Thoughts on a half-century of Falcons heartbreak

Our time? Not this time.
Matt Ryan was league MVP, but it wasn’t enough to hold off the relentless Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

Photograph by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The night the losing finally ended only to come roaring back once again, there was a quiet peace inside one man’s house out in Roswell. Yes, the night Atlanta almost won the Super Bowl—finally shaking off that dubious nickname of Loserville—and somehow still lost the Super Bowl, life went on. If only, perhaps, because that man knows the hounding howl of disappointment better than most.

Forget for a moment how at 10:24 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, in overtime of a game knotted at 28, the New England Patriots punched in the winning touchdown and sent the Falcons and their followers reeling anew. Forget that TV sets clicked off as hope fell pitch black and, as the sports pundits may forever declare, Atlanta went back to being Atlanta, world headquarters of Choke-a-Cola.

For there in Roswell, minutes after hearts sank, a man named Jeffrey Aloysius Van Note was a voice of reason. Van Note, who wore a Falcons uniform for more seasons than anyone probably ever will, would turn 71 less than 48 hours later. The world would keep turning. The Braves would be back to playing soon enough. Even on that darkest of nights, two sparkling new stadiums shone on our horizons.

Jeff Van Note played for the Falcons for 17 years.

Photograph by George Rose/Getty Images

There was a hint at least that this, too, this hollowing, soul-wrenching loss, like Tom Brady staring down a 25-point deficit, shall pass—and pass and pass. There was a silver lining for those of us who know the heartbreak of half a century of Falcons’ fandom, and it was this: We are conditioned for dejection. Defeat, we know ye well. We have seen a seemingly insurmountable World Series lead evaporate. We have experienced NBA playoff defeat at the hands of the Patriots’ fellow Bostonians. We know the drill.

“Same old, same old,” Van Note said in the aftermath from his sofa. “How disappointing, man. How very disappointing. Gosh, I thought they had it.”

How, how, how could it happen? How had it happened? And of all days, on Henry Aaron’s birthday? Lady Gaga’s disappearing act at the end of her halftime show set the stage for our Lombardi Trophy hopes to get sawed in half.

Van Note played center for the Falcons from 1969 until 1986. His 1980 Falcons, perhaps the finest Atlanta football team ever to take the field until this Super Bowl bunch came along, coughed up a fourth-quarter playoff lead to Dallas in the divisional round of a loss that haunts anyone old enough to remember it.

Now there is haunting anew after an ending that had been shaping up to be a happy one. We were on the precipice, the verge of what Samuel L. Jackson says in his rallying sermon, our time. Which it kind of is now: ours for all time, our all-time meltdown.

The pain came on slowly, and for many of us here in the weeks after, it has dulled into full-on head-in-the-turf denial. But on that first Sunday night of the rest of our football-loving lives, Van Note’s cellphone beeped and beeped. Friends were chiming in to ask him, What on earth? “I don’t need to hear about it,” he said, ignoring their calls. “I watched enough.”

Like it or not, this stunning shortfall will be seen and seen again. It will be unavoidable. Tom Brady’s boys will forever get over on us in highlight clips and sure-to-be-made ESPN documentaries and lord knows what all else.

Yes, this shall become not just another what-might-have-been, but rather the indignity against which all other such inexorable sporting humiliations are measured. Oh, sure, the Falcons’ run to Super Bowl LI was a fine and sterling rise to prominence, a streak to sporting glory akin to few this city has known. Let there be some solace in that. The Georgia Dome–closing NFC Championship was monumental. The Falcons had sailed through January, and their wins were an unexpected gift. It was time. Our time.

And then it wasn’t. Back in November of 1966 when the old Atlanta Stadium was brand new, Braves’ president John McHale sent a telegram to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The NFL was entertaining bids to host the very first Super Bowl in January 1967. Atlanta made its pitch. An Associated Press dispatch at the time quoted the message to Rozelle: “Atlanta, America’s newest major league city and acknowledged major league sports capital of the Southeast, is situated in a favorable climate and has many outstanding facilities.”

Los Angeles ended up hosting that inaugural Super Bowl, and while Atlanta has since staged two of the big games and will welcome another in 2019, winning a Super Bowl on the field, well, might any of us live to see such? And our Falcons, the players, how might they pick up the pieces?

Van Note, a cornerstone of the franchise whose No. 57 jersey hangs in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, would not endeavor to answer.

“I don’t worry about that,” Van Note said that bad, bad night. “Shoot fire, you know what? I’m gonna forget about this.”

If he can do it, maybe we all can.

Nah, no sir. No way in hell.

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.