This Kansas City architect and longtime Chiefs fan has a VIP Super Bowl connection

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When Bill Johnson graduated from the KU School of Architecture in 1983, the North Kansas City native really had no "designs" on designing stadiums and arenas.

But when he landed his first job at HNTB in Kansas City, "luck met opportunity," he recalled.

"I wasn't particularly talented athletically when I was growing up," Johnson chuckled.

But his introduction into the world of sports architecture -- in a city that, at the time, had a growing reputation as a sports architecture capital with several practices focusing on sports -- set the stage for a career of designing and innovating sports venues.

"I think it's more important than barbecue," Johnson said, adding if you attend a sporting event in the U.S., it's more likely than not you'll enjoy it in a Kansas City-designed venue.

Bill Johnson

Now fast forward to 2013, when as a principal designer at then 360 Architecture, Johnson and his design team bid on what is today Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They had an eye toward what its main tenant, the Atlanta Falcons, wanted: an iconic building for the city and the South.

"So we just started with the roof and said, 'Let's make it very special.' And then let that tell us what to do when we design the seats, the concourse parking and everything else," Johnson said.

And that meant coming up with something new, a vision of an ancient Roman structure, the Pantheon.

"It had this big dramatic roof, and it had a tiny hole in the center of the roof called the Oculus," he said.

Johnson wanted to bring that light movement to the 50-yard line, so he and his team started experimenting with ways to make the roof open to reveal the light from the center.

"I think I even drew the first sketch of it on the back of a saucer in a great restaurant in New York," he remembered.

And while Popsicle sticks and cardboard were their first building blocks to demonstrate the idea, computers made it possible to see if it would really work. And when a motorized model worked for the owner of the Falcons in 2013, they knew they had won the bid.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Ultimately 360 Architecture became a part of HOK as "HOK + Sport + Recreation + Entertainment," where the work to design the stadium continued.

Now, 6 years and $1.5 billion later, the stadium is hosting Super Bowl 53. It features a fan experience that Johnson and his team said makes fans want to actually attend games and come back.

That includes technology for use of devices, a massive halo scoreboard above the stadium floor, great sight lines and club experiences, and a window on downtown Atlanta that the Falcon's owner wanted to remind fans what city they're in.

Sure, Johnson would love for his Chiefs to have helped celebrate the stadium by appearing in the Super Bowl this year. But he'll attend the game anyway, more to see his building in action for a world wide audience.

Besides, he jokes he'll have another chance next year.

"The Super Bowl is going to be in Miami at Hard Rock (Stadium) next year, and we did that one, too."

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