For much of the last month, I’ve been trying to get my one-year-old son to say, “Rise Up,” the ubiquitous, and admittedly a little cloying, slogan of the Atlanta Falcons. He hasn’t really come close. And maybe that’s for the best.
When my father and I FaceTimed with my son roughly 24 hours after Sunday’s Super Bowl kickoff, I didn’t bother prompting him to say anything. I just wanted to see his smiling face. I knew it would cheer me up. My dad, on the other hand, couldn’t help himself. “Can you say, ‘Rise Up? Fall Down?’” he asked. (Before my kid’s face popped up on my phone screen, I wouldn’t have found that joke very funny at all. But I managed a chuckle.)
The game had left me catatonic for much of Monday, and I still can’t really talk about it. My dad said he woke up every 30 minutes Sunday night analyzing how a 25-point could slip away in less than a half. Messages of stunned sadness streamed to my iPhone from shell-shocked Falcons fans I’d grown up with, as did plenty of notes of sympathy from people who just wanted the preternaturally successful Patriots to go down in flames.
Monday night, as we went out to dinner, I asked my dad if I should try to pass on my unflinching love for Atlanta’s hapless sports franchises to my son. “God, no,” was his response. “Please don’t.” I’ve only been a father for barely a year, but if there’s one overwhelming objective to my new role, it’s to protect my son from anything that could hurt him. And being an Atlanta sports fan definitely hurts, more acutely this week than normal.
I’ve put in nearly a hundred seasons of near-die-hard support for these franchises. I’ve celebrated only one championship, the 1995 Atlanta Braves. That’s a terrible ROI, especially when you compare it to the spoils of the teams in a city like Boston (ironically, where my sports-uninterested wife grew up). I could get my son into Atlanta sports, I thought, or, I guess, I could just wait and introduce him to heroin when he’s a little older.
But it’s going to be hard to protect him. I go through great pains to watch every Falcons game, most Hawks tilts, and a good chunk of a Braves season (even during the recent tear down). I flew to Atlanta from my home in Oakland, California, on a redeye the night before the Super Bowl because I truly believed the Falcons had a shot to give my hometown its second championship. And I wanted to share it with my old friends and fellow Falcons fans. I wanted to party in the streets. I wanted to go to a parade. (I’d missed the 1995 because I had to go to school.)
Thrity-plus years of rooting for Atlanta teams gave me pause. I knew hopping on that flight might be totally in vain, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of not being home if the pattern of coming up short was somehow broken. Cleveland had done it. The Chicago Cubs had done it. And man, for a while it seemed like we would, too.
My mom, who like the rest of us didn’t foresee a Super Bowl run this season, booked a trip to India to visit family that started a few days before the game. She woke up before dawn to watch the game from Mumbai, and she called me at halftime to recap the first half, which ended with the Falcons up 21-3. We were heartened by how things were going, but we knew the game wasn’t over. And we knew Atlanta’s reputation. As I said to friends who texted me ready to crown the Falcons Super Bowl Champs midway through the third quarter, “I’m still nervous. It’s not over.”
My caution proved both prophetic and totally predictable. I keep trying to recall the moment after Falcons’ Tevin Coleman leaked out of the backfield on a play from the Pats’ six-yard line, caught a pass from NFL MVP Matt Ryan, and scurried into the end zone to put the Dirty Birds up 27-3 with 8:31 left in the third quarter. At the packed Midtown bar where I was watching, I bounced my shoulders like I was in a hip-hop video and bear hugged both the best men from my wedding. We couldn’t believe it. Our eyes had to be deceiving us.
My dad called the Super Bowl “the most devastating game he’d ever seen.” And this from a guy who got on a charter flight from Atlanta to Minneapolis to watch Game 6 of the 1991 World Series between the Braves and the Minnesota Twins. He had a broken wrist and a custom-made, handle-less tomahawk he’d fashioned to chop in the nosebleeds as the Braves possibly gave his adopted hometown its first ever championship. Instead, the Braves, up 3-2 in the series, would send him back home on a late-night flight heartbroken when pitcher Charlie Liebrandt gave up an extra inning home run to Twins legend Kirby Puckett.
It was one of a number of brutal moments that dotted my childhood. There’s been a lot written about the ignominy of Atlanta sports in the last few weeks, so you probably know many of the others, which include: New York Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz’s home run that turned the 1996 World Series, Mike Vick’s arrest on dogfighting charges, the Falcons surrendering a 17-point halftime lead in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, the 60-win Atlanta Hawks ending their best season ever in 2014 by being swept by Lebron and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the team’s first Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
Prior to settling in the Bay Area, I lived in New York for nearly a decade. During that period, the Giants won two Super Bowls—both against the team that just hijacked the Lombardi trophy from the Falcons—and the Yankees won one, as well. But I didn’t take joy in any of that. The only Knicks and Brooklyn Nets games I went to were when the Hawks were in town. And I routinely attended multiple installments of the Braves yearly four-game stand against the Mets. Since moving west coast four years ago, I have seen local squads win two titles. Still, I only have eyes for the largely undecorated teams I grew up supporting.
Sportswriters love to criticize Atlanta fans. They’re fair weather. They arrive at late to games. It’s a city of transplants, so when teams with national followings come to town, stadiums fill with surprising numbers of their fans. Sometimes I feel like I left the city on a one-man mission to chip away that impression with my unflinching homerism. (Maybe a three-man mission, along with prominent writers Rembert Browne and Lang Whitaker.) I remember the excitement I’d feel if I saw another Falcons fan at sports bars in New York on Sunday. So it’s weird to be questioning whether or not force my son to bond with me over the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks. Isn’t the best way to change Atlanta’s sport culture to pass reverence for those teams to younger generations? It’s definitely a key to my close relationship with my folks.
But my son was born less than 10 miles away from Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors practice a rarefied brand of basketball that has made them one of the two dominant NBA franchises of the current era. In the period since the Atlanta Braves and Falcons started play, in 1966—the Hawks relocated from St. Louis shortly after, in 1968—Oakland has celebrated nine championships. That’s hardly an embarrassment of riches, but it is when you compare it to Atlanta’s haul. And it’s not unreasonable to expect that the Bay Area could be home to a few more titles in the next few years, between the dominant Dubs, resurgent Raiders, and the seemingly charmed San Francisco Giants.
Maybe my kid will choose to align with the winning culture we live amid, as opposed to the tradition of gut-wrenching disappointment that I cannot seem to shake. If I’m being honest, it will likely break my heart more than this Super Bowl collapse if he went his own way. And ultimately, that fact is what ensures that I will keep dressing him in Atlanta sports gear, will tell him about how much I loved Dale Murphy, will explain that the Brooklyn band I played in was named after Dominique Wilkins, will teach him about the rise and fall of Mike Vick. In a few years, we’ll go home, and I’ll show him the seat I personally licensed at the new Falcons stadium.
As I waited to board my flight back to the west coast a couple days after the Super Bowl—I’d stayed until Tuesday evening hoping to catch a victory parade—I saw a plush Julio Jones doll in an airport newsstand. Without thinking, I bought it for my kid. And when I give it to him, I know exactly what I’ll ask him: “Can you say, ‘Rise up?’”