This story was supposed to begin with me racing downtown after a historic Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl victory, finding a rowdy contingent of celebrating fans, and gathering their ecstatic, beer-breath quotes about changed lives, realized dreams, and Atlanta’s glorious ascendance to professional sports respectability.
Instead, after the confetti fell last night in Houston, I drove slowly through Atlanta and watched Falcons fans silently trickle home—stunned, like me. Feeling cursed, like me. On the radio, local sports announcers sounded on the verge of tears. Falcons running back Devonta Freeman said in an interview he felt as if he’d let the whole world down. We’d all stumbled into both the worst meltdown and greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. From Little Five Points to Midtown and back to Edgewood Avenue, no one sporting the red and black looked particularly willing to talk.
But the Georgia-Pacific tower and Midtown’s Spire still glowed red. “Rise Up!” was scrawled on bar windows. A boast about the team’s success blinked on the Fox Theatre marquee. In what will probably be remembered as the worst night in Atlanta sports history, these reminders about the galvanizing capability of sports shone through. The Falcons put together a remarkable season, but perhaps their greatest feat was bonding Atlantans together like I’d never seen before. In fact, when it came to sports, I’d often seen the opposite.
I moved to Atlanta from Indianapolis in July 2007—the month football fractured a city. For nearly a decade, my home state had rallied behind a Colts juggernaut led by an aw-shucks Southern boy, Peyton Manning. I was eager to watch Michael Vick work his magic on the field. He represented something different—flashy and fresh. Vick would be a change of pace, just like my new life in an inviting, pulsing, ambitious American metropolis where construction cranes filled the sky.
Instead, the week after I arrived, Vick was indicted for his involvement in operating a dog fighting ring. The magician was bound for prison. Deeply held convictions seemed to unravel across a town I barely knew. I overheard heated arguments at the gym. I listened to a sports talk radio host scream at callers. Midwestern friends in the media emailed me for the inside scoop on Atlanta’s “scumbag” quarterback. It was a disorienting pandemonium. The “City Too Busy to Hate” was choosing sides, and the Falcons’ future seemed like scorched Earth.
Those deflated expectations were especially troubling because I’d arrived in Atlanta still buzzing with Super Bowl-induced euphoria. Remember: 10 years ago this month, after finally dispatching the Tom Brady-led Patriots, the Colts summited the NFL Mount Olympus for the first time after eight frustrating seasons of failing under Manning. A city’s first Super Bowl brings a rapturous glee that words can hardly do justice. During the victory parade, I flashed a press badge and jogged alongside the team as they coasted on floats into the jam-packed RCA Dome. I still remember head coach Tony Dungy, the Lombardi Trophy glimmering in his hand, looking down puzzled at me—this fanatical reporter—as I simultaneously pumped my fist and tried to take photos.
From the outset, I’d hoped to experience that same sort of electric epoch in Atlanta. Instead, I found myself sitting at Midtown bars with my now-wife, watching journeymen quarterbacks like Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington try to eke out wins under the half-assed, temporary tutelage of Bobby Petrino. For a lifelong pro-football diehard, it was more than a letdown—it was a gut-punch. In 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession that would shoo those promising construction cranes away, Atlanta was coined “The Worst Sports City in the World.” I’d traded a dynasty for a laughingstock.
But then, hope.
I was at an Indiana bar on the day the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan in 2008. I remember exactly where I was standing, whooping at the projector television, as if draft day were the moon landing. The guy standing next to me couldn’t understand how such a recently uprooted Hoosier could already care so much about a new team. But I had begun to really fall for Atlanta. Its charms and attributes, I’d discovered, were subtler than other cities. Atlanta’s topographical beauty was understated but real, and the city wore diversity with pride. Even amidst an economic malaise, and long before the construction of the BeltLine and Ponce City Market, the city sizzled with potential. No idea seemed too big for Atlanta. Everything was subject to change.
And this tall, skinny, exceedingly polite quarterback appeared capable of leading our team to respectability. Add a devoted coach in Mike Smith, and dynamic players such as Michael Turner and Tony Gonzales, and the gap between “Loserville”—the title used by legendary AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard—and Titletown suddenly didn’t seem so large.
On my 35-mile commute, sports-talk radio banter about the Falcons became more sermon than distraction. I got a Falcons jersey for Christmas. I would later buy tiny ones for my daughters. And in future-focused Atlanta, not one Falcoholic soul treated me like an interloper for liking the team; universally, I was welcomed aboard.
Over the years, memories of Falcons highlights and lowlights accumulated like tattered newspaper clippings. I freaked out and high-fived strangers at a suburban pub when Ryan’s first NFL pass went for a 62-yard touchdown. I was in the stands when the Falcons fell a crushing 10 yards short of a likely Super Bowl berth in 2013. At the end of the 2014 season, I wore a Ryan jersey to an Indianapolis Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the Falcons get destroyed by the Panthers. For the past 10 years, I’ve genuinely cared for this likable, largely overlooked bunch to a degree that’s surprised even me. And in a way, I’ve hoped that each Falcons victory over the years would send a message—albeit small and temporary—that my adopted city is doing things right. That Atlanta is a force. That people outside the Sun Belt should give a damn, because they don’t know what they’re missing.
In the past few weeks, massive pep rallies became pastime in Atlanta. Thousands of Falcons flags flapped across the city on front porches, cars, and skyscrapers. Hours before the Super Bowl, ladies behind a Kroger deli counter shouted “Rise up!” to a melting pot of shoppers sporting Ryan, Julio Jones, even Vick jerseys. The city was supercharged, starving, and united behind a single cause. Hopefully, that passion won’t be spoiled by the sting of what ultimately went wrong.
Last night, my five-year-old daughter was allowed to stay up late to watch the entire game. After the Patriots cinched their victory, she dejectedly shed her Ryan jersey and left it inside-out on the living room floor. I asked her why she did that. She said it was because the Falcons lost the Super Bowl.
I told her that’s exactly why you keep the jersey on.