I know. Big boys don’t cry, especially over a football game. It’s ridiculous. It wasn’t a babbling gusher or anything, but I made sure to hide the swollen eyes and quivering lip from my wife. I was a little surprised myself by the unexpected display of emotion. It seems I was simply overwhelmed by a moment of pure joy.
I’m one of those people who gets thoroughly attached to his sports teams and the athletes who play for them. It’s a bit bizarre, but I can still name the entire starting lineup from the 2008 Georgia Bulldog baseball team that made it to the national championship game. I learn their names, their hometowns, their shirt size, their favorite brand of cereal, and their high school grade point average. I need to know if they use waxed or unwaxed dental floss. Their fortunes are my own. If they win on Saturday, I arrive at work on Monday on a cloud. If they lose, I feel like I’ve been docked a week’s pay.
As a fan of Atlanta’s sports teams, I would be living in a tent if they actually withheld a paycheck with each loss.
There have been many seasons when the City Too Busy to Hate has fielded teams too distracted to win. Inept owners and terrible luck became their signature. Brett Favre, one of pro football’s greatest quarterbacks, started his career with the Falcons. He was a complete bust until he left Atlanta. Nick Esasky was an All-Star third baseman with the Reds and Red Sox. He arrived in Atlanta with a bad case of vertigo, and never played a game. The city has had two hockey teams, only to lose them both. For most of my life, the city of my birth has been a punchline for the sporting world.
Oh, how I’ve hungered for Atlanta to have the last laugh.
There have been so many opportunities to bail and adopt other teams. I won’t do it. With every losing season, I dig in even deeper. I’m deeply invested in a losing stock, but I refuse to sell. Atlanta is a town filled with millions who come from somewhere else. They bring their banners with them. Packers. Steelers. Yankees. They root for teams that have hoisted championship trophies time and time again. They tempt me to abandon my roots. I am stubbornly convinced that I will be richly rewarded for decades of suffering.
Atlanta does have one title. One. It happened in 1995. The Braves, once perennial losers, climbed the baseball ladder so quickly it made us all dizzy. They made it to one World Series, and lost, then another, and lost. The third time was, indeed, the charm. Then came another World Series loss, and another, and just like that, the magic disappeared.
Now comes these Atlanta Falcons.
I started rooting for the Falcons in 1980, the year they steamrolled into the playoffs only to lose an unlosable game to the Dallas Cowboys. I stayed with them as they hired and fired the hapless Marion Campbell, a man they’d hired and fired once before. I traveled to Miami to witness the Falcons’ first appearance in the Super Bowl, and felt the elation ebb away with the arrest of a key defensive back the night before the game. It was as if fate had punched a hole in our hot air balloon. The team, and the experience, fell flat.
This time, it’s different. It feels different.
This time, there’s Matty Ice, who warms my heart. Quarterback Matt Ryan goes about his business with fearless calm, never bothering to draw attention to himself. There’s Julio Jones, who doesn’t let injury stop him as he stiff-arms larger defenders to the ground. It’s a team that refused to doubt after early season losses. They’re playing with a grit that leads you to believe they understand this town’s hunger. Matt Ryan was 5-years-old when the Falcons finished their 9th losing season in 10 years, one of the lowest moments for a franchise full of lows. Ryan hasn’t lived with our frustration, but he’s fighting to cure it.
So, excuse the fat, wet bubble that appeared in my eye as the clock ticked down toward perhaps the biggest win in Falcons history. I’m a sap, a stupid sports sap who fell in love with the Dirty Birds nearly four decades ago. They’ve broken my heart so many times, it would make a stirring romance novel. For me and thousands of other long suffering fans, this season is like a thrilling apology. It’s the misbehaving pet that ran away years ago, only to return with a tail-wagging leap into your lap. It’s the girlfriend who broke up with you at the prom, then calls to profess her undying love.
I pine for all of my sports team. Falcons, Braves, Bulldogs, Hawks. I know that it’s dumb to invest so much emotion in the performance of athletes I’ve never met. It’s not like I have a say in their wins or losses. It’s not like they’re thinking about my mental well being when they trot onto the field. And yet, I can’t help myself. It’s really beyond explanation.
For me, the Super Bowl will be played at a most inconvenient hour. My alarm will ring at 2 a.m, Monday morning. If I stay up to watch the game, I will get, at the most, four hours sleep. More than likely, I won’t sleep at all, especially if the Falcons win. If that happens, I won’t want to sleep for a month. After all, there will be no more need for dreams.
And I will cry. Oh, yes, I will most certainly cry.