost demolished and then not, auctioned off for parts and used in movies and a BMX video.

Once the Teflon-shining beacon of Detroit sports, the home of Barry Sanders and Isiah Thomas, the iconic arena holds historical markers in both the world of international soccer and professional wrestling.

The Silverdome, opened in 1975, is being demolished Sunday morning. With it an era of Detroit sports will conclude.

"Those of us that played, we always said this is the house that we built," said former Lions defensive back Dick LeBeau, who spent 14 seasons in Detroit.

LeBeau never played in the building -- he retired after the 1972 season and they broke ground in 1973. His biggest Silverdome memory was a Super Bowl loss -- a 26-21 San Francisco win against Cincinnati when LeBeau was the Bengals' defensive backs coach. It was his first Super Bowl appearance and the start of the Joe Montana-Bill Walsh dynasty.

When the Silverdome opened, it was the NFL's largest stadium, holding 82,000 people, a cavernous arena holding the stories for a generation of Detroit fans occurring under the roof that shined silver when the sun came out.

The start of the Silverdome for the Lions

From the start, the place was huge. That's what then-Lions quarterback Greg Landry remembers, even as far back as the exhibition opener against the Kansas City Chiefs that year -- a game that also featured a little-known tight end named Merced Solis.

What stood out was the size, the sound -- and the surface.

"The first couple years we were there, you had a sellout every game and you had 80,000 people there and it was a great place from that standpoint," Landry said. "The bad part about it was that under the half-inch carpet was cement. So you bounced when you got hit. I think there were a lot of players that would get dizzy for a while and get smelling salts under you and boom, you're back in playing.

"I think that's why they got rid of Astroturf. You're playing on top of cement, so it was a different feel. You couldn't smell the grass. ... But it was a great place to play from the standpoint of the fans, because when they started cheering, it was hard for the defense or the offense to hear their playcalling."

After playing in Tiger Stadium, where they had to share the building with a baseball team, having their own place was a benefit. So, in a weird way, was the turf. Opponents -- of which Landry was one, with the Bears in 1984 -- hated playing there because of how much it hurt.

That was common on every level -- from the pros to high schools.

"I remember, obviously, being a 15-, 16-year-old kid and having the kind of feeling starstruck a little bit playing in an NFL stadium," said Lions guard T.J. Lang, who played high school games in the dome with Brother Rice. "That quickly went away when you saw the playing surface. We were all wondering what the hell we were going to wear. I think I ended up wearing the same pair of tennis shoes I wore to the game that day."

Though the surface had a big impact on players, so did the noise.

Barry and the stands

Of all the memories in the stadium, the day Barry Sanders eclipsed 2,000 yards in 1997 was a highlight for most Lions players of that era. At the time, he was only the third back in league history to eclipse 2,000 yards.

"I swear, it was the loudest stadium I ever heard in my 16-year career," tight end Pete Metzelaars said. "When Barry broke the record and we were leading the game and the place was going absolutely bedlam and the windows on all the boxes were absolutely shaking because there was so much noise in the stadium."

The site of the Lions' only playoff win in the Super Bowl era, chants of "Barry, Barry" would ring out in unison. It would be more than the noise, too.

An already raucous fan base that often had to be reminded to be quiet during offensive plays would sometimes end up inadvertently entertaining the players on the field.

"I remember watching people rolling down the steps fighting," former Lions fullback Cory Schlesinger said. "I'm like, 'Holy smokes.' I get the best seat in the house, standing on the field waiting for kickoff coverage, and I see people up in the stands at the very top rolling down fighting.

"I'm like, 'Wow, these guys are crazy, you know.' They probably think we're crazy being on the field, but, man. I just remember those things the most."

As interesting as the building was, there were some issues.

Home of the Pistons, too

Snow had fallen overnight on March 4, 1985, and the Silverdome's shiny roof had enough. It collapsed at 11:40 a.m. -- sending Detroit Lions players who were in the building at the time searching for cover, according to an Associated Press report.

"It just looked like an avalanche," then-Lions quarterback Gary Danielson told the AP at the time. It also threw into flux another thing -- the Detroit Pistons' schedule. They were to play Milwaukee that night. In an era before cell phones and 24/7 news cycles, this caused a problem.

"When that happened, I didn't get any warning that happened. I actually went to the game that day," former Piston Kelly Tripucka said. "Back in the day, when you're playing back-to-back-to-back games and you're worried about sleep and whatever.

"So I go to the game and pull into the parking lot, and you know when you go into that place, you see it from way, way away, and I never even looked at it. I pulled into the thing and get to the front and all of a sudden I'm driving into the thing and there's hardly any cars here. Still don't look at the roof, OK? So I pull into the thing, and there's a guy there.

"I said something stupid, 'We got a game tonight.' He’s like, 'Uh, no game tonight.' I'm like, 'Come on, I know when we play.' He goes, 'Have you looked?' And he points over, and I look at the building and the roof is not inflated, and I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'The snow caved it in and the roof, it ripped and deflated."

The Pistons played the rest of the season in Joe Louis Arena. Although they went to the Eastern Conference semifinals, some home-court advantage was gone. The dome messed with shooting perceptions of opposing teams, from depth to the trampoline-like playing floor because it was elevated.

There was another advantage for the Pistons, too. Playing in the same arena as the Lions offered camaraderie many football and basketball teams don't have. It would be freezing inside during the Pistons' shootarounds. As the Lions players finished their own practices, they ended up playing hoops with the Pistons.

"It was a mixture of guys playing pickup. It wasn't an everyday thing, but when we would break for lunch and we're finished for shootaround, you had guys out there shooting separately, individually," former Pistons forward Rick Mahorn said. "They would walk by and me, I was uber-competitive, like, 'I ain't getting out there hitting you guys, but I'll play you [in] basketball here.'"

By the 1988-89 season, the Pistons were out of the Silverdome into the Palace of Auburn Hills, where they won a championship in their first season. And even though they liked the Silverdome, the Pistons were ready to have a home of their own.

"You missed it because of all the fans you could get in there," Mahorn said of the Silverdome. "As we started winning, fans started coming to the game and you can have up to 40,000, 50,000 people in the gym, and it was just fun.

"It wasn't as intimate as when you got to the Palace."

An international sporting event, Part I:

The United States had a 40-year World Cup drought before 1990. Four years later, it hosted the world's biggest sporting event. The United States was guaranteed entry into the field, and the Silverdome got the nod as the first United States game of the tournament.

It was summer. It was a spectacle. And, unlike the cement turf during Lions games, for this they brought in natural grass.

"The night before the game, Bora Milutinovic took us all out there as a team," then-United States keeper Brad Friedel said, "and that was really one of those moments where, a lot of times you visit the stadium where you're going to play your first game. But it was different. The air was different. The grass was different, but in a very, very good way.

"When you were in there, you could tell the atmosphere was going to be tremendous because the echoes that were going to go around, there wasn't anywhere else for the sound to go but back down onto the field. That was a very, very fun place to have that game at."

The sounds were different, too. Hitting the ball carried an echo. Though this would be the first-ever World Cup game played indoors, it didn't mean the stadium would be climate-controlled. On June 18, 1994, in front of 73,425 people, it would be sticky.

"It was incredibly hot and humid, probably the hottest game I could ever remember," said former national team member Tab Ramos. "I played 3 p.m. games in Dallas in the summer, and that was not fun, but I'll tell you, that Silverdome day, that took a lot of courage to get through 90 minutes in there."

Five minutes in, Ramos was exhausted. The energy and anticipation of having the World Cup in the United States -- and knowing the Americans needed a good start to potentially advance -- won out. More than 20 years later, Ramos still remembers the sound when Eric Wynalda's free kick beat Swiss goalie Marco Pascolo to the back of the net as part of a 1-1 tie.

"It was different than anything I had experienced before," Ramos said. "Although I was playing for Betis in Spain and they had some of the best fans in the world at Betis, this was different because it was an enclosed stadium.

"And so it's so much louder because it's closed, I had never experienced that before."

An international sporting event, Part II

Long before the World Cup, a burgeoning sport entered the Silverdome. In professional wrestling, this would change everything.

The Silverdome hosted "WrestleMania III," a pay-per-view event on March 29, 1987, that had the WWF claiming more than 93,000 people were in attendance with millions more watching on TV. For one man, the former Kansas City Chief, Solis -- then known as Tito Santana -- it brought back all sorts of memories.

"I remember going up to the top before any of the fans came and saw how little the ring looked," Santana said. "And said, 'God, these people here, they're not going to get to see much.' They are just here to be part of it, because you don't have the big screens like you do now.

"I don't know, it was just part of being in history, and you don't realize what part of history that you're in."

"WrestleMania III" had a bit of everything, from Bob Uecker to Aretha Franklin singing "God Bless America." The card featured two game-changing moments for the WWF -- Hulk Hogan body-slamming Andre The Giant, and the intercontinental title match between Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat and Randy "Macho Man" Savage, a 14-minute, 35-second affair often considered one of the best matches in history.

"The one moment above all that fans bring up from my career when they run into me is the Savage match," Steamboat told ESPN in March. "Here it is, 30 years later, and everywhere I go, that's what people want to talk about."

Steamboat won the match. The WWF won fans. The Silverdome won another iconic moment, a day wrestler The Iron Sheik called one of the greatest of his life.

"Excellent. The most people I ever see," The Iron Sheik said in an email. "Breathtaking, Bubba."

The end

WrestleMania III, an appearance by Pope John Paul II and the World Cup were one-offs. There were concerts by The Who and Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and 'NSync. The USFL's Michigan Panthers and NASL's Detroit Express were tenants in the 1980s. By 1988, the Pistons were off to the Palace. Football remained on all levels, at least until 2001.

Ford Field opened in 2002 and the Lions moved there, as did the Motor City Bowl. The Michigan High School state championships followed in 2005. The Silverdome was used during Super Bowl week as a practice site for the Pittsburgh Steelers -- and then-defensive coordinator LeBeau.

Mostly, it deteriorated. A place that couldn't be saved, waiting to be demolished. In 2014, the contents of the facility were auctioned off -- which led to an odd moment when Barry Sanders autographed a urinal.

On Sunday, after years of waiting, the Silverdome will be gone. And the memories will remain.

"A lot of people around with great memories of that place and getting to watch Barry Sanders and Herman Moore and those type of legends," Lang said. "That kind of resonates with them the most.

"But it is time for it to go. It's been sitting empty for how many years now just kind of taking up space. But I remember watching a lot of great games there, too."