John Stephenson Jr. was born and raised in Atlanta, Ga. In fact, he's never lived anywhere else. This Southern gentleman now runs Atlanta's newest attraction, a 95,000-square-foot shrine to college football. Here, he tells us about Atlanta's best stops for families and sports fans.
What about Atlanta keeps you here?
It’s just a great place. There’s so much to do in and around Atlanta. I like the fact that we’re four hours from the beach, and we’re an hour and a half from the lake, and we can get anywhere else with the airport.
Where do you and your family spend time?
My kids are six and seven years old, so we’re outside a lot. We go to Chastain Park. We go to soccer fields. When it’s raining, we like to go climbing at Stone Summit Climbing and Fitness Center. My son is like a little spider. I’m terrible at it. Now that I work downtown, [my kids] like to come to Centennial Olympic Park.
What are your kids’ favorite places in Downtown Atlanta?
They love Georgia Aquarium and the SkyView Ferris wheel. They like to go to the World of Coca-Cola because they like to drink Coke, which is a treat for them. And they like the playground at Centennial Olympic Park. We go to different playgrounds around the city a lot.
What is your favorite playground in Atlanta?
There’s a big playground right by the runway at Dekalb Peachtree Airport (PDK), where kids get to play and every five minutes a plane lands or takes off right in front of them. There’s a great restaurant in the hanger that serves burgers called Downwind. Biplane and helicopter tours leave from PDK, too. So, that’s a good secret for visitors with kids.
What are your favorite restaurants?
If I could, I would eat every meal at Taqueria del Sol. I love that place! Everything is good there. The Westside location is where I go for lunch, then usually on Fridays after work I meet my wife and kids at the location on Cheshire Bridge Road. I love Rathbun’s, because I was a big Nava [now King + Duke] fan when Kevin Rathbun was the chef there. If I need to entertain, I’ll go to Rathbun’s.
Where is your favorite place to watch a football game?
My favorite place to watch a football game is Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, because I went to the University of Georgia. Now that my kids go to The Lovett School, which is where I played high school football, it’s always fun to watch a game there, too.
Which are your favorite sports bars?
Wing Factory is a good one. Dantanna’s is also a good place to watch a game. And, you know, you can also watch a game at the College Football Hall of Fame on the field, with the big 36-foot, HD screen, or you can rent out our 4-K theater, which has 150 seats—a little plug there.
What is there to do in Atlanta for sports fans?
There are a lot of great golf courses in Atlanta. A visitor could get in a morning of golf and then come by the College Football Hall of Fame. If they're staying downtown, STATS is a great place to have lunch, dinner or a beer, since they have so many TVs in there.
Why is Atlanta a good home for the College Football Hall of Fame?
Atlanta is the perfect combination of this very geographically diverse city. It’s odd to find someone that’s born and raised in Atlanta—there’s lots of us here, there’s just lots of other people here, too. And that’s what makes it Atlanta. You’ve got people from all areas of the country that call Atlanta home. It’s easy to get here for most people, since more than 80 percent of the population is within a two-hour flight and we’re within driving distance of a lot of very-high-profile college football programs in the SEC and ACC.
There's already so much going on in Atlanta, so the old model of a city building a sports museum with public money to try to draw tourism to their city is the opposite of what we’ve done here. We’ve used private nonprofit enterprise to drop [the Hall] right in the middle of an already stable, proven and successful tourism district. It was just the perfect opportunity to give the College Football Hall of Fame more exposure and to bring it to the fans more easily.
Is there one region in the U.S. known as a hub for college football fans?
There are great college football fans across the country; there’s just a higher concentration of them here in the Southeast. It has a historical component to it. Back in the early days, all the pro teams started in other places like the Northeast and West Coast. In the Southeast, people only had college football teams as their form of entertainment. To this day, there’s a high concentration of people [in the Southeast] who would say "College football is my number-one sport."
What’s next for the College Football Hall of Fame?
We got the project done on time and on budget, so now we have to operate the business. Holding ourselves out as a place where you, as a non-college football fan, would have a good time. And you wouldn’t know that until you’d been there. When people think of a college football hall of fame in their minds they envision this dusty, old museum that’s only going to be fun if you’re an intense college football fan. So our challenge is to get more people down here and get the word going that this is something very special because, every step of the way, it’s something that hasn’t been done before in any museum, much less a hall of fame.
What is an unexpected place you can be found in Atlanta?
The Atlanta History Center. I’m kind of a sucker for Atlanta’s history. People drive past it every day and don’t really know what they’re driving past. There’s a cool Bobby Jones golf display and Atlanta Olympics display [at the history center] that should not be missed if you’re a sports fan.
If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be?
St. Simons Island, Georgia. It’s a beach town. I just love Georgia’s coastline—it’s got a cool, relaxed vibe.
Window, middle or aisle? Why?
Aisle, because I’ve got long legs and I need to stick them out in the aisle!
What’s your favorite beer?
I like to drink Atlanta beers. My current favorite beer is Fu Manbrew from Monday Night Brewing.
Where are you off to now?
This is totally embarrassing. OK, I’ll say it. Tonight is my son’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese starting at 4:30 pm, so I need to get out of here ... and go to Chuck E. Cheese. Then, we’re going to The Lovett School to watch a homecoming football game.
My Perfect Day
8 am: Scattered & Smothered
Get up and have breakfast at Waffle House because it’s what I grew up on. 96 Upper Alabama St., 404.527.7191
10 am: Hole-in-One
Play golf at East Lake Golf Club. It’s an iconic golf course where Bobby Jones grew up playing, and it’s where the TOUR Championship is played every year. Not only is the history of the course interesting, but it's also intriguing to play on a course you see on TV every year. 2575 Alston Drive SE, 404.373.5722
Noon: Taco Time
Lunch at Taqueria del Sol, of course. If I could, I would eat every meal at Taqueria del Sol. I love that place! Everything is good there. 1200-B Howell Mill Road, 404.352.5811
1 pm: Land of the Braves
Catch an Atlanta Braves baseball game. SunTrust Park, 755 Battery Ave. SE, 404.577.9100
6 pm: Legendary Cuts
Eat a steak at Bones in Buckhead because it’s an Atlanta legend. It’s a cool, old-school steakhouse, and the food is spectacular. 3130 Piedmont Road NE, 404.237.2663
9 pm: Decatur Nightcap
End the day with a beer at Brick Store Pub in Decatur where you get all those great beers to choose from. It’s a good day. 125 E. Court Square, Decatur, 404.687.0990