ATHENS — It’s nice to be able to cheer for a team for once. I was cheering for the Atlanta Falcons yesterday in the NFC Championship Game and I’ll be cheering for them when they face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Houston.
That’s nice for a change because as a longtime college football reporter, I’ve always had to remain objective with regard to the teams I cover. But I don’t have to be concerned with that regarding the Falcons. They’re an NFL team and they’re my team from my city and I don’t cover them, so I get to be a fan like everybody else in that regard.
And — this just in — that’s pretty fun!
I’m like a lot of people in this area, I suppose, born and raised in Atlanta and a fan of no other NFL team than the Falcons. That’s simply because they were our team in our city. It wasn’t based on the team’s successes or failures, and there were always more of the latter rather than the former. It was just because they were ours.
The Falcons were still a fairly new thing when I got turned onto them in the 1960s. That’s when my father first took me to the old Fulton County Stadium to watch them play. That was my first exposure to pro football, to tailgating and, if I had to guess, cursing. The Falcons never won very much in those early days, but that wasn’t really the point. I remember my father just being so proud that Atlanta had an NFL team. It was a big deal for the city.
So when I say I’m a longtime fan, I’m not kidding. One of my earliest memories of having a football hero was James “Cannonball” Butler, running back, 1968-71. I don’t think I knew anything more about him back then than he had a great nickname and scored a lot of touchdowns. But the fact that he did and he played for the Falcons made him the greatest player there to me.
The names I could cite way back then were Tommy Nobis and Jim Mitchell and “Charmin’” Harmon Wages.
I’ll never forget the future Hall of Fame defensive end Claude Humphrey visiting my North Decatur Longhorns team at Medlock Park in 1970, I think it was. Things were so much more relaxed with Atlanta’s pro athletes back in those days. I recall Humphrey just driving up in a big, long car through the gravel parking lot to the chain-link fence and walking through the gate out to the middle of the field to address our team. None of us had ever seen a man so large and I remember him having the biggest hands I’d ever encountered. Nobody asked for autographs or anything, but we all shook his big, ol’ hands. Perhaps it was Humphrey’s inspiration that spurred us on, but we went undefeated that year. Nobis came to Medlock Park a time or two, too, but never to talk to our team unfortunately. I did meet Big Jim Mitchell there once.
Of course, the University of Georgia has always had a long and strong relationship with the Falcons. It might seem ancient history to a lot of folks now, but the original owner of Atlanta’s NFL franchise was UGA graduate Rankin Smith Sr. Today, the Rankin Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center sits in the middle of Georgia’s sprawling football complex and is where the school’s athletes go for academic assistance and resources. Mr. Smith donated the funds to build it.
For as long as I can remember, the narrative about the Falcons was that they went out their way to pass over good Georgia players. It was theorized that the Smiths were overcompensating for UGA bias or didn’t want to put undo pressure on their players. They certainly made some curious choices in those years.
I first remember being cognizant of a head-scratching moment in 1990, when the Falcons picked a back named Steve Broussard out of Washington State over Georgia’s Rodney Hampton, who went four picks later to the Giants. Hampton was named to two Pro Bowls and rush for a then-franchise record of 6,897 yards and 49 touchdowns, while Broussard barely reached 2,600 in his trade-laden career.
For whatever reason, to this day, there really hasn’t been all that many Bulldogs don the red and black for the Falcons, and definitely not many great ones. Georgia All-American and recent College Football Hall of Fame inductee Scott Woerner played there for a short stint after he was drafted in 1981. Tight end Troy Sadowski and defensive end Mitch Davis went there a little later. More recently, D.J. Shockley, Thomas Brown and Akeem Dent were all on the roster.
At the moment, Georgia’s only representation on the roster is defensive lineman Chris Mayes, a former free agent who is currently on injured reserve and won’t be participating in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the visiting New England Patriots will bring in two starters that matriculated at UGA: center David Andrews and receiver Malcolm Mitchell. It seems like Bill Belichick and that storied franchise have had quite a record of success plucking Bulldogs out of Athens over the years.
But that hasn’t been for a lack of interaction. Falcons officials always attend UGA’s annual Pro Day in droves. And two years ago, Georgia AD Greg McGarity arranged with Thomas Dimitroff to have the Falcons’ player-personnel staff come to Athens and talk to the Bulldogs about specifically what they look for before drafting a college athlete.
McGarity was on 680 The Fan on Monday morning offering his congratulations and thanking the Falcons for the years of goodwill and assistance they’ve provided. For the last decade or so, the Falcons have always made available to Georgia their indoor practice facility in Flowery Branch when inclement weather prevented the Bulldogs from being able to get on the field for practice. UGA has finally completed its own indoor building, which will be officially dedicated Feb. 14, and McGarity jokingly offered to return the favor.
“We’ve always had great interaction with the Falcons since I’ve been involved,” McGarity said. “There’s always been a lot of back and forth and good will as far as how we can help each other.”
Owner Arthur Blank attended a Georgia football game in the President’s Box this past fall and came to a basketball last year. And a lot of people might not realize that current Georgia football coach Kirby Smart and Falcons head man Dan Quinn are actually pretty close friends. They were on Nick Saban’s staff together with the Miami Dolphins back in 2006 and have stayed in touch ever since. They also went head-to-head on the recruiting trail when Quinn was at Florida briefly as defensive coordinator and D-line coach in 2011-12.
I crossed paths with Smart briefly on Monday and asked him if he’d reached out to his old buddy.
“I actually haven’t,” Smart said. “Been pretty busy with the circus we live in this time of year. But Dan understands that better than anyone.”
Nothing compares to the circus into which Quinn and the Falcons are about to enter. But I’m fired up for them and can’t wait to unabashedly cheer them.
Rise up, Falcons! I plan to.