Hate is such a strong word, that I’m hesitant to ever use it unless it accurately applies to something that I hold with absolute contempt and total disgust. However, there are exceptions in some instances — and ANYTHING involving the Atlanta Falcons and their despicable fan base (these are the same fans which include some who are workers at the Atlanta airport that threw eggs at the Saints’ team bus last year) falls squarely into that category. Next month when the Saints open what they hope will be a Super Bowl-winning 2014 season at the Garbage…er…Georgia Dome in Atlanta, it will also mark the 35th anniversary since the very day that I’ve been able to say that truly, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that I hate the Atlanta Falcons.
Yesterday’s foolishness on the part of a young Falcons fan during a Saints practice at training camp in West Virginia is yet just another act of complete ignorance on the part of Falcons fans. I suppose that we shouldn’t be surprised quite honestly, since stupidity seems to be an inherit trait from one generation of Falcons fans to the next one. For all of the “bad rap” that Saints fans and Who Dat Nation receives across the country from other knucklehead fan bases (cough–Minnesota–cough, cough) throughout the NFL, at least you won’t ever see a Saints fan exhibit as much blatant ignorance as that of Atlanta Falcons fans. Let us NOT FORGET that this is the same fan base that made fun of Saints fans’ plight in Hurricane Katrina — of which I personally am one that was affected by the storm’s wrath.
I can’t believe a teenager showed up to our practice with a Falcons jersey on and the audacity to talk trash to @KennyVaccaro4
— Corey White (@CoreyWhiteJr3) August 5, 2014
— dashing mothafucka♉️ (@IamDashingKeith) August 5, 2014
Now to be sure, I’m certain that this all sounds a bit harsh and perhaps offensive to a degree, especially if you’re reading this as a fan of the Falcons themselves. However, before you judge me or point out that as a journalist, I have an innate responsibility to be unbiased in my work as a writer (in spite of the fact that this is after all a website devoted to coverage of Saints football for Saints fans) ; try to at least gain an understanding of WHY I’ve felt this way over all of these years. The explanation, I’m quite sure, will change the way that you view this thing called a rivalry — or better yet, a BLOOD FEUD, forever.
I was just an 11-year-old boy on the 2nd of September in 1979, a sunny summer Sunday on a splendid Labor Day Weekend; in what was one of the final months of a memorable decade that encompassed my entire childhood. Disco was dying a slow death at that time, even as Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” had rocketed to the top of the charts during the week before the big game. The Saints would open that season against their now sudden bitter rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta had won both meetings previously during the season before in 1978; incredibly by the same exact score of 20-17, and in the final seconds under rather unbelievable circumstances in each instance.
The Falcons won the first meeting with 19 seconds left, when Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartowski dropped back and heaved a pass down the right sideline, hoping for a tipped pass to be caught by one of his receivers downfield. This sort of a play is commonly known as a “Hail Mary” pass, but Atlanta’s nickname for it back then was the “Big Ben”. One of the Saints defenders inexplicably did exactly as Atlanta had hoped, and tipped the ball right into the hands of Falcons WR Alfred Jenkins. Jenkins took it in for the winning score; and in the process he left the entire stadium full of Saints fans in a state of shock.
Just 2 weeks later, in the rematch at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, the Falcons won again in the final seconds (by the exact same score of 20 to 17). Saints defensive back Maurice Spencer (who was nowhere near the Atlanta receiver) was called for defensive pass interference in the end zone; that gave the Falcons the ball at the Saints 1 – yard line, and setting up yet another “miracle victory” for Atlanta. Saints fans were in absolute disbelief (myself included), and the intensity of the hatred between the two teams and their respective fan bases truly began at this point.
Thus when the 1979 Saints season schedule was released, the season-opening game at the Superdome was one of the most highly anticipated games of the year in the entire NFL. The hype leading up to the game was intense, as was the trash-talk being exchanged between the two fan-bases in the weeks leading up to kickoff. Local New Orleans radio station WEZB (B-97) FM had printed up some t-shirts that read: “I Hate the Falcons”, and I wore one proudly to the game. Throughout the entire city of New Orleans and the surrounding region, the buzz was evident everywhere you went. EVERYONE knew about, and was looking forward to, the “Big Game”.
From my recollection, the interaction between the two fan-bases prior to the start of the game was cordial and good-natured. I can even remember eating a bowl of gumbo that was being given away as a promo by a local eaterie, as two female Falcons fans teased me about my t-shirt: “You don’t REALLY hate the Falcons, now do you baby?”, one of the ladies asked. “No ma’am”, I replied; while smiling. It was a far, far cry from what would take place following the game’s conclusion — one that left an impression on me as a young boy that has shaped my bitter hatred for the Atlanta Falcons franchise and their fans to this very day, almost exactly 35 years later.
The Saints opened the scoring in the first quarter with an 85-yard drive that culminated in Manning tossing a five-yard touchdown pass to WR Ike Harris. It was 7-0 after one period of play, but the second quarter saw both teams combine for a total of 41 points. New Orleans extended its lead when RB Chuck Muncie connected with WR Wes Chandler on a magnificent bit of trickery by the Saints offense; when QB Archie Manning pitched the ball to Muncie who appeared to be running a sweep but then stopped and dropped back — and threw a perfect halfback option pass that covered 40 yards for a TD.
Down 14-0, the Falcons responded with a 27-yard Tim Mazzetti field goal and then a 20-yard touchdown pass from Bartkowski to WR Alfred Jenkins. With the margin down to four points, the Saints came back with a 69-yard scoring run by Muncie — an incredible play that saw Muncie break through the Falcons defensive line with a broken tackle, and then down the Atlanta sideline while OUTRACING two Atlanta DB’s in the process. The fans (myself included) and the Saints sideline erupted into a state of pure delirium. Bartkowski came right back for Atlanta on the following series though, and tossed another touchdown pass; this time covering 20 yards to WR Wallace Francis. Muncie ran for a four-yard TD and Mazzetti booted a 43-yard field goal to end the scoring barrage, and an incredulous sell-out crowd tried to regain its breath as the Saints went into halftime with a 28-20 lead.
It was at this point as we went to get some refreshments (including my favorite, the foot long “Dome Dog” with chili), that we realized we were witnessing a “NFL Classic” right before our very eyes, and the buzz was palpable among both fan-bases as they returned to their seats for the start of the second half. Saints kicker Russell Erxleben started off the second half scoring early in the third quarter with a 37-yard field goal. Again Atlanta closed to four points as Bartkowski threw to Francis once again for a 21-yard touchdown, and with the successful extra point the score was 31-27 going into the final period. William Andrews put Atlanta in the lead with his first pro touchdown on a four-yard run.
The Falcons then appeared set to clinch the game with less than five minutes remaining, but a promising drive ended when Bartkowski fumbled after being hit from the blind side by DE Joe Campbell, giving the Saints the ball on their own 18 yard line. New Orleans proceeded to drive 66 yards and, with 44 seconds left in regulation, Erxleben kicked a 38-yard field goal to tie the score. Atlanta still had a shot in regulation, but Mazzetti missed a field goal try from 52 yards out and the game went into overtime.
The contest went eight minutes into the OT period with neither team able to score. In the climactic play of the game, the Saints were lined up on fourth-and-six at their 32 for a punt. A bad snap by C John Watson sailed some four feet over Erxleben’s head, and the rookie kicker had to give chase. The ball rolled inside the five toward the goal line, where Erxleben grabbed it and tried to toss a two-handed pass to avoid a possible safety. Rookie LB James Mayberry, who was bearing down fast on Erxleben, pulled the throw out of the air and ran six yards untouched into the end zone for the improbable winning touchdown. Atlanta came away with yet another stunning but thrilling win over the Saints by a score of 40-34; or as the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper would painfully note the next day: (20-17 x 2 = 40-34).
As I have mentioned up above, I was 11 years old at the time; and had attended the game with my Aunt and Uncle (Larry and Dottie Renz, whom I’ve spoken of in previous articles of mine). After the game-ending play, we sat in our seats for a minute or two to completely soak in what had happened (the shock of what we had just witnessed was eerily reminiscent of the unbelievable finish of the “Big Ben” game inside the Superdome against the Falcons, just that previous November in ’78), and then we prepared to leave. The Atlanta fans, many whom had bussed in for the weekend and were either staying at local hotels or on the bus itself, began a wild celebration within the concourses throughout the Superdome. It was a maddening, mob-like scene as we tried to weave our way through the crowd, and by this time there were minor little scuffles starting to occur around us, mostly just people getting up in each other’s faces and trash-talking one another.
We witnessed numerous arrests made by N.O.P.D. as we hurriedly dashed for the exit and headed toward the Hyatt Regency Hotel directly across the street, which was going back the same way where we’d always enter into the Superdome complex on Sunday gamedays. We were frantically trying to get to the main street (Poydras Street) that runs parallel in front of the Hyatt Regency hotel because we knew it would afford us a safe passage to where the car was parked just a few blocks away. After exiting out the front of the Hyatt and onto Poydras Street, we began taking a series of side streets that eventually would take us to the pay lot where my Uncle Larry would always park his car every time. Then suddenly ——— IT happened.
As we had turned the next corner, there just off the curb of the street, were three young Falcons fans (dressed in Falcons memorabilia), kicking and punching a man who had to have been in his 60′s (perhaps even older?) dressed in black and gold Saints gear. He was yelling and screaming out for help, and for a moment I froze….. then my Uncle yanked me by the arm and briskly pulled me forward; to have me continue walking down the street in a hurriedly fashion. As we moved further away, I looked back to see them pulverizing the man; bashing and kicking him repeatedly with the occasional blow delivered with fists of fury. He had stopped yelling, I assume because he had been rendered unconscious. Maybe it was 10 seconds later (though it seemed as if it was more like an eternity) when we heard sirens, and saw the three young men scatter in every direction as NOPD arrived on the scene, albeit not in time to have saved that man from the cruelest and most savage of beatings. I was certain that old man had literally been left for dead.
Through the years I’ve never been able to get that image out of my head, and often asked myself was there anything I could have done to help that man? Sadly, the answer is no. I was just a young kid after all, and my Aunt and Uncle were in their late 50′s at the time and wouldn’t have been able to successfully defend themselves. They were scared for their very lives, and their priority at that very moment was to keep me out of harm’s way — which they did admirably.
As we got to the car, a powerful sense of relief washed over us as we all sat for a moment, in silence. My Uncle started the car and put it into drive, and away we went. Not a word was spoken among us as we made the ride back to Chalmette (in suburban St. Bernard Parish where my Grandmother lived), nor was it ever mentioned between the three of us again throughout the years. What we all had witnessed was emotionally damaging enough, and I understood even then at that young age why it was something best to be never spoken about ever again.
Surely the behavior of those young men had crossed the line. It should go without saying that from that very moment on until right now as I sit here typing this, that my view of the Atlanta Falcons fan-base is one of disdain. For anyone who’s ever wondered why I HATE the Atlanta Falcons and their fans as much as I have now for these last 35 years, the truth can now be told. Yesterday’s display of disrespect to Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro by that young Falcons fan is proof positive that not much has changed. The Atlanta Falcons franchise and their fans are still just as CLASSLESS as ever, and they’d better “Wise Up” before September 7th — which is when the Saints will come to spank them once again…….
33 days away from #SaintsVsFalcons and the trash talking already begun
— Corey White (@CoreyWhiteJr3) August 6, 2014