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THE NFL

No More Birds of Pray

Dan Reeves Was Heaven-Sent for Falcons, Who Face Their Biggest Test Sunday Against 49ers.

November 14, 1998|T.J. SIMERS

ATLANTA — In an exclusive gut- wrenching interview Friday with the Los Angeles Times, "Freddie the Falcon" spilled his innards and described how difficult things have been around here.

"It got so bad last year, I didn't want to go out in public," the Atlanta Falcons' mascot said. "When people keep telling you your team [stinks] and you're horrible too, that can wear on you a lot."

Some people can be so callous, but the brutal fact is, the Falcons have had only seven winning seasons in a 32-year history.

The last 24 home games have been blacked out on local TV because the Falcons have been so crummy they might scare youngsters. And also because they didn't sell enough tickets.

Ask yourself this: Have you ever met an Atlanta Falcon fan?

No security is required at the Falcons' practice facility.

There is a hotel adjacent to the Falcons' practice facility. It's called the Falcon Inn. It's closed because of inactivity.

The team had a band, but it gave up on the Falcons years ago.

"We had a fight song too," said Colonel Joe Curtis, a longtime fan. "Dang if I can remember any of it."

Curtis' first date with Betty Hay was for the very first Falcon exhibition game here 33 years ago.

"When I asked her to go to the game, she said she had never been to a Falcon game," Curtis said. "I said that was good because they had never played one before."

Curtis married Betty Hay, and not because she was the only one who would go to a Falcon game with him. They are still together, and although he has never missed a home game, Betty dumped the Falcons 20 years ago.

"We're proud to have a team even if it is bad," said Barbara Sanders, president of the BirdWatchers Fan Club. "It's better than nothing."

The Falcons actually have two fan clubs, and I know what you're saying right now: He meant to write "the Falcons actually have two fans."

There are also the Falcon Fanatics, but not many of them. Last year around this time, the Falcons attracted a crowd of 36,583 to the 71,228-seat Georgia Dome. If these were Ram fans, you might understand them staying away from anything named Georgia, but with a roof over their heads they can't even use weather as an excuse.

"I owned eight season tickets from the start," Curtis said. "And I remember not being able to give them away. I'd put them under the windshield wipers on cars so people could use them, and they'd still be there when I came back."

Sunday, however, the Georgia Dome will be sold out for the game against the San Francisco 49ers. It will be the 16th time--and eight of those sellouts occurred the year the dome was opened, 1992--in 53 games that the place will be full.

"I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited, and I have two nights to go," Curtis said. "This might be our Super Bowl."

The Falcons are 7-2, and despite all kinds of investigative work, it does not appear that a pact with the devil has been struck. They have the same record as the 49ers after nine games. In fact, going back to Nov. 2, 1997, both teams are 13-4.

By Sunday night, though, the Falcons could be in first place in the NFC West all by themselves. Smelling salts, please, for Freddie.

"I guess the reason I've been hanging on here is the fear that when I left, they'd start winning," said Tommy Nobis, the Falcons' No. 1 draft pick in 1966 and now vice president of corporate development. "There have been so many down times, so many disappointing Sunday afternoons.

"But this is something now, and the difference is Coach Dan Reeves. Dan's got the league figured out. You give him enough players--and he doesn't have to have that many--and he's going to win more games than he loses. And I think once our fans get that feeling, that feeling that they can go to Georgia Dome any Sunday with a chance to win, they'll react in a big way."

The Falcons opened 1-7 a year ago in Reeves' first year on the job and he got clobbered by the media. His former team, the New York Giants, was on the way to the NFC East Division title under Jim Fassel, who would be voted coach of the year. Reeves' first team, the Denver Broncos, was on the way to the Super Bowl championship he could never win.

"It was tough and it took its toll," Reeves said. "But coaching is still fun, and I am still as competitive as ever."

Although he got off to a sluggish start, Reeves talks "Southernese," and it bought him time with the locals. And then something quite unusual happened. His team started winning.

"You still got a lot of the good old Southern boys here," Nobis said. "And Dan can communicate with them. He eats grits, eats barbecue. His mother and family still live here, and it couldn't have been a better fit."

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