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Steve Fennessy


Q&A with Stewart Cink

This month Stewart Cink returns to Augusta National Golf Club to play in his thirteenth Masters. At thirty-six, Cink has matured into one of the most consistent performers on the PGA Tour. The Georgia Tech alum boasts career winnings approaching $30 million, but it wasn’t until last year’s victory over Tom Watson at the British Open at Turnberry, in which Cink squashed Watson in a four-hole playoff, that the Duluth resident won his first major. As Cink himself admits, it was the major he figured he was least likely to win. But with the help of a retooled short game and a focus on routine and not outcome, he not only won, but he also deprived the fifty-nine-year-old Watson (and the media) of what was shaping up to be the greatest sports story of all time. In February, Cink talked with Steve Fennessy about how he won the British Open when he was sick, his love of Twitter, and the Bible study group that helps keep him grounded during the long months on the road.

Talk about the first time you saw Augusta National in person. When I was in college we used to play there every year at Georgia Tech. We had decent connections who would host us. The first time I stepped foot on it was to play it. It was around January or February. We drove over there in the morning. It was the most exciting day—up until then—of my life. The weather was kind of rainy. Everyone was a little nervous. We got there and the weather cleared out. But when we got to the eleventh green, we started hearing little claps of thunder. By the time we got to the twelfth tee, the bottom had fallen out and it was an all-out thunderstorm. As it was a tradition for the older fellas, as soon as it started to rain, they said, “Let’s call it a day.” So all we could do was look down the twelfth fairway. I never got to play Amen Corner.

How were you playing up until then? I don’t remember. I was in awe of the place. I was surprised how hilly it was, and how much undulation there was on the putting surfaces and off the edges.

>> Follow Cink on Twitter!

You drive the ball 290 yards on average and hit 77 percent greens in regulation. It seems Augusta should have been your first major, where those kinds of numbers are rewarded. I’ve always thought the British Open would be the last major I would win, not the first one. It’s not in my style. Conditions can range from like a nor’easter to pretty nice. The Masters—you’d think it would fit into my type of game better. But it hasn’t really done that. I think the reason is I haven’t been pleased with my short game for a while. To win at Augusta, you really need to be on top of your short game. So I’ve worked hard on it. About a year ago, I changed my whole approach. It paid off right away. I’m trying to get better. If you look at the best players, Tiger (Woods) and Phil (Mickelson), they have that dramatic type of short game. That’s what I’m working for.

When you went to bed on the Saturday night before the final round at Turnberry, you were three shots back. What did you fall asleep thinking about? The strange thing was how peaceful I was the whole week. I’m a guy that gets nervous. I get nervous before a tournament starts, I get nervous when I’m in contention. But for some reason that week, I wasn’t. Lisa [Cink’s wife] and the boys [sons Connor and Reagan] were with me. I was just having a good time over there. I was enjoying myself. I was just content. I was also under the weather. After the first round, I had the chills. I had achy joints. They put me on some antibiotics. But every day I would get up and I would feel like crap. But I had adrenaline, and I’d feel fine during the round. So I would just play golf and go back to bed. After Wednesday [of tournament week], I didn’t practice one time, except for my normal thirty- to forty-minute warm-up. Not once. I think it lowered my expectations. So when I went to bed that Saturday, I was just calm with everything.

After your win, you went on David Letterman and read off the “Top Ten Surprising Facts about Stewart Cink.” The number one fact: “Even I was rooting for Tom Watson.” Obviously it’s a joke, but what was it like facing off against someone you watched play when you were growing up? I’d played with him over the years, so we know each other a little bit. But when you’re in the battle at the moment, you don’t think about it. I was aware of the big story, but I had a job to do myself, and that preoccupied my thoughts.

So how did winning change things for you? I had a lot more media requests, which was fine. It really hasn’t changed my life. Or, I guess I could say I’ve settled back into the same thing I always was. My priorities are not moveable. They’re where I want them to be. I have my faith and my family, and my career’s down there somewhere. I feel if I had been a new kind of player coming on the scene it would have changed things.

Where do you keep the Claret Jug (the trophy awarded to the British Open winner)? It’s just around the house. Sometimes it stays in the closet, sometimes it’s on the bureau. It’s spent some time in my trunk. You get it for the year.

Don’t they ever worry it’ll get lost? I’m sure it’s been lost or misplaced. Tom told me about taking it on a fishing trip and it got damaged.

We’re still a few months away from the Ryder Cup, but you’re ranked fourth right now in the standings. How different is it playing for a team as opposed to just for yourself? It’s different because you’ve got a lot of other guys to lean on for support, but really the difference is playing for the flag. It’s such an honor to play for the country. When the gun goes off, there’s no place like that in golf. It still gives chills in my spine when I think about the first tee at Valhalla or my first Ryder Cup at the Belfry. It’s mayhem at the first tee.

Leading up to the British Open, you started working with a sports psychologist, Morris Pickens, who works out of Sea Island, Georgia. How did that change how you think? It’s not how you think. Sports psychologists are about how you approach different shots. On the course it’s easy to get lackadaisical and let your commitment wane. You have to stay on top of everything or you’re going to throw one or two shots away, and one or two shots can mean everything. The way to be most effective with your shots and your putts is to be committed to what you’re trying to do, to be prepared—which is where practice comes in—but not get too much into results. If you try to force a ball to go into the hole from twenty feet, you’re not going to have a good success rate. So you need a preshot routine. You’re thinking about what you’re doing, you’re not thinking about where the ball’s going. Even though as a machine the brain is a great thing, you can only think of one thing at a time cognitively. So if you’re focusing on your preshot routine, you’re not thinking about results. Watch a good free throw shooter and you’ll see the routine is the same every time. A free throw is about as close as you can get to a golf shot. Same as a tennis serve or a baseball pitch. A preshot routine settles your nerves. That’s what I worked on with Morris, and it got to where I could rely on it. The British Open was the first big test. It was unbelievable how calm I felt.

I saw from your Twitter feed that you attend the Tour’s Bible study group on Wednesday nights. Can you talk about that? I spend over half my year out traveling. I go to church here in Duluth, but if I go to church twelve times a year I’m doing pretty good. We have four or five players, but in Los Angeles a few weeks ago we had fifty people there. It’s not just players. We have caddies, spouses, TV people. It’s open to anybody. It helps us keep that balance. If you’re alone out there it’s hard to keep up with studying and your worship. Being around other people helps me grow. I’m so thankful for that because it keeps me grounded.

Tiger Woods’s case does bring up family issues. You and Lisa got married in college and had your first child while you were still at Georgia Tech. Your family is still together. Is it tough when your work keeps you on the road so many days? My kids are sixteen and twelve. They don’t travel that much anymore. They’re fully entrenched. What’s hardest now is on the marriage. When I’m gone, my wife is a single parent. I can pick up the phone and talk, but I can’t take the dogs for a walk or drop the kids off at the dentist’s office. It’s tough on the marriage. But we just make it work. We’ve been blessed. We got married when we were twenty. That was some really tough times early on. We didn’t have a penny. We relied on our parents. They didn’t have anything either, and it pretty much drained them. We just got through it. We just scratched what we could out of it, and that laid a great foundation.

What is it with you and Twitter? As of today you have 1,225,825 followers. I wish I could explain it. It’s been phenomenal to see that thing grow. I started a year ago. Someone sent me a message last week in Tucson congratulating me on my one-year anniversary. I was one of the first [golfers] to start. I just try to be honest and respect all my followers. They don’t care how far I hit my eight-iron. They can find that anywhere. But they can’t always get a picture from inside the locker room. Or what the course looks like early in the morning. They can’t see that otherwise. I consider myself sort of a roving observationist in this world. The things I see around that entertain me I put out there, and that entertains them.

What comes across after reading your tweets is that golf is important to you, but it’s not everything. You talk just as much about skiing and about hockey and movies. I think the impression people have about pro golfers is that it’s all golf all the time. You seem to have struck a balance. That’s important to me. I love to play golf and practice golf. But I also get tired of it. I saw myself going down that road in the mid-nineties when I got out of college. I was pretty much all golf, getting my career started. But I remember talking to my wife about how I didn’t want to be a one-track person. I want to do other things. I want to make sure I have a getaway, a way to set golf aside. Back in 1998 we bought a lake house in Alabama. I grew up in an area there where a lot of people had lake houses but we didn’t. So the green seemed greener.

Because it was. Yeah, it was. So that became my escape. Now we still have a lake house, but it’s in South Carolina. That was sort of my escape. I try to balance everything. I’m diligent about practicing golf when the weather cooperates, but you have to strike that balance.

You’re a big Thrashers fan. So how bad is it that they lost Ilya Kovalchuk?
I don’t think there’s a good way to paint that picture. He’s one of the top six players in the league. He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s physical. It’s tough to lose a guy like that. But [new Thrasher] Niclas Bergfors is going to be a special player in the league. It’s going to be an interesting transition. I hope the fanbase has the patience to stick around, even though they’re fickle already.

You love hockey and snow skiing, yet you grew up in Alabama. How did that all come about? I had a best friend who went skiing all the time, and he’d come back with a trail map. His parents’ basement was full of trail maps. My dad is from Colorado, so I had it in my blood anyway. I used to stare at the trail maps, but we never could afford to go skiing. Then an old manager told me that Beaver Creek [Ski Resort in Colorado] is a nice place to ski, so I said, “OK, twist my arm.”

You’ve got like twelve pairs of skis. You must be pretty good. Don’t let that fool you. You can also buy five sets of golf clubs and not be any good. The kids are really good. Lisa and I are getting there. We’re no Ted Ligety.

You live in Duluth near TPC Sugarloaf. But you’re also a member at East Lake, Berkeley Hills, and River Club in Suwanee. Which do you consider your home course? I would say East Lake, even though I don’t play there as often. It’s my home course, because of the Georgia Tech connection. They were also the first to give me an honorary membership. They took a chance on me before I even won one dollar. It’s the crown jewel of Atlanta golf.

What is the best single golf hole in metro Atlanta? Number nine at East Lake. It’s my favorite par 5. It’s got everything. It’s a difficult hole but can reward you with birdies or eagle. It’s got a great backdrop with the beautiful clubhouse. It’s elevated with a great view of the lake. Yeah, the city of Atlanta is a great place to live for a golfer.

March 2010

This is Casey, who made his
debut on January 8 at DeKalb Medical, while outside the window of his
delivery room cars were skidding down North Decatur Road during what
passes in Atlanta for a Great Ice Storm. Casey is the first child for my
wife and me, and during the occasional peaceful evening at home when
he’s asleep and swaddled and I’m reading a book and the dogs are quietly
shedding over the carpet (there have been precisely two of those
moments so far, and their duration averages seven minutes), I have been
seized in mid-reverie by something I can only describe as terror. It’s a
quiet terror, sort of the panic attack kind, in which you become
especially cognizant of your heart beating and you wonder if you stop
concentrating on it, will it stop? What prompts this at any particular
moment is a mystery. Where it leads me to is my laptop, where I Google
“college 529 calculator” and punch in precisely one number—a zero for
Casey’s age. Instantly I am reminded, in stark math, how much my wife
and I need to be socking away for our boy’s college fund.

The answer is $602 a month, which, put into a fund that grows tax-free
at what the calculator assumes will be 7 percent annual interest (7
percent! That’s funny!), will compound until 2028, at which point we
will have $312,166, which I’m told is how much four years will cost then
at a college that today charges $25,000 a year.

Around this time I think of my own parents, who had not one kid, but
six. They both worked—she was a social worker, he in construction—and
their deal to us was simple: After high school, you’ll go to the
community college around the corner (it literally was three blocks away
from our house in central New York), get good grades, and we’ll figure
out a way to pay when it comes time to transfer to a four-year school.

And they did. The solution made perfect sense. Still, it didn’t stop a
few of us (okay, me) from grumbling as we watched our friends head off
to freshman year at Notre Dame, or Cornell, or Boston College. But when I
graduated from American University four years later after transferring
in as a junior, I had not a penny of debt. I took it for granted then,
but in the years since, seeing how college loans hobbled some of my
friends and forced them to curtail their ambitions, I am reminded of how
lucky I was.

Not surprisingly, our College issue couldn’t have come at a more
opportune time for this particular reader. I especially recommend Clark
Howard’s tips on footing the bill (page 67). Clark wisely reminds us
that raiding your 401(k) to fund your child’s tuition is just about the
worst idea imaginable. That said, I’m going to have to raid something to
fund Casey’s.

In the meantime, I can’t stop looking at him. Let’s hope he’s as smart
as he is cute.

Contact Steve Fennessy at sfennessy@atlantamag.emmis.com

Max Cleland’s Long Road Home

In June, Max Cleland appeared with President Obama in Normandy, France, to commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day. Just days before, Obama had named Cleland secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, charged with overseeing the cemeteries and memorials around the world that honor U.S. soldiers who died in battle. For Cleland, who lost both legs and his right arm to a grenade in Vietnam, the D-Day remembrance was the beginning of a new career, coming almost seven years after losing his U.S. Senate seat to Saxby Chambliss in one of the ugliest races Georgia has seen in years. Perhaps most memorable about the campaign was a Chambliss TV ad that linked an image of Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Cleland’s defeat unmoored him. His depression became so severe that he ended up back at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., where he’d gone decades before to recuperate from his war injuries. A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder led him to an even greater understanding of the challenges faced by returning veterans. Always an outspoken advocate for veterans (he served as head of Veterans Affairs under President Carter), Cleland has now written a memoir, out this month. Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove pulls no punches about George W. Bush, Georgia’s election system, and the long road back from defeat. Cleland will speak and sign books at the Carter Center at 7 p.m. on October 13. To accompany the following excerpt, Atlanta magazine editor Steve Fennessy talked with Cleland about the memoir.

You dropped out of the public eye after the 2002 election. As you write in your book, that period after your loss to Saxby Chambliss put you in a tailspin. It was the worst period in my life. The lowest point was when I ended up back in Walter Reed again after forty years and realized this time I had to repair my mind and my soul and my psyche, rather than my body. They are really the best in the business. They understand post-traumatic stress disorder. They understand the things that can follow from that—the depression, the extent to which life can go black. I’m still in touch with my counselor and my psychiatrist at Walter Reed, and they’re helping me put my life back together now, just like Walter Reed helped me put my body back together forty-one years ago.

You expose some very raw emotions in the book—feeling lost after the defeat in 2002, the anger as the war in Iraq ramped up, your own feelings of rage and sorrow as you came face-to-face with post-traumatic stress. Was it difficult putting this to paper and sharing it so openly? Was it therapy for you? It was a form of therapy. I wrote the book for myself, and I’m willing to share it with others. If anybody coming from Iraq and Afghanistan picks up the book and it helps save their life, then it will be worthwhile. It was therapeutic to go back over and over and over all of this stuff and try to make sense of it. Ultimately I came down to a point of belief that life itself is an act of faith. When I’ve come to the end of all the light I have and step out into the darkness of the unknown, whether I believe it or not, there’s always been something to stand on or I’ve been taught to fly. That’s the most powerful statement of faith I’ve ever heard. It’s from a book called A General’s Spiritual Journey, by [Lieutenant] General Hal Moore.

There’s been increasing coverage in the press about the spike in suicide rates among returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. When you come to the end of all the light you have, sometimes that darkness of the unknown can be home. Sometimes home can be a strange and weird place that you haven’t particularly gained familiarity with. You’re a different person when you come home from war. An Iraq veteran told me the toughest thing he ever did was come home. More than just readjustment, we have to understand that these young men and women have been in a difficult place. They’ve been to hell and back, and dealing with it is extremely difficult.

You write about being surprised to be diagnosed with PTSD so many years after Vietnam. What has your own experience taught you about the condition? I thought I didn’t have PTSD. But now we know that massive trauma disturbs the reptilian portion of your brain. You can deal with it. You can make it better. But wars are never over. My therapist says to concentrate on SOS—safety, organization, stability. But politics—especially Georgia politics—is anything but safe, organized, and stable.

The Democrats made huge strides nationwide in the 2008 election, but Georgia remains solidly Republican. What can the Democrats in Georgia do to be a statewide force again?
We need a two-party system. When I was in the state Senate and there were only five Republicans in the Senate—Paul Coverdell and Bob Bell and others—they were saying we need a two-party system. Now Democrats are saying that. A lot of what needs to be done is being done. A lot of people would like to think it’s message, but the candidates are going to put that out. But in terms of party structure, it’s all about organization and turnout.

In your book, you talk about “below-the-radar chicanery” that helped ensure your defeat, that Diebold’s control over our electronic voting system basically cut out any oversight by Georgia election officials. Is there a part of you that thinks you actually won the election in 2002? No. But there’s a part of me that knows it was tampered with.

You also talk about the backlash from young white males in the 2002 statewide election as a result of the flag issue. Why were they so susceptible to that issue? That’s the South. As the historian C. Vann Woodward said, the South is different because history has happened to it. A slave-based economy grew up, then the Civil War came, and then afterwards the slaves were free. Because the Republicans had authorized blacks to vote, the South turned Democratic—hard-core Democratic for well over a century. Then when Lyndon Johnson came along with the civil rights bill in 1964, he changed the South and made it Republican for a generation. The Republican Party has taken over the legacy of the old Southern Dixiecrats. It’s become the haven of the rural white males who have to compete with blacks for jobs as the emerging black community comes of age. In [2001], Governor Roy Barnes and the Legislature changed the state flag. The Republicans took advantage of that. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and by that time chairman of the state Republican Party, and Karl Rove personally recruited Saxby Chambliss. The flag issue was off the charts with white males. Come Election Day in 2002, you had a dramatic increase by 140,000 votes of white males who came out and voted who normally would have stayed home. And then you had the Diebold effort. The combination caught all of us in between. Barnes, me, Tom Murphy—we all got caught in the anger and aftermath. So Georgia flipped big-time into the Republican column.

Is Georgia’s system of electronic voting broken?
It is broken, for one reason: It does not have a paper trail. Diebold fought a paper trail. The Republican Congress did not favor a paper trail. Now we see that state after state is calling upon the voting machine companies to have a paper trail. Why is a paper trail necessary? So that a third party—a Democratic poll worker, a Republican poll worker—can verify a vote.

You write that Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, offered to denounce Chambliss’s attack ad, and that Chambliss asked him not to.
Chuck was ready to do an ad for me that countermanded all that stuff that Chambliss and Rove and Reed were putting out. It was completely the strategy of Karl Rove to wipe out the service of people who ran against Bush. It started with McCain, perfected with me, then hit the stride with the Swift Boat ads with Kerry. I don’t think the American people want to go there. You can call McCain and Kerry and me anything you want, but don’t take away our service. Especially if you weren’t there, if you got out of going to the war of your generation with a bunch of deferments.

Do you see yourself running for elected office again?
No, I do not. Why not? That’s a good question. (Pause.) I think the answer to that is I don’t want to. I have this mission from President Obama, to make sure the twenty-four cemeteries worldwide properly memorialize our troops. That job pays the bills. Secondly, it gives me a sense of place and purpose I didn’t have before. I’m not born to be a consultant and I’m not born to be a lobbyist and I’m not born to be in the private sector. With public service comes a lot of good things. Memorializing those who gave everything they had, it touches me deeply.

*Note: The accompanying book excerpt is available in the print edition only

Creative Loafing gets some new owners

When Creative Loafing Inc. first declared bankruptcy almost a year ago, I blogged about it a lot,
leading some to wonder why I was so obsessed. Easy. I had spent five
years as a reporter and editor there, and my affection for and
admiration of alternative weeklies, which combine an irreverent
attitude with hard-nose reporting of issues the dailies shy away from,
remains strong, even if I’ve moved on.

But I haven’t said much in the past few months as the case wended its
way through bankruptcy court in Tampa, where the company is based.
Today, though, Ben Eason, the company’s CEO, lost the war:
Judge Caryl Delano awarded the company to Atalaya, which had lent Eason
$30 million a few years back to buy alt weeklies in Chicago and D.C.
The purchase of those papers, funded by borrowed money, led to interest
payments Eason couldn’t make. Hence the bankruptcy. (Read Creative Loafing reporter Thomas Wheatley’s account here. For his part, Eason said he was done in by Craig’s List.)

I called a former colleague after the news broke late this morning.
Representatives of Atalaya, who say that no layoffs are planned, are
slated to visit the Atlanta offices of Creative Loafing later this
week. “I plan to greet them as liberators,” my former colleague said.
Indeed, it is pretty stunning that a bunch of investment bankers with
no experience at owning a newspaper (they’ve hired a passel of media
execs to serve on their board) should be welcomed with such open arms.
It says something about the good faith that Eason squandered during the
years he presided over the company founded by his mother almost forty
years ago.

“This is totally a matter of hubris,” said John Sugg when we spoke by
phone just now. “He’s incapable of understanding that he totally fucked

Sugg met Eason back in the mid-1990s when Sugg was an editor at the Tampa Tribune
and Eason was a young businessman on the rise, networking like crazy.
“I was attracted to his idealism, to his whole idea of civic
journalism,” Sugg remembered. He went to work for Eason at the Weekly Planet, an alt weekly in Tampa that Eason had founded.

In 2000, when I first joined Creative Loafing in Atlanta as
news editor, Eason had just bought the chain of weeklies (which
included papers in Charlotte and Sarasota, among others) from his
mother. By then, Eason’s reliance on a coterie of high-paid consultants
(who would fly up from Tampa to lecture us on management techniques)
was complete. An idea had merit, it seemed to us, only if it came from
someone Eason had met at a fundraiser or cocktail party.

“The corporate structure was big and it was bloated,” Sugg said. “And
Ben kept hiring people who were not competent. What else can you say?”
(I’m hoping, of course, Sugg wasn’t referring to me. I’m fairly sure he

In 2005, as Craig’s List was sucking up the paper’s classified revenue,
Eason’s involvement on the editorial side of the business became more
heavy-handed. After Hurricane Katrina, I remember him walking up to my
colleague Doug Monroe’s desk. Doug was writing a column about the
federal government’s handling of the aftermath in New Orleans. “Let’s
not have any Bush-bashing,” Eason said. Doug was dumb-founded. I think
he still is.

In 2007, after I’d left the paper, Eason borrowed $40 million to expand
his chain of weeklies. His board of directors, worried that the company
would be leveraged to the hilt, quit in protest. Later that year, Sugg
left the company. Meanwhile, falling ad revenues led to layoffs at
virtually every paper in the chain. The Atlanta paper, for example, has
three news writers, fewer than half of what it once did. When the chain
declared bankruptcy last year, rendering shares worthless, Sugg, like
others, lost his investment in the company, which he puts in “the
healthy five figures.”

Sugg is part of a loose affiliation of former CL’ers — such as former
Creative Loafing Atlanta publisher Scott Walsey — who have offered
their services to Atalaya to step in. (The Atlanta paper, for example,
has been without an editor for months, after Eason fired Ken
Edelstein.) I’m trying to reach Michael Bogdan of Atalaya to see what’s
next, but Sugg says that whether or not his group is called upon, he
will be Atalaya’s biggest cheerleader as they take over the chain of

“Creative Loafing today stands a much better chance of re-establishing itself.”

Eason, for his part, told the Tampa daily that he would start a new newspaper “tomorrow.”

Asheville, NC

Consistently ranked among the country’s best places to live, Asheville is one of the rare cities that live up to hype. Crunchy? Come for the vibrant music scene and vegetarian dining. Artistic? Soak in the galleries and art deco architecture. Adventurous? Biking trails and whitewater rapids await you. Best of all, you can get there and back on a single tank of gas.


Asheville owes much of its architectural singularity to the captains of industry who popularized the place in the Gilded Age. E.W. Grove, a St. Louis man who made a fortune selling “Tasteless Chill Tonic” to malaria sufferers, built Asheville’s most remarkable hotel, the Grove Park Inn (800-438-5800, groveparkinn.com), with granite cut from Sunset Mountain. With its enormous lobby, elevators tucked into stone chimneys, and breathtaking views, the Grove is worth a stop for at least a drink. For those on a more modest budget, drive to Biltmore Village, less than two miles from the city center. There, just outside the gates of Biltmore Estate, is the Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville, the newest addition to the Kessler chain (877-274-1242, bohemianhotelasheville.com). The European hunting lodge theme boasts dorky touches such as chandeliers made from deer antlers and a stuffed boar wearing a Tyrolean hat.


You can’t go to Asheville without dropping by Biltmore Estate (800-411-3812, biltmore.com). Built by George Vanderbilt in the late nineteenth century, the château contains 250 rooms, an indoor pool, and a dining room straight out of Citizen Kane, bringing new meaning to the word “overcompensating.” Biltmore is still owned and operated by Vanderbilt’s descendants, who charge a whopping $55 to get onto the grounds. (It’s cheaper if you reserve online.) Be sure to stroll around the gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and check out the winery. Before heading back downtown, drop by the New Morning Gallery (828-274-2831, newmorninggallerync.com) for a spread of handmade furniture, ceramics, and tasteful tchotchkes. Downtown Asheville is small enough to walk, but step aboard the historic trolley for a ninety-minute narrated tour (888-667-3600, ashevilletrolleytours.com).


For a city of its size (barely 70,000), Asheville boasts an inordinate number of awesome restaurants. If, for example, you haven’t had the sweet potato pancake at Tupelo Honey Cafe (828-255-4863), your time on Earth remains squandered. Executive chef Brian Sonoskus even has a twelve-acre farm that provides organic food to his kitchen. Carnivores will not miss meat at Laughing Seed Cafe (828-252-3445), where the cooks do amazing stuff with tofu and tempeh and fresh vegetables. At night, check out the intimate Table (828-254-8980), where the food is prepared right near the front door and the seafood choices are exquisite. On the way back to the hotel, drop by Jack of the Wood (828-252-5445, downstairs from the Laughing Seed) for some house-brewed Green Man ales. And for late-night music, check out the legendary Orange Peel (828-225-5851), one of the best small venues in the nation.

Photograph courtesy of The Grove Park Inn

In Tune: Big Boi

In a ten-minute conversation with Big Boi, you can learn a lot, such as the perils of robbing his wife’s boutique, the ways in which Shirley Franklin has let down Atlanta, and how he wishes his financial advisers had told him to invest in gold. Big Boi, whose Christian name is Antwan Patton, is one-half of Outkast and one hundred percent his own man. We sat down with him in Austin, Texas, minutes before he took the stage for a 12:40 a.m. set at the annual South-by-Southwest music conference. His new CD, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, has been delayed and delayed, although Big says all it’s waiting on is a release date from a label he can’t stand.

What’s the deal with Luscious Left Foot? When’s it coming out?

It’s coming in a couple months, man. I’m dealing with Jive Records. You know how that goes. They’re jivin.’ I’m waiting for them to get their shit together. I’ve worked hard on this record. Two years, non-stop. I’m proud of it.

What’s the economy doing to the hip-hop scene?

It’s hard everywhere. Right now everybody’s just waiting on the jumpback. The name of the game right now is buyin’ bars of gold. The price of gold just went up so crazy. I was talkin’ to a couple of my financial planners and they told me a lie. They told me don’t get into gold. I would have been killin’ right now. You can’t listen to everything your brokers say.

What does it mean for you that President Bush, who inspired a lot of your music, is gone, and Obama is in the White House?

You hope for the best but you never really know. You got people out there sayin’ Obama’s basically a face card and he and Bush are playin’ on the same team. I don’t know. You can’t trust nobody. You don’t know who’s playin’ on which team. The only thing you can trust in is God. Keep your faith in the most high, you don’t put your faith in no man.

I’m curious about your writing style. Phrases like “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails”—does that come naturally to you or is it something you struggle over?

Sometimes you have to sit there with a blank piece of paper for six or seven hours and nothing comes out, and some days it just grabs you, like you go into a trance. Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s not. It’s all about being there and losing yourself in the music.

We’re electing a new mayor in Atlanta soon. What do they need to do?

They need to do something. What’d Shirley Franklin do? She fixed the water pipes and got rid of the fire stations. The next mayor needs to address the issue of the police force. The crime rate in this city has been goin’ up like crazy, you know what I mean? When you got police on furlough and you’re shuttin’ down firehouses, it’s bad for the community. Houses getting robbed, people getting killed. I just don’t see what she’s done so far.

Is there anybody you like for mayor?

That new guy, what’s his name? Young cat.

Kasim Reed?

Yeah, exactly.

You ever want do anything political?

Mmmm, maybe after all this stuff is done.

What about this stuff? Did you ever think it would go this far?

Yeah, I did! We’ve been doing this for fifteen years. We had a chance to move masses of people into thinking differently, having people not just wanna go with the norm. So you got people questioning things they’ve been taught all their lives. We pose different questions throughout different albums. It’s all about turning on their brain a little bit.

What’s the most important question you’ve posed?

The most important question…is, uh…The basis of our group is individualism. It’s all about being yourself.

How did you find Janelle Mon

She was a back-up singer for one of my artists called Scar. My A&R person gave me a CD of her stuff and I just thought it was cool. But what really sold it for me was I caught her at an open mic night at Justin’s, P. Diddy’s restaurant in Atlanta. From there I said okay I’m gonna sign her. She’s definitely the future of music and funk and strivin’ to be something that’s not like the normal. And she can sing like a motherfucker. That’s the weirdest thing about it. She’s incredible.

Anyone else you’re nurturing?

I have a new group, Vonnegutt, young guys from Atlanta. They rap, play guitar, the whole nine yards. And I got Janelle. So I’m good.

How’s your wife’s boutique doing?

She’s goin’ online with it. You know, the whole recession thing.

Her place got robbed, didn’t it?

Yes, a couple times, man. That’s why I was saying, the mayor of Atlanta she’s closing down fire departments and furloughing police, she’s getting people fucked up out there, man.

Didn’t you offer a reward?

I did. But it got handled. We found out who was at the bottom of it.

You did? How’d it get handled?

I can’t tell you. (Laughs)

Oh come on. Did she get her stuff back?

Some of it, yeah.

You found out, huh?

Yeah. We got a lot of friends in Atlanta, you know?

How’d you come to name your son Bamboo?

Ah, Bamboo! It’s strength. It’s unbreakable. When it’s young and green you can’t snap it. You can bend it but it won’t break. He’s an animal right now. I call him Bub right now, after my granddaddy.

You own a kennel that specializes in pit bulls. What’s it been like in the wake of the Michael Vick scandal?

It’s good! What people don’t realize is the Michael Vick thing was an isolated incident. We breed dogs for different reasons. I don’t fight dogs. I don’t condone dog-fighting. We sold dogs to Usher, Fifty Cent, Serena Williams.

What got you into it in the first place?

Just love for animals. When we were young, we’d have 30 people living in a two-bedroom house. My granddaddy used to have a German Shepherd that had puppies all the time. When we got old enough to get some money to get some dogs, we got some purebreds. Me and my brother started it. We got a ranch, twenty-two acres, indoor-outdoor. It’s the Ritz-Carlton for dogs!

It’s been years since the last OutKast album.

It’s been some time since the last album. There’s been a lot of songs in between though.

You feeling pressure?

For what? I got nothing to prove. Everybody else playin’ catch-up, baby. We know how high the bar’s set. As long as you’re stayin’ true to the music and doing’ what you believe in. No, there’s no pressure at all. Cuz if you heard what I got in my motherfuckin’ suitcase, boy, I’m tellin’ you! It’s at the hotel. The whole album. Sir Luscious Left Foot. It’s comin’, man!

Two months? Three months?

As soon as Jive stop bullshittin’.

So it’s their bullshit?

Different record company. Different animal. As far as when it comes to real organic music, it’s kinda hard to try to get that across to them. They want more Kool-Aid, watered down, do anything stuff. We don’t do that. We sorta butted heads with them. But I played them the whole record a couple weeks ago and they pretty much get what we’re doin’ now.

Are you looking for a new label?

Yes. Definitely. I really wish I was still under LA Reid cuz he really knows how to do it. He knows it from an arts perspective as well as it being a label. It’s chemistry. We’re real musicians.

We Fun not so much

For the next few days, you can view “We Fun” — the documentary about Atlanta’s indie rock scene — in its entirety at Pitchfork,
the barometer of the hipster set. The movie, made by a pair of
Nashville filmmakers, is supposedly inspired by a 1987 documentary
called “Inside/Out,” which featured some seminal bands from Athens,
including REM, the B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, and others. Chris
Dortch, one of the filmmakers, talked to Paste in late 2007, when the
documentary was still very much a work in progress. In the interview,
he said that there is a “legitimate love and camaraderie” among
Atlanta’s indie rock bands that “you don’t find in other cities.”

I spent seventy-two minutes of my Friday evening streaming the film
and, well, “We Fun” really isn’t. But before I get into that, a moment
for a full disclosure: Atlanta Magazine figures into a
scene late in the film. Back in January, 2008, we organized a photo
shoot of the filmmakers with many of the bands featured in the film.
Several dozen musicians gathered on the stage of the Variety Playhouse,
and just seconds after the photographer started shooting, Black Lips
guitarist Cole Alexander opened a fire extinguisher that sent everyone
running and coated thousands of dollars of sound and lighting equipment
with fire retardant. As it turns out, the post-mess scene outside the
Variety is the funniest bit of the movie: Black Lips bassist Jared
Swilley tearing into Alexander for ruining the photo shoot and wasting
everyone’s time, while some other dude tries to defend Alexander by
saying because there was no alcohol at the shoot, the organizers “had
it coming.” (You can see this in the “Strange Faces” chapter of the

The scene to me sort of crystallizes what’s wrong with the movie —
there’s a lot of rock-star affectation, as if the musicians felt their
performances on stage weren’t enough, and so they had to keep up
appearances offstage by swilling alcohol, talking nonsense directly to
the camera, rolling around on beds with each other, and creating mayhem
for its own sake. It occurred to me that the whole movie might be
satirical, but in interviews I’ve seen with the filmmakers, they seem
genuinely envious of Atlanta’s music scene and wanted to capture that
energy. And in the scenes at clubs and in basements where bands are
actually playing, they do capture it. The problem is in
between. In the past  half-century, rock-and-roll excess has become
such a cliche that it’s hard to capture anything truly new, and so when
fresh bands are coming up, they’re faced with a conundrum — do we play
to type or do we go the other way? In “We Fun,” too many bands opt for
the former.

On the other hand, the movie promises to be a great time capsule,
capturing indie rock fashion at its stinky peak. And if you’re not from
here, you’d think Atlanta was the whitest city in Christendom.

“The Wire” creator and the death of journalism

At the risk of engaging in a little bit of hyperbole, “The Wire” is the best TV show in the history of the galaxy. Its creator, David Simon, was for not all that many years a journalist at the once-great Baltimore Sun, and it was his perspective as a reporter on the cops beat that gave us shows such as “Homicide” and, most notably, “The Wire,” which over its five seasons did more to capture the truth of the American city’s decline (in this case, Baltimore) than any newspaper series or non-fiction book ever has.

But although Simon long ago abandoned journalism for the “fleshpots” of Hollywood, as he calls it, his heart is still tethered to his old job. Yesterday he testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the future of journalism, and his testimony is worth a read, assuming you’re American and care about the country’s future. (When you’re reading it, you might substitute “Atlanta Journal-Constitution” where he says “Baltimore Sun.” The comparisons are not clean ones but they are, to a degree, instructive.)

Some excerpts are below, which I’m aggregating, which Simon himself says really doesn’t serve much of a larger purpose. But anyway:

— “The Internet…does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin — namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.”

— “The very phrase citizen journalist strikes my ear as nearly Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.”

— “My industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place. When locally-based, family-owned newspapers like The Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the communities served by that journalism was betrayed.”

— “It costs money to do the finest kind of journalism. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund that kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is an endless source of fascination to me.”

My favorite ajc.com headline

Our astute copy-editor pointed out this headline last week, and I’ve been chomping at the bit for our new website to debut so I could blog about it. So here it is — a little late, but better than never. (Click on the magnifying glass to see it best.)

Interview: Arthur Blank


This article originally appeared in our August 2008 issue.

Arthur Blank turned sixty-five last September, in the middle of the worst year of his professional life. Just weeks before, Michael Vick, the marquee Falcons quarterback around whom Blank had built the team, had pleaded guilty to running a dog-fighting ring out of his home in Virginia. The season would only get worse: In December, a day after assuring Blank he would remain as head coach, Bobby Petrino slithered out of Atlanta to take the top football job at the University of Arkansas. By that time, the season Blank felt would never end had only gotten longer. When the Falcons beat the Seahawks in the final game of the season, it was small consolation; the team’s 4-12 record was its worst in seven years.

Although he said he never considered selling the team, Blank must have asked himself at some point if it was all worth it. He is, after all, the 317th-richest person in America, according to Forbes, with a fortune of $1.5 billion, earned from twenty-plus years building The Home Depot into a retail leviathan. He has his own foundation, to which the vast majority of his fortune is directed. And he has six children, which include, with his second wife, Stephanie, an eleven-year-old son and six-year-old twins. Surely there are better things to do than endure the scrutiny that comes with being the owner of a professional football team whose fortunes were tied to a felon.

This year, though, Blank did what he hasn’t done since 1979, when he and Bernie Marcus opened the first Home Depot: He started building an organization from the ground up. He hired a promising young scout from the New England Patriots, Thomas Dimitroff, and named him Falcons general manager. He hired a new coach with a name—Mike Smith—as understated as his personality, And in this year’s draft Blank and company settled on Matt Ryan, a towering twenty-three-year-old from Boston College who will step into Vick’s position and lead the Falcons to what Blank hopes is a new era. It really is a new team, in virtually every sense of the word.

In late May, Blank sat down with Atlanta magazine’s Steve Fennessy for a wide-ranging interview that touched on Home Depot, his hopes for the Falcons, and how turning sixty-five has made him look at things differently.

This spring, for the first time since you left Home Depot in 2001, you were invited to address the annual store managers meeting here in Atlanta. The ovation the employees gave you before your talk brought you to tears. What was going through your mind at that point? It was great to be back in that environment. I spent twenty-three years there, so the company is like a seventh child to me. When you start a company, and you build it from nothing up to 250,000 people working with you, and then you leave and have almost no contact for six years—well, it was very painful for me, that separation, both personally and from a professional standpoint. One of the things I appreciated about Frank Blake was that when he became CEO, he reached out to me and Bernie. When he asked me to attend the store managers meeting, I didn’t know I was going to speak. But then he asked me to speak. I got to talk about a lot of things I felt were important—not so much living in the past and the good old days, but that these are the good today days. It was very emotional for me.

Last year was the first year that Home Depot’s revenue were less than the year before. What’s your advice for Frank Blake? My advice for Frank goes back to the very first breakfast we had. The opportunities in the marketplace are different than they were. This housing recession is the worst in a hundred years in America. The company was built on a certain set of values and a culture. I think those continue to be as relevant today as they were in 1979. They’re applied differently and the business environment is different, but those things are still the things that make it a great company. They kind of got washed out in the Bob Nardelli era. It’s like the foundation for a great cake. The icing may be wonderful, but if it’s a shitty cake, it’s not going to taste right. Frank is conscious of this. Let’s scrape away some of the icing and make sure the roots of the business are what they need to be. Even in the face of a bad economy, he’s done a lot of the right things. Hiring better people, investing not only in the quantity of people—putting more salespeople on the sales floor—but hiring experienced plumbers, electricians, and tradespeople that will make a huge difference to the business as the economy begins to turn.

Had Home Depot turned away from customer service? I think it had. I don’t think it was intentional. But the focus had gotten onto a lot of growth initiatives, a lot of things about how do you measure this and measure that, a lot of things that came out of a GE mentality. GE is a great company, but those are more appropriate for the kinds of businesses they’re running and not a retail environment. My feeling was they’d gotten away from a lot of the roots of the company in ways they should not have.

Your mother recently celebrated her ninety-third birthday. I wanted to ask about growing up in Queens and how that informed the person you are now and the philosophies you say you live by, such as “You’re your brother’s keeper” and “Give back.” My mother has had a very profound effect on my life. My father, too. He was an entrepreneur. He started his own business in his late thirties, died when he was forty-four. We didn’t have much in a material sense. We lived in a single-bedroom apartment till I went to college. I didn’t live in a house until I was thirty-two years old. My first house was $34,500. My values were rooted in my childhood, and my mom particularly—this notion of working hard, having integrity, giving back to the community. We didn’t have any money to speak of, but my mother would always be involved in the community.

Such as what? Any sort of community event. We lived in a big apartment building with 300 or 400 units. She served on the board in the apartment that set rules and regulations. She always was just in the middle of things and was not afraid to express herself. She didn’t do it with money; she was just involved and caring.

I read that you were in a gang when you were a kid. That’s right. Two of my best friends from my junior high school were killed when I was in high school. One was shot to death, one was stabbed to death. I had spent time with them, did things, ran around. My mother was telling my younger children the other night at dinner that I was a really good son. And I was a good son. But I got in trouble. I remember one day in junior high school I was going to get the crap beat out of me after school. They had closed the school yard and I was inside. My brother, who’s three years older than me, ran back and jumped the fence and got in front of me.

How did those things you learned influence the philosophy of your foundation? When the company had no money, we always were involved in the community. We always wanted to do whatever we could. We didn’t have money to write checks to philanthropies, but our store associates were always involved. A lot of that came out of [Bernie Marcus’s and my] religious orientation—being your brother’s keeper, being involved in the community. A core philosophy of the Jewish faith is: It’s fine to go on top of the mountain and study the issue, but you need to come off the mountain and deal with the problem. That’s always been an important part of my own personal philosophy. You need to be engaged on the ground and give back. We cared about the people who shopped in our stores and the people who couldn’t shop in our stores. As the company grew, we wrote over $125 million in checks [to various causes]. We were even prouder of Team Depot—associates spending tens of thousands of hours in the community, building playgrounds, hospitals. It wasn’t written up in performance reports or anything, but it was an important part of what we do as a company.

When you formed your own foundation, was there another one you looked to as a model? When [Wal-Mart founder] Sam Walton died, I was in New York. I had dinner with [Walton’s son] Rob. We were talking about philanthropies and families. Rob said, “We knew we were a real wealthy family. But my father never spent much time in terms of building a philanthropy. He was interested in building the business. And we had all this money.” So his children don’t really understand what it means to be a philanthropist and have a foundation. I thought about that in terms of my children and my wife. I really wanted them to be very much involved and not have the same experience, where their father would pass away and have all this money and the children would say, “What do we do with it? We don’t have the skills and discipline.” So in 1995, we started our own family foundation.

What surprised you most about giving away money? It’s very difficult to do it and to ensure you have the impact that you think you’re having. There are a lot of great organizations out there, but it’s a question of understanding the vision and being sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing. Follow-up is essential. You can fall in love with visionaries. A lot of grantees have visions in their heads, but their ability to carry them out in the marketplace is pretty limited.

Who’s setting the priorities for what the foundation targets? The family does. I’ve always said to my adult children and my wife and my brother and daughter-in-law that I don’t want to sit at the head of the table. So literally and figuratively, all of our meetings are around a round table. Although I chair the foundation, they all have an equal vote and an equal say. Often I say the least at these meetings. I’m really interested in the children expressing themselves. I don’t want to be sitting there on my deathbed thinking, “Oh, what’s going to happen now to this big estate? They’re not prepared for it, and they don’t care about the stuff we’ve been working on.” So a lot of the work we do—whether it’s Better Beginnings or Pathways to Success or greenspace issues—they’re things the family really cares about, as well as myself.

You’ve been a big financial supporter of the BeltLine. I’m a big believer in community and connecting the dots. I had a conversation once with Shirley Franklin. We were talking about Downtown, and this relates to the BeltLine. She had a real pretty pearl necklace on. I said if you took the necklace off and I cut the strand and you had all these beautiful beads just laid out all over the table, it wouldn’t look like a beautiful necklace. And what has to happen Downtown is that you have to connect the pearls. To have a great Downtown, you have to be able to walk, you have to commute easily, you have to be safe, you have to have a lot of greenspace. There’s a lot of people looking for that. With the BeltLine, you have an opportunity to connect these pearls of Atlanta in a way that brings together community in the most positive ways. So people don’t have to get in their cars and drive seventy miles an hour. They can do it by bike, they can do it by jogging or walking to get from community to community. It’s a unique opportunity.

Do you think the political will behind it is sufficient? I think it is. Frankly, it’s such a positive thing, no matter what part of the city you live in. Atlanta is a great city today. It’s a great city probably because we say it’s a great city. But from a world perspective, is it a great city like New York or London? Probably not. To some extent, Atlanta has been caught up in its growth, which has been unbelievable. When I moved here, there was a little less than a million people living in the region—780,000 or something like that. Now it’s five and a half million, projected to be fifteen million in the next fifteen years. How we deal with the quality of growth is going to be very important. It’s not only because of people we want to attract here, but it’s the quality of life for the people already living here. All of that fits into the BeltLine philosophy where we can reduce traffic and we can get people connected in all kinds of positive ways.

Do you see the foundation making further contributions? Absolutely. To us it’s a journey.

You’re sixty-five. That’s an age when people might start taking stock. I did a lot of that this year. Age sixty-five for me was interesting. I actually do it all the time anyway, but I did it with more rigor this year than I have in the past.

Because of the number? Yeah. It used to be when you were sixty-five you retired. It doesn’t mean that anymore. It certainly doesn’t apply to me. But we spent a lot of time as a family this year talking about the estate. I’ve redone my estate plan with my wife’s involvement and with my children’s involvement. A percentage of my estate will go to philanthropy, almost all of it.

How much? I can’t tell you how much, but almost all of it. Probably 95 percent will go to the foundation. Stephanie and the adult children and then the younger children will carry on the foundation after I’m gone. Coming to grips with that and developing plans to see that happen is something I’ve done this year. We spent a lot of time as a family talking about what that really meant. We had a consultant come in and help us facilitate the conversations, which was helpful.

What was the mood? It was sobering, but positive. You ask tough questions and you can’t give answers that are humorous. The answers we all gave were serious answers. I certainly want my family to be well provided for. My wife is well provided for. My children are all well provided for. On the other hand, they need their own mountains to climb and their own challenges and their own life. They need to do life’s work, and they’ll do that. But I really feel, at the end of the day, that we were really blessed at Home Depot. This is a way of recycling that estate back into the hands of society in a real positive way. We worked hard and we were good at what we were doing and the timing was good and maybe we had a little luck. We want to recycle that back in. There are tremendous needs today. The public sector—federal, state, city—all are able to do less today. It’s up to the foundations and people like myself that are the recipients of this wonderful society and opportunity to give back in a way that’s significant.

Let’s turn to the Falcons. How much did last year age you? It was a very difficult year. Professionally it was certainly the most difficult year of my whole life. And it was all played out in the eyes of the public, which is the nature of this business—the disappointment in the relationship with Michael and Coach Petrino and the lack of our ability to control that situation. Seeing our organization hurt, seeing our fans hurt, seeing our community hurt. And there were fans all over America that were hurt.

What personal toll did it take on you? There were a fair number of sleepless nights. The season seemed to go on forever for us. It seemed like a hundred years’ worth of football. But it finally did end. The organization is now in a very good place. We have a new general manager we’re excited about, a coaching staff we’re excited about, we had an outstanding draft. The energy level of our players is unbelievable. People have moved on. I’ve certainly moved on. Last year we tried to do the right thing for Michael Vick, the right thing for our organization, the right thing for the National Football League, and the right thing for our fans. I think we handled it as well as it could have been handled. But it was very difficult.

How did you explain all this to your youngest children? Well, at the time my youngest children were five and a half, so not a lot of explaining was necessary. For my middle son, Joshua, who’s now eleven, it was difficult. Joshua was close to Michael. And like every other ten-year-old in Atlanta, he admired Michael Vick the athlete and player. I had to explain to him. He was confused about it. I had to explain what Michael did wrong, what an indictment means, what it means to go to jail, to have a jury trial. I did the same thing that many other fathers and mothers did in trying to explain this to their children.

How did he react? He was certainly disappointed. But he accepted the explanation when I told him Michael was sorry for what he did. And I believe he’s sorry. It’s a severe price. But it’s the price society has deemed he should pay. He’ll have a second chance, I believe. His life will be okay. He’ll still be a young man when he gets out of prison and have the chance to get on with his personal and professional life.

You haven’t ruled out his returning to the Falcons. Does that still hold true? We have legal rights with Michael, we have financial rights with Michael, we have contractual issues with Michael. Our relationship with him is a very complicated one. From a personal standpoint, I certainly wish him well. I’ve told him this before, that anything I can do to help him, I’m prepared to do that. I’d love to see him back in the National Football League, not only as a player but as a role model, to go back into the community as an example of somebody who made some bad choices, who couldn’t cut the umbilical cord when he needed to cut it with folks who had a negative influence on him. I think that could be very positive. I’m hopeful that will happen. Whether it happens here in Atlanta or not remains to be seen. We drafted a young quarterback [Matt Ryan, from Boston College]; we view him as our franchise quarterback of the future. We have complete confidence and faith in him, and we’ve moved on as an organization. We owe it to the fans to do that, we owe it to ourselves to do that, and we owe it to the players to do that.

When the controversy broke last year, the debate seemed to split largely along racial lines in Atlanta. Do you agree with that perception? No question there was some of that. Michael within the African American community was considered to be a hero—playing the quarterback position, a great talent, a great athlete, who was involved in the community. That certainly was an issue. But what Michael did and what his punishment was had nothing to do with the color of his skin. It just had to do with what he did. At the end of the day, in my opinion, he was treated very fairly by the judicial process and by the National Football League. There was nobody out, quote, to get Michael. Everybody—certainly everybody in this building—gave him the benefit of the doubt for months on end. And was supportive for months on end of Michael based on what we were told and what he was telling us. I think today Atlanta has moved past it from a racial perspective. Those people that haven’t—frankly; shame on them. It’s not a racial issue.

How challenging is it being an NFL owner in Atlanta, a city full of transplants who have allegiances to other teams? It’s not. When I bought the team, folks said, “Well, Atlanta’s going to be a tough market,” because of the things you described. There are not many cities in the United States like New York or Chicago—great old cities that have been there two hundred years. Atlanta’s very much like Dallas or Houston or Charlotte—great emerging cities. People are great sports fans here if you give them a quality product and they have a great game day experience and they have players and an organization that are proud of the community. That’s been true. We sold out all of our games from 2002 through the majority of last year. We didn’t sell out all our games last year. People have responded beautifully and they’ll respond again.

How are they responding now with the new campaign? I think they’re stepping up. We’re not sold out yet. We’ve got a ways to go. But we’ve got a lot of time between now and the first of September.

You mentioned that the draft is not a new chapter, but a new book for the team. Well, it’s new leadership. With Thomas, Coach Smith, and all the coaches. Couple that with free agency and eleven draft picks, led by Matt Ryan, and on top of the draft last year, it’s going to be a young team. We’re going to be competitive, and we’ll probably win more games than most people think.

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