Something's changed in him. He stands there, eyes staring forward but not seeing anything near him. There's a slump in his shoulders, a depth to the circles around his eyes. His pace is at best a mosey, a mere shadow of his usual trot. I approach him tentatively, as one would a wounded predator. Wary, saddened, empathetic.
Finally his eyes begin to focus on me. "I don't know, Adam," he says. There is no tone in his voice. It merely his, hanging in the air like a mist for a moment before falling on my ears.
"I can't take it anymore."
I nod. I know his plight. A Georgia fan, a Falcons fan, a Braves fan... he's had his share of heartbreak in the 2012 season of his favorite teams. It's a wonder he's still alive; his heart has been rent three times in the past three months. The fact that he's even upright is impressive.
"Are you throwing in the towel?" I ask him, careful to avoid all mention of the thorns sticking in his side.
"I dunno..." he trails, returning his gaze to a thousand yards away. It's as if his vision is desperately seeking purchase of a sight that he has yet to see: a Red and Black-tinted National or World championship.
I don't know what to say to him. I shrug as I try to find words of encouragement, words of hope, something to bolster his spirits. Nothing comes to me.
After a long, awkward pause, he sighs out "Four yards. A first down. Infield fly. The hell, man? The hell..."
That last part isn't a question; it's a synopsis of his frame of mind. The still-warm glow in my heart over the Tide's championship loses a few degrees. I'm sympathetic and empathetic and yet guilty all at once. Ambivalence feels too hollow to describe my internal struggle to comfort and relate.
We exchange non-sports related pleasantries and move on. No one needs to be in the Babies R Us that long, especially wan, depressed dads with responsibilities to handle. Life must move on, as dim as it may seem.
I don't remember the exact day news hit the office of Upton's signing with the Braves, but I clearly remember only one or two co-workers expressing to me their excitement. I believe one term I heard was "we could hit 100 homers this year!" I'm not sold, and neither are most of the other Braves fans I know. The whole Up-Up-and a-Hey deal looks sweet on paper and doesn't look too bad in Spring Training. I don't feel enough people are convinced yet.
The Steven Jackson signing, however?
A murmur builds to a wave that builds to a near-work stoppage. I peek out of my cubicle and survey the open-designed call center. Coworkers are smiling, talking, bouncing almost. I save what I'm working on and head over.
"We got him!" says one coworker.
"S-Jax, baby!" says another.
"So we signed him, then?" I always am a bit facetious at work.
The rest of the day, I have numerous co-workers from my department and many others asking some form of "What do you think about the signing?"
"It'll do," is my external response. Many of these co-workers know I write for this site so they want an opinion from "Mr. Falcoholic." I play my hand even-keel.
Inside? I'm turning over and over, doing backflips that are physically impossible for someone of my build.
I like the signing; it reminds me of the Turner signing, but on a whole ‘nother level. AJC's Jeff "No we're not related" Schultz uses the phrase "destination team" when referring to the Falcons. We are a team people want to play for, a team many free agents see as a place to come and win a Super Bowl. The Falcons are considered, in my best Brando accent, a contender by those whose opinion matter most: other players.
Damn the prognosticators and to hell with the critics. Steven Jackson and his 1000+ yards legitimizes the Falcons in many ways. Instead of wanting to play for the Cowboys or the Patriots or Green Bay, SJ wanted to play with the Falcons. Yes, the money is excellent, but he _wants_ to play here because he's tired of losing. He thinks the Falcons can win more than anyone else.
So does Osi, according to recent reports.
It's an unassuming place. Were it not for the keypadded gates and the sole stucco Falcons logo on one of the entrances, the Flowery Branch Falcons facility could be mistaken for a normal (for North Georgia) sports complex. It sits across the way from a high school, nestled in a dense rural area between Buford and Suwanee. It is difficult to connect this rural training and administrative complex to the glamour and hustle bustle of the city of Atlanta and the NFL as a whole. The place doesn't even look worth the millions of dollars the team earns and spends season after season. The meager two story administrative building is a lot of brick, a little bit of concrete, and all slick. While not garish or gaudy, I'm sure it beats the hell out of the patch of mud Mr. Falcon himself had to train on back in 1966 in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
Inside the building are offices, a press conference room, offices, a foyer with football player statues and a small historical museum-let off to one side, where the team's lone Halas trophy sits along with the receipt from the purchase of the team back in ‘65 and an empty spot just itching for a Lombardi. There's a Nobis uniform and a modern Falcons uniform (when I last visited, it was a Brooking outfit; bet that's changed). A timeline, team photos, and other paraphernalia exist there, all of it rather meek. Not boastful or assuming. The small room is fitting a ball club that's just now starting their golden age.
Coming to the place, even during Minicamp and Training Camp doesn't feel magical. There's no epicness to watching a bunch of men practice the game of football. But there's a connection. A real connection. I feel it every time I'm at or near the place. It's not nostalgic in nature either, it's a true heartfelt connection. The employees inside are just as humble as their surroundings as are (most of) their players. At these events, players make these connections to each of the fans there, especially those that hang out after practice to go down the line of yellow twine and sign autographs, take pictures, shake hands, and listen to the platitudes thrown at them. They don't have to do it; in fact, the Falcons are one of the few NFL organizations that have open-to-the-public trainings.
It was at these events that the first ever Spoon chants were made, before he even took the field in a professional game. It was here at these events that I met and interacted with players. It was here at these events that I really, truly became a fan of the organization. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Falcons before I ever toured their offices (back in my sports-journalist impressionist days) or went to a minicamp or Training Camp practice.
It was at these events that my hope for the season blossomed into a bright red flower. No matter the outcome of the previous year, these events kept me from jumping from the ledge.
It's a noisy place; so noisy you have to yell just to be heard. I hear more "what?!" and "huh?!" phrases here than I ever have. Both floors of the place are packed. Some brave Saints fans have wandered in but are booed immediately, as is normal protocol.
It smells of beer and salsa and smoke and whiskey and people. There are TVs every few feet, all turned to the same channel. Behind the bar, a tender is frantically assembling what can only be described as one barrel of Jack Daniels and six liters of coke. Some fool on the second floor has ordered twenty of the soda-whiskey mixes and wants them doled out before the next TV timeout.
A boss is overheard imploring his underlings not to leave before half time because, even though it's Thursday night and they have to work the next day, the Falcons are doing well against their dreaded enemy and the place has such great energy and to lose some of that would be grounds for termination
Food, mostly fried and very, very bad for you flits about on black round trays. The waiters and waitresses all remember what every table under their stead has ordered. They dance this ballet of beer and batter well; they should, it's the same every week. They call it their "Sea of Red" rush and it lasts four to four and a half hours and can either be the highlight of their week or the lowlight of their week, depending on how the Dirty Birds fare that week.
This place is the official gameday restaurant of the Falcons, and they don't let you forget it. Even in offseason, when they should be focusing on the Braves (they're official with them, too) and the Hawks and their brackets, they still keep the "Home of the Falcons on Sundays!" banners up. A waitress tells me that they make more money in those four months of football than in any other time.
When asked why, she laughs. "The Falcons have the best chance of ending this horrible drought."
"No confidence in the Bravos?"
She shakes her head and gives me my beer. "This year is our year. Did you hear? We picked up that really good running guy."
"Yeah...if we had just had him against the Niners!"
She bounds away to another table. Hope is back for Tac Mac.
Conversations at work bounce back and forth between the Falcons (will they sign Osi or not?!) and college basketball's propensity for randomness (is it really a wonder that 16 seeds can beat 5 seeds by now? Really?).
To test the waters, I ask some about the Braves and how they're doing in Spring Training. The resident baseball guy answers. The rest want to talk about college basketball or football.
The redbuds shine in the soft morning light. Birds are singing their songs. It rained last night and the moisture, while not in the air, is in the ground. That Georgia red clay musk is like Folger's in my cup.
The flower beds and trees around the Georgia Dome are starting to bud. They await just one more patch of sun or just one more puff of Spring's warm but comforting breeze to open and splash their color onto the world.
In a few short weeks, the Final Four will be in town and the Georgia Dome will come alive. It will only be borrowing the normal frantic NCAA gusto, much like it does for the Chik-Fil-A bowl (and kickoff game) and SEC championship, for a short time.
A sign in the red parking deck, situated above the bridge that connects the dome to the deck, rotates a few messages, calling out in neon-tinted glory all of the vents the Dome is home to. Chik-Fil-A Kickoff Game. SEC Championship. 2013 Final Four. Chik-Fil-A Bowl. Rinse. Repeat. No mention of the Falcons.
Maybe they're out of room? Maybe they're out of patience? Maybe they forgot? As I exit the deck and walk across North Side, I look to the big sign in front of Gate C of the dome. Yes, there it is, home of the Falcons. I nod my head in approval. This building is red and black for a reason.
Two locals pass me; both are wearing Falcons hats. I overhear Steven Jackson's name.
Hope is back in downtown.
Something's change in him. A new Nike Falcons jersey covers what appears to be a 2012 NFC South Champion shirt. A New Era Falcons hat, ill fitted from the baggy look of the thing's sides, almost covers his eyes.
A wide grin is on his face.
"Is it football season yet?!" he says to me in greeting.
I shrug and can't think what to say.
"Man, cannot wait to see Jackson running for us. Jackson, Julio, Gonzo, White, Ryan. Man, pick your poison. Greatest show on turf. It's our year, man."
I return his high five and give him a smile that pales in comparison to his.
"Maybe so." My expectations are always tempered. "Tough schedule though."
"They can't stop us man."
"Our defense needs work."
"We'll get Osi. We got this ring!"
Again, I return his smile. "Maybe so."
"Cannot wait!" he yells as he bounces to another aisle, almost hitting a worker stocking some baby-proofing items. I grab an item, shaking my head and smiling. Maybe he's right.
I move on. No one needs to linger at a Babies R Us, especially a hopeful dad with responsibilities to handle. Life keeps moving on, no matter how bright it may seem.
Hope springs ever eternal.