Even at $40 a spot, the parking on the grounds of Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home was some of the cheapest around on Jan. 22. For two miles on both sides, Northside Drive was dotted by men in bright green vests, most waving neon orange flags and holding up placards promising spots for tailgaters to leave their vehicles during the big National Football Conference (NFC) Championship contest. Spots closer to the Georgia Dome nearly hit triple digits; you could park your ride in a muddy bog across the street from the still under-construction Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a mere $80.
Underneath dreary gray clouds, much of the Atlanta skyline was obscured, with the Dome itself partially cloaked in an ominous fog. Despite the periodic downpours, by noon – three hours before kickoff – the streets and alleys alongside the Dome were nonetheless bustling with activity. Virtually every intersection was populated by transplant Packers fans – some wearing the ubiquitous “cheese head” hat and some in full cow costumes – and the Falcons’ faithful, many clutching their Dirty Birds-branded towels and beaded necklaces like rosaries. Since 1966, it was only the fourth time the team had made it to the NFC title game, and just their second time hosting it. The last time the Falcons made it this far in the postseason, they blew a 17-0 lead at home and watched the San Francisco 49ers celebrate a trip to the Super Bowl in their own building.
That’s a game that still rankles 43-year-old Atlantan Eric Stenzel. Indeed, he considers the 2012-2013 NFC Championship loss to be the absolute nadir of his Falcons fandom.
Still, he recounts plenty of great memories at the soon-to-be-imploded Georgia Dome. Perhaps none were sweeter, he said, than the final game of the 2016-17 regular season – a 38-32 win over arch rivals New Orleans.
He said he knows all too well the usual criticisms of the team. “We’re too up and down,” he said. “We’re great one year, suck the next, great one year, suck the next. Even though last year, we didn’t suck, we just lost a lot of close games.”
As evident by the team’s 11-5 regular season record, however, Stenzel said he believes the Falcons are bound to enjoy something the franchise hasn’t really experienced too much of in the past – sustained success. “For the next five years, we’re going to be a very good team,” he said, “and then, it will depend on how they draft.”
With a record of 341 wins, 437 losses and six ties, the Falcons have an all-time regular season winning percentage of just .439. Only two teams – the long, long suffering Arizona Cardinals and divisional foes Tampa Bay – fare worse statistically in the National Football League history books.
Just three years removed from a disastrous 4-12 season and only two years removed from a 6-10 season which led to the firing of Mike Smith and rumors of star quarterback Matt Ryan getting benched and possibly even traded, the Falcons have experienced an incredible turnaround under the stewardship of head coach Dan Quinn. The team posted the most total points of any NFL squad during the 2016 regular season, averaging 33.8 points per game. And “Matty Ice” – just months earlier berated by naysayers for being “on the wrong side of 30” with “diminishing physical skills combined with an inability to win the big game” – was named the League’s Most Valuable Player by the Pro Football Writers of America, while no less than six Falcons players were selected for the Pro Bowl.
The failings and falterings and futility of the team’s wayward years – Bob Lee’s atrocious 1974 season, Marion Campbell’s 3-13 ’89 campaign and Bobby Petrino resigning 13 games into the 2007 season, among other franchise lowlights – are but distant memories, according to Stenzel.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “This year, we win.”
You gotta’ have faith
The streetscape around the funeral home – wedged in between a fairly upscale apartment complex, the Point at Westside, and Mr. V’s Restaurant Equipment and Store Fixtures – is crowded with merchants. Scalpers at the Exxon off Joseph E. Boone Boulevard – which connects to Vine City, infamous for its open air heroin market – wave flimsy (and clearly fake) tickets to any passersby that will give them their attention. Some entrepreneurial sorts just roamed the tailgating spots, offering Packers and Falcons fans alike pre-wrapped brownies and Styrofoam cups of coffee – for a negligible fee, naturally. Elsewhere, bootleg t-shirt vendors had no qualms about running out into traffic to chat it up with potential customers. Others hawked frozen jars of jam out of plastic coolers, while one vendor – perhaps embodying the ultimate confrontational sales approach – attempted to persuade pedestrians to purchase rain slickers and scarves by shouting obscenities at them.
Directly across the road, tailgaters at the Yellow Lot set up shop. Campers and trucks blared a menagerie of (fairly) contemporary rap and 1980s rock music, while the scent of barbecue slathered ribs (and yes, the aroma of marijuana, too) coalesced into the afternoon wind. Not content with your standard 24-pack of beer, some of the tents had fully stocked liquor cabinets; crushed up cans of Bud Light and discarded mustard bottles littered the asphalt like Jonestown victims.
The tailgater constituency was about 80 percent Falcons fans and 20 percent Packers supporters (an interesting demographical aside: about 90 percent of Green Bay’s tailgaters were white, while about 90 percent of Atlanta’s tailgaters were black.) One RV proudly waved a banner featuring Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes fame urinating on the logos of the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At one point, a man darted out of a stretch limo to actually urinate on the walls of a nearby building – all that heightened police presence, be damned.
Atlantan Marleesha Carmichael, 54, knows the area well. In fact, her family used to own the much coveted tailgater property where the funeral home now sits.
She said she’s been a fan of the Falcons for as long as she can remember.
“Even though they’ve been underscored all these years – my big moment was in the face of Michael Vick – I think we have paid off our dues to the mishaps that went along with his downfall,” she said, “and now, we’re going to rise up.”
In a city of transplant fans, Carmichael said the Falcons have often been overlooked and undervalued – sometimes, by the team’s own supporters. “We have fairweather friends,” she said. “When you’re winning, everybody’s cheering you on, and when you’re not winning, you have people kicking dirt on you.”
Echoing fellow fan Stenzel, however, Carmichael said the Falcons are finally on the cusp of true greatness. Considering the team’s current roster, “the sky’s the limit,” she said.
“They are winners and they are losers, but they are hard fighters and I feel that they do their very best,” she continued. “They have a grand chance – because with our faith in God, all things are possible.”
The Route Is On
It’s a good half-mile or so trek from the Yellow Lot to the front gates of the Georgia Dome. Along the way, fans have to tiptoe their way around discarded packages of frozen Salisbury steak dinners and empty bottles of Wild Honey Jack Daniels. Some disheveled men stretch out plastic jugs and ask for spare change, while grinning street preachers scream the gospels over megaphones. A long rain fell about an hour before the game; by the 3 o’clock kickoff, the precipitation stopped, but those ominous gray clouds remained overhead.
Matt Ryan hit receiver Mohamed Sanu at the 6:36 mark of the first quarter to put Atlanta on the board first. After the Packers’ kicker missed a field goal, the Falcons responded with a 28 yarder from Matt Bryant to make it 10-0.
“I’ve been a fan for many, many years – it goes way back,” said 54-year-old Atlantan Jerry Gray. About 16 years ago, he actually worked in the Georgia Dome.
“They used to send us over there from the labor pool,” he said. “I’ve had some good, no, great memories in that building.”
He said the previous week’s win over the Seattle Seahawks was his all-time favorite team moment. It convinced him “100 percent the Falcons are going all the way.”
While articles penned by the likes of Dan Shaugnessy slam Atlanta for being a subpar sports market, Gray said he didn’t think the national sports media was overlooking the Falcons.
“They’re going to talk about them if they win, they’re going to talk about them if they lose,” he said. “It is what it is, though. They have to prove themselves.”
Around the seven minute mark of the second quarter, Ryan scrambled for a 14-yard touchdown run to put the Falcons up 17-0. Even with the aid and comfort of many a brew, few of the Falcons’ staunchest and most steadfast supporters could remain too comfortable with the shutout. After all – this is a franchise that managed to squander away a halftime lead of the exact same margin just four years earlier.
Their spirits rose a little before the end of the first half, however, when a Julio Jones’ reception made it a 24-0 ball game with only three seconds remaining on the clock. Still, it was far too early for fans to start breathing easy.
Atlantan Jason Williams, 38, has been a Falcons fan since the heyday of Steve Bartkowski. When he was a student at North Atlanta High School, he actually got to perform in the Dome as part of a Battle of the Bands competition.
“The high point is right now,” he said. “The lowest point? Going to the playoff game for the Cardinals and Atlanta and watching them lose.”
He said he definitely believes the rest of the pro football world doesn’t give Atlanta a fair shake. “We’re underrated, we ain’t capped off on it,” he said. “We haven’t won anything serious. That’s why they treat us like that.”
With the core makeup the team has now, however, he said the Falcons are capable of sustained success on the gridiron. “If we do it right, we’re a dynasty team,” he said. “I think we’ve got a 75 percent chance of winning it all. At least 75.”
Just 51 seconds into the third quarter, Julio Jones torched the Packers for a 73-yard touchdown. A Matt Bryant extra point made it 31-0. With the darkened clouds above beginning to disperse, the Falcons faithful could finally begin to celebrate.
By the final horn, Aaron Rodgers did managed to toss three touchdowns for the Packers, but it was far too little and far too late. Touchdowns from Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman would pad the Falcons points tally, as the team ultimately cruised to a resounding 44-21 victory.
For the first time in 18 years and for only the second time in 51 years, the Atlanta Falcons were going to the Super Bowl.
Line after line of dejected individuals in green and yellow jerseys slowly plodded across the street. They were immediately assailed – verbally, not physically – by ecstatic Falcons fans, whose vast array of dairy-based insults and put-downs couldn’t be considered anything less than awe-inspiring. “I don’t even drink milk with my cereal,” one Atlanta supporter shouted at a sullen Packers fan, who, for some indeterminable reason, was dressed like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.
Men in translucent rain coats breakdanced in the middle of the street. Passing motorists blared hip-hop and honked their horns. Every three seconds, someone screamed “rise up” – the team’s long-running war cry/advertising jingle – at the top of their lungs. White, black, young, old, man, woman – as the celebratory fireworks cascaded over the Dome, they were all (if but for one night) united as one. That is, before being united as one in a colossal traffic jam roughly half an hour later.
While there were thousands of Falcons fans plum overjoyed by the victory, few of them had waited as long to experience the NFC Championship win as Charlie Doyle. The 76-year-old Atlantan has been a fan of the team ever since they played their inaugural season in 1966.
“All the memories for me are beautiful, because I was here in this area playing as a kid when I was about 4 all the way through high school,” he said. “All my friends lived in the area and I used to attend the boys’ club right down the street here.”
Atlanta was definitely a different place then. He recalls life before the Georgia Dome was even a blueprint – back when he and his grandmother would ride a street car down Magnolia Street to go shopping downtown.
“I remember when nothing was here,” he said. “Just like they’re building the Mercedes-Benz Stadium right over there, it was ground zero. And I’ve seen it come up to the point it is today.”
His all time favorite Falcons player is Billy Johnson, a receiver who played in Atlanta from 1982 to 1987. “When I saw him with the white shoes on, it just struck my memory,” he said. “I imagine that’s why, because I like to change clothes, colors and all that myself.”
Doyle is a fairly snazzy dresser. He attended the NFC Championship festivities clad in an all white ensemble, with the mantra “Hello fans, Falcons would be gold in the Super Bowl, OK ATL OK,” scrawled on his jacket. He used patches of Coca-Cola containers and what appeared to be an aluminum beer can with the Falcons logo embossed upon it as additional adornments.
He said he doesn’t feel as if the national media takes the Falcons seriously.
“I don’t think they get enough respect out of that, because it’s a Southern team for one thing,” he said. “But they have earned it, and they will have it from now on.”
As good as the team has played this season, Doyle said he believes the team’s future is even brighter. “If they stay healthy with all our key players and play the type of ball they’ve been playing in the last month, they will be successful,” he said. “If they bring in young players and train them well, I think they’ll be a contender for every game, wherever they play, just like they’re doing now. These guys coming behind the guys that are here today have something to look up to.”
And This Bird, You Cannot Change?
The official city seal of Atlanta prominently displays the Phoenix – the mythological winged being that, not unlike the capital city of Georgia itself, majestically rose from the ashes of complete destruction. The very motto of Atlanta is the Latin term “resurgens,” meaning, essentially, “resurrection” – a more than appropriate word to describe the Falcons’ 2016-17 season.
At the beginning of the NFL season, the Falcons were listed as a 150-to-1 longshot to win the Super Bowl, and according to sportsbook William Hill, just 184 of their bettors were willing to roll the dice on them. The Falcons were so off the radar back in September that one sportsbook, CG Technology, counted up more Super Bowl bets on the Cleveland Browns (a team that finished the season with just one win) than Atlanta.
As far as the team’s future, two things are known: first and foremost, they will be competing for the Lombardi Trophy against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5., in what many sportsbooks are predicting to be the highest scoring Super Bowl in history. And – Super Bowl victory or not and barring some major construction hiccups – the team will open up the 2017 season inside the Georgia Dome’s lavish $1.6 billion replacement, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Somewhere in between Super Bowl 51 and the first game of the 2017-18 campaign, the Georgia Dome will be demolished. Had the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game, perhaps the denizens of Atlanta would be feeling a little more sentimental about losing the 25-year-old local landmark – alas, swept up in the excitement of Super Bowl 51, the demise of the old Falcons’ stomping ground, at least for the time being, doesn’t even register in the city’s collective consciousness. Around March or April Atlantans may be getting nostalgic about all of the old NFL games and SEC Championship contests and monster truck rallies and Beyonce concerts and WCW wrestling shows, but for now, all eyes are firmly on Houston. The team and its oft-suffering fans have been waiting half a century for the Falcons to be declared “World Champions” – indeed, the city’s sports fans haven’t heard those words ringing in their ears since 1995, when the now suburbanized Atlanta Braves won the World Series.
What have Georgia’s sports fans had to sit through since? Playoff collapse after playoff collapse from the Braves and the Falcons, plus continuous stagnation from the local NBA team, the Hawks (who, even in their best season ever, still got drubbed four games to nothing by Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.) Over the last 20 years, the team saw its woefully mismanaged NHL team come and go (imagine any other top ten market in the U.S. losing a pro sports franchise to Winnipeg) and the less said about the on-field and on-court tragedies of the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, the better. In the sprawling exurbs of metro Atlanta, one can still find some beat up old road signage gleefully touting the environs as the home of your 1998 NFC Champions Atlanta Falcons. With Cleveland finally picking up a pro sports championship last year, one would be hard pressed to name one city in America more desperate for any pro sports championship parade than Atlanta.
With so many transplants in the Atlanta area (some estimates have the total state population nearing half-and-half native Georgians vs. those who relocated), perhaps it’s not surprising that, since the 1990s transplant boom, the Falcons have largely failed to galvanize the city’s pro sports fan base. Even at the NFC Championship Game, at times it felt as if the Packers had just as much support in and around the Dome as the home team – a facet of Falcons’ fandom likewise apparent every time the team hosts the Steelers, the Bears or any of the teams from the West Coast. With many native Georgians seeing Atlanta itself as little more than a haven for neo-carpetbaggers, many residents outside the perimeter eschew pro sports altogether, instead embracing UGA red and black as the only team colors for real Georgians.
But the hardcore native Atlanta sports fans have always been there. Although unsung and sometimes outshouted by all those Northerners and Midwesterners and Californians, the Falcons faithful never stopped believing. For them, the Grits Blitz and the flashy moves of Deion Sanders and the grandiose end zone celebrations of Dirty Bird pioneer O.J. Santiago are every bit the hallmark of local culture as chili dogs at The Varsity and beloved WSB-TV anchor Monica Pearson’s Close-Up interviews. They have their own hidden cultural currency in the vestiges of Chris Miller’s three touchdown playoff game against the Saints in 1991 and Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in 1998 and Mike Vick’s triumphant return against the Panthers in 2003. The old school Falcons fans, in many ways, represent the mini nation state that was Atlanta before NAFTA came creeping along. These are the Georgian born who remember Sunday blue laws and life before MARTA (and for that matter, even life before Interstate 75) and the folks who always asked for Wolfman whenever they went to Gallery Furniture. These are the folks who stuck it out, even when the entire landscape around them was leveled and remolded by those opportunistic out-of-towners, who in addition to gobbling up all the real estate, demanded they abandon their culture and try to do things their way. Among the nation’s most nightmarish gridlock and a dysfunctional street trolley that cost in excess of $100 million followed.
It takes the musings of a lifelong fan such as Charles Doyle to truly grasp the significance of the Falcons’ Super Bowl run. He explained why this past season has been his absolute favorite over half a century of rooting for the team.
“I’m a Falcons fan, just like my children,” he said. “I’m with them, win or lose, because I cannot quit when they are not doing what they’re supposed to do. I have to continue being the fan, and by me being the fan I am, I give no to attitude to other people who are fans when they go feeling bad because we’re losing or whatever. This is the time to pick yourself up, because this is what we have to do for our kids – keep ourselves up because if we don’t, they’re going down.”
Doyle may be talking about a pro football team, but it’s hard to not pick up a deeper context when he discusses the unpredictable beauty of the game.
“We just have to have hope that the Falcons will do what they are doing today, because we never know exactly when we’re going to be successful in our life,” he said, “and football is made so funny that you never know what backyard it might bounce in when you throw it or kick it.”
Atlanta’s born and raised have been waiting a long, long time to unfurl that championship banner. Maybe they will triumph over the Patriots in Super Bowl 51, or perhaps Matt Ryan and company will lay a big goose egg against Tom Brady and pals and add yet another chapter to the big book of Atlanta sports heartbreaks. But if they do come out on top at the big game, rest assured of one thing: with all the yelling and yapping and clapping and cawing the locals will be doing, there ain’t going to be a single Yankee anywhere in Atlanta getting a good night’s sleep.