On December 30, 2007, my father and I sat in the 10th row of the Georgia Dome somewhere between the 45 and 50-yard lines. Our tickets, which cost $15 each on the street, were for seats just below the big white roof, far above the field. However, with the stadium half full, it was easy to sneak up towards the front -- a tradition of sorts for us, and something we certainly deserved for our unwavering (and often irrational) loyalty.
On that day, the Falcons took on the Seattle Seahawks in a Week 17 matchup, bringing a merciful end to a campaign that could only be described as a nightmare. The Birds would win this one, keeping my record at the Georgia Dome perfect -- a record that stands to this day (you're welcome) -- however, they would finish '07 with a pitiful 4-12 record, the third worst in the league.
The last time they had a worse win percentage in a season? 1996.
Of course, everything fell apart that past summer with the incarceration of Mike Vick, my childhood hero who broke my heart worse than any girl has or ever will.
After being convicted for running an illegal dog-fighting ring, Vick quickly went from my idol to the most hated man in my life -- surpassing the likes of John Rocker, the lead singer of Nickelback, the bad guy in the movie My Dog Skip, and the hyena that was my seventh grade English teacher.
And as Vick rotted away in a jail cell, the team that invested more than $100 million in the talented QB laid in shambles.
Head coach Bobby Petrino's mid-season departure only further demolished Arthur Blank's franchise, bringing an extra heap of embarrassment to the already tarnished organization. Bill Parcells, of all people, put the icing on the crap-flavored cake that was this year, toying with the Falcons by expressing interest in becoming the team's head of football operations, only to take the same role with the Miami Dolphins.
By most accounts, this was as bad as it gets.
There was no light at the end of the tunnel -- just darkness.
Waves of Nostalgia
During this rough stretch I often found myself reminiscing of better days like 2004, when Jim Mora and Vick had the world believing the Falcons were on a clear-cut path towards a championship.
That fall I went to my first game since I was a toddler back in 1993: a preseason contest between the Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals. Atlanta won 35-10, thanks in large part to an impressive performance from Matt Schaub. For a school assignment I wrote about that experience, which my parents thankfully saved:
"What an amazing place the Georgia Dome was. 70,000 screaming fans all packed into one very big room ... All of the sudden, mascots started shooting t-shirts into the stands with a huge slingshot. I reached my arm out and caught one. It was awesome. One group of redneck guys gave me a high five and said 'nice grab there little man.' Soon after, Chris Mohr, the punter threw one of his gloves into the stands, and I caught it. The next one came up, and I also caught it. Everyone said to give the second one to them, but I just gave it to my brother and we ran away ... It was one of the best nights I've ever had."
There was a lot to love about that team. There was the DVD backfield, with Warrick Dunn, Vick and T.J. Duckett -- a seemingly unstoppable force that could give opposing defensive coordinators insomnia.
There was our fantastic defensive line, led by the monstrous Rod Coleman and the provocative Patrick Kerney.
There were the seasoned veterans, like Keith Brooking, Alge Crumpler and Todd McClure -- the kind of leaders a team needs to truly succeed.
There was that playoff game when we destroyed the St. Louis Rams. Remember Allen Rossum that night? Man, that was something.
There were the raucous crowds that filled the Dome eight dates a year, giving the revived fanbase a reputation as one of the loudest and proudest in the league.
Most importantly, though, there was such a strong sense of pride that came with supporting these guys. From 2002 to around 2006, being a Falcons fan really meant something unique. It meant that you rooted for a team that was unlike any to ever grace the NFL. It meant that you were privileged to cheer on what was a historically electric quarterback, one who seemed destined for greatness.
All of this was gone, wiped clean. By now, there were few players left to remind us of these happier times, and most of them would be traded or cut in just a few months. The Dome had returned to its usual state as an unintimidating building, as it had been for most of its existence.
A Depressing (and Insignificant) Win
Even though we were at a National Football League event that day when Seattle came to town, the atmosphere was more akin to a funeral than a professional sports game. The Falcons were playing well, but just about everyone wearing red and black had a look of depression on their faces and sadness in their eyes.
That day we joined what was a big party in the stands. The Babineaux family, which had the pleasure of watching two brothers -- Jonathan and Jordan -- face off against each other, brought life to an otherwise meaningless contest. One family member, an uncle to the two boys, was particularly vocal.
"This team ain't worth a damn," he said about Atlanta. "Vick destroyed these guys. Jonathan will be an old man before they start winning again."
By the fourth quarter it felt as if the majority of fans left in the building were cheering on Seattle, and that was probably the case. Those in green and teal attire would go home disappointed, but it still felt like the joke was on us.
For the 'Hawks, a playoff run was on the horizon; for the Falcons, an offseason of deep reflection and drastic changes lied ahead.
Pessimism Reigns Supreme
But little did I know, we were about to be built up again a lot sooner than anyone could have possibly anticipated...
Next week we embark on the next chapter of this story. Stay tuned.