Minnesota Vikings fans lined up thousands deep around the angular glass building on the eastern end of downtown Minneapolis on Sunday and waited for the doors to open for them for the first time in 636 days.
"I would not miss this for my life," said Tom Coleman, who grew up in Minneapolis, lives in Park City, Utah, and remains a season-ticket holder. "It's a celebration of being a Vikings fan and being back with our tribe."
The football team's return home came on a day that saw Minnesota sports fans returning downtown in droves to see the Twins at Target Field and a crucial Lynx playoff game at Target Center. Before a full house, the Vikings gave the day a big-game feel with fake snow falling from the rafters as part of their new pregame introduction, featuring clips of legendary coach Bud Grant and the defensive line known as the Purple People Eaters. Banging drums and energetic strings accompanied the new introduction played by the Minnesota Orchestra that ended with a pledge to bring the "full force of the North" on opponents.
Then, as players' names were called, each sprinted onto the field amid plumes of purple smoke to the energetic roar of the crowd. That was a huge shift from last year's deflating near-silence during the absence of all but a few hundred fans each game.
Sunday felt both disorienting and normal. The Vikings beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-17 with a boost from the deafening sound of 66,729 fans cheering them along. Face masks on fans were few and far between on the congested concourses or in the purple seats.
"Welcome back to U.S. Bank Stadium, the home of our Minnesota Vikings," the recorded announcement boomed outside the building, adding the sign-of-the-times caveat that the CDC recommends face masks "regardless of vaccination status."
Coleman and his friend from childhood, Charlie Vrooman of Burnsville, are self-described Vikings fans of 50 years. They said they came down early, hours before the game, to soak up the energy of the reconvening. "We really wanted to come out and just be with everybody," Coleman said.
The two said they're both fully vaccinated and wouldn't wear masks in the building.
About noon, more than three hours before game time, the scent of warm bacon grease and brats hung in the air in nearby parking lots buzzing with tailgaters. Some fans were packed in, hugging, chatting and laughing.
The queue for the free concert by cowboy country singer Dustin Lynch wrapped around three sides of the Commons park in front of the building.
Mitchell Bigaouette, 20, and Keandra Olson, 18, both of Mankato, dressed, respectively, in Randy Moss and Adam Thielen jerseys, bought their tickets Saturday, got a hotel room and made a weekend of the game. "Seattle's coming to town so we thought it would be fun to watch a good game," he said.
The pair said they didn't think to bring masks, but would pick up the free ones at the gates. "We both have vaccinations, but you still have to be careful," Olson said.
Johnese Jones and her son Jamar Jackson, 10 and wearing a Thielen jersey, were waiting in line for pregame face-painting hours before the game. She looked around at all the people gathering and said she was there for the experience. "A year ago, they wouldn't have done any of this," she said, adding that she was vaccinated and brought hand sanitizer. "We will wash often and enjoy the game."
Over in a tailgating lot and overseeing a highly organized party, Bruce Christiansen of St. Cloud had set up five hours before kickoff. "Oh man, this is great to be back," he said. "It's good to see the excitement finally. It's been a long wait."
He said he's vaccinated and would likely mask up in crowded areas of the concourse or in restrooms. "It's a little weird still, but you adjust," he said.
But not everyone in his party was ready to go inside. Ellie Persian and Michale Sevy of Minneapolis came for Christiansen's pregame gathering and drank seltzers while sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, staying socially distanced, not yet ready to get too close or go indoors for a game. "Outdoors is fine," Sevy said. "But I don't want to be sitting shoulder to shoulder with somebody."
Across the parking lot, Brian Skalberg and Janet Kurpierz wore Vikings face masks as they wandered around and checked out the scene. They said they're vaccinated and attending a pregame gathering but also not ready to go indoors.
"We wanted to get out of the house, just do something different," he said.
Then they planned to enjoy the game from afar. "We rode our motorcycles here so we'll take the long way home and watch it there," Skalberg said.
As for that fake snow that fell from the roof? There's plenty more to fall in future games.