ATLANTA – With one of the defining games in Atlanta's history only days away, there's a shirt making the rounds in Atlanta that sums up the city's mood effectively enough. It's a stark black-and-white picture of local product Samuel L. Jackson as Jules from "Pulp Fiction," with Afro and huge pistol at the ready. Bracketing Jules are three words. "Rise up," the Falcons' 2012 motto, are two. The third? Well, it starts with an "M," it's got 12 letters, and the mid-word "F" is a Falcons logo.
Yep. Rise up, mother... At long last. With the 49ers at the door and possible citywide affirmation just beyond, that's where Atlanta's at right now.
To understand how Atlanta is approaching this Falcons game, you have to have an appreciation for where this city's been. Long derided as one of the worst sports towns in America, Atlanta fans have more reason than you can imagine for not showing up to playoff games, for not out-shouting the opposition, for giving up and going home in the seventh inning. In 154 professional seasons across baseball, football, basketball and hockey (twice), Atlanta has exactly one championship: the 1995 Braves.
One. ONE. That in itself is enough for Atlanta fans to be skeptical. One hundred fifty-three times bitten, 154th time shy, you know. But what's been worse is the heartbreaking, fan-devastating way Atlanta's lost out on championships, or even opportunities for championships.
"This is one of the most fragile fanbases, mentally, in the country," says John Kincade, who hosts a sports talk show on Atlanta's 680 The Fan. "Not just the Falcons, Atlanta as a whole. There's a dark cloud, an insecurity, a feeling that the national media doesn't love us. Every time the fans have bought in, Lucy has moved the football. It's scarred this community."
The Braves story, you already know. Over a decade and a half, they reached the postseason every single year and came away with exactly one championship, brought low by a different villain every time: Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield, Jim Leyritz, and so on. They've squandered chances like no team in sports history.
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The Hawks had the misfortune to have one of the best players of the '80s in Dominique Wilkins playing at the exact same time as one of the best players in history in Larry Bird. The Flames and Thrashers played hockey in a town that, transplants aside, honestly couldn't care less about hockey.
So it falls to the Falcons, who have their own history of astonishing collapse. They've surrendered in-game playoff leads to the 1980 Dallas Cowboys and the 2010 Green Bay Packers. The night before their lone Super Bowl appearance, their moral and spiritual leader, Eugene Robinson, was caught soliciting an undercover cop for sex. One of their two most electrifying players ever, Michael Vick, broke his leg just as he was becoming a superstar, and then had a little problem with dogs come to light. Last year's team couldn't even manage a single offensive point in the postseason, the third straight playoff loss in the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era.
You see what we're dealing with here. This is a town that doesn't just expect to lose, it's certain of it. So as Russell Wilson led the Seahawks from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter of last week's divisional playoffs, the prevailing emotion wasn't, "How can this be happening?" but "Of course."
"There's an entire generation of fans here who has no reason to believe good actually happens in Atlanta," says Chris Dimino, sports talk host on Atlanta's 790 The Zone. "There's a bona-fide beat-up factor here. The transplants have their own teams to root for. This win galvanized the long-time Atlanta fans."
So with that in mind, the fact that the Falcons won means that, for this week at least, Atlanta is playing with house money.
"Last week, it was relatively quiet on the phones," Kincade says. "Not in terms of volume, but people were cautious. The doubting Thomases were front and center."
"There was trepidation," Dimino agrees. "People wanted to buy in. But the sins of the father, the sins of the self with that 0-3 history [under Smith] – people wanted to get that one win under their belt."
You see where we're headed here. For the rest of the country, the Atlanta-Seattle game was just a batcrap-crazy playoff. For Atlanta, it was a defining moment. A short (very short) list of great Atlanta sports games would probably run something like this:
1. 1995 World Series, Game 6: Tom Glavine pitches Atlanta to its only world championship.
2. 1999 NFC Championship: Atlanta defeats the 15-1 Vikings to reach its only Super Bowl.
3. 2013 NFC divisional playoffs: First playoff win in nine years.
4. 1992 NL Championship Series: Francisco Cabrera's two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth miracle to defeat the Pirates.
You could throw in the Braves' division-clinching game from 1991 (the worst-to-first year), Hank Aaron's 715th home run in 1974, the Falcons' 2003 playoff win at Lambeau Field … and not much else. The list of gut-punch losses runs far longer.
So how do Atlanta fans keep coming back, albeit in not exactly sellout numbers? For starters, it's a lot easier to be a fan when fandom isn't all you've got. "We expect to lose, but if we lose, there's mitigation," says Larry Wachs of Rock 100.5's The Regular Guys Show, which brought the Sam Jackson T-shirt to the city's consciousness. "It's a nice area here. In New York, I get it: in the winter, it's tough sledding, it's depressing, there's no quiet, you're stuck indoors with your asshat family. Here, when the Super Bowl's over, you've got about three weeks and you're out in the sun."
"At least we ain't Cleveland," Dimino adds. "We've had one parade." (Three, technically: The 1991 Braves and 1998 Falcons got parades for their losses. But you get the point.)
Still, it's normal enough for Atlanta's pro sports fans to want more, particularly as they see the many college football fans in their ranks revel in seven straight SEC national championships. Thus it's impossible to overstate the importance of the Falcons' win over Seattle. Had Atlanta tripped once again on their first steps onto the red carpet, the Falcons would have lost the faith of a huge swath of their fanbase. Confidence in Smith, Ryan, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and even owner Arthur Blank would have vanished. Blank's goals of getting a new stadium off the ground in the coming years would have taken a huge hit.
Now, though? Now, with just one kick, the Falcons have bought themselves some more time, and perhaps much more than that.
"If the Falcons were to win a Super Bowl, they could harvest an entire generation of children who would grow up to be season ticket-holders," Kincade says. "Atlanta loves nothing more than to jump on a bandwagon, whether it's a new restaurant, a new bar, or a sports team. There's really a golden opportunity at hand here."
"[49ers QB Colin] Kaepernick can be had," says Wachs. "He's had a couple good games, and he runs like a gazelle. But he said this week that he looks up to Vince Young and Mike Vick. Who does that?"
"San Francisco has a better roster, sure," Dimino says. "But people are rearing up against the media and the perception that the 49ers are going to walk over Atlanta. There's almost a calmness, a peace – 'Say what you want. Line 'em up at 3 p.m. Sunday, and we'll see who's talking at 6:30.'"
Rise up, y'all.
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