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17 Super Facts About the Atlanta Falcons

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For the second time in franchise history, the Atlanta Falcons are headed to the Super Bowl. Will they rise up and claim Atlanta’s first major pro sports championship since 1995? Super fan Samuel L. Jackson has definitely got his fingers crossed. From adventurous mascots to touchdown dance crazes, here’s a quick primer on everything you should know about the “Dirty Birds.”

1. ATLANTA’S TEAM WAS ALMOST THE CARDINALS.

Before the Falcons came along, the Arizona Cardinals (as we now know them) considered migrating to Atlanta. From 1960 to 1987, this storied football team played in St. Louis, where they were briefly holed up in an outdated stadium called Sportsman’s Park. Owners Bill and Charles Bidwill didn’t think much of this home field and the replacement was suffering constant delays, so between 1963 and 1964, they met with Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. to talk about the possibility of bringing their Cards to Georgia’s capital city. Faced with the threat of losing its NFL team, the city of St. Louis appeased the Bidwills by building Busch Memorial Stadium, a $24 million sports venue. It opened in 1966.

2. THEY WERE BORN IN 1965.

The Atlanta Falcons were born in 1965 as an NFL expansion team, which the league awarded to Atlanta-based insurance executive Rankin Smith for $8.5 million. At the time, this was the highest sum that had ever been paid for a professional sports franchise. (By comparison, in 2008 the Miami Dolphins were purchased for $1 billion. How times have changed.)

3. THE TEAM’S FIRST-EVER DRAFT PICK GOT SOME ADVICE FROM AN ASTRONAUT, AND IGNORED IT.

Linebacker Tommy “Mr. Falcon” Nobis has the distinction of being the franchise’s first-ever draft pick. He’s also one of the few athletes who’s ever gotten career advice from an astronaut. In college, Nobis averaged almost 20 tackles per game and led his Texas Longhorns to a national title in 1963. His skills caught the attention of two rival football leagues: the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League. (On June 8, 1966, the two leagues announced that they would merge and form the modern NFL.)

When he decided to turn pro, Nobis was drafted by both the Falcons—who were part of the old NFL—and the AFL’s Houston Oilers. News of this debacle reached the orbiting Gemini 7 spacecraft. In a transmission back to earth, astronaut Frank Borman said, “Tell Nobis to sign with Houston.” But the linebacker picked Atlanta instead. Nobis officially signed with the Falcons on December 14, 1965 and would play a major role in their inaugural season in 1966.

4. THEY’VE BASED THEIR TEAM COLORS ON POPULAR COLLEGE TEAMS.

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Why do the Falcons wear red and black? Their color scheme is an homage to the Georgia Bulldogs. Early in their history, the Falcons paid tribute to another beloved SEC team—the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets—with a pair of gold stripes that graced their helmets from 1966 to 1970.

5. A FORMER COACH USED SOME ODD PROPS TO MOTIVATE THE TEAM, INCLUDING A STICK OF DYNAMITE.

Interim head coach Jim Hanifan used some weird—and potentially dangerous—props in his motivational speeches. While the team was getting ready to take on the San Francisco 49ers in week 13 of the 1989 season, Hanifan walked into their locker room holding an unlit stick of dynamite. Imploring the players to “be explosive with every play,” he invited them to walk up and touch the strange visual aid. (It didn’t help; the Falcons lost 23-10.)

For the next game, when the club visited Minnesota, Hanifan brought in three hand grenades. After the Falcons were trounced 43-17, Hanifan upped the ante by leaving a disarmed bomb in the locker room. (Incidentally, he had the thing painted red and black. Nice touch.) One Falcon was reported as saying, “If we lose to Washington Sunday, [Hanifan’s] liable to show up for that last game with something nuclear.” The Falcons lost 31-30.

6. WHEN THEY DRAFTED BRETT FAVRE IN 1991, A LEAGUE EXECUTIVE MISPRONOUNCED HIS NAME AS "FAVOR."

Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre famously spent his rookie season in Atlanta. When the Falcons nabbed him in the 1991 draft, the announcement was made by NFL executive Don Weiss, who mispronounced the last name of the future superstar. “Atlanta has selected Brett Favor, quarterback, Southern Mississippi,” Weiss said.

7. THEY WERE FANS OF M.C. HAMMER.

The 1991 Falcons chose M.C. Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” as their team anthem. That year, Hammer, who frequented Atlanta home games, gave wide receiver Andre Rison and cornerback Deion Sanders a cameo in the song’s official music video. Then-head coach Jerry Glanville made an appearance as well.

8. A 38-YARD OVERTIME FIELD GOAL SENT THEM TO THEIR FIRST SUPER BOWL.

One of the greatest moments in the Falcons' franchise history came at the end of the 1998 NFC Championship Game, when kicker Morten Andersen made a 38-yard overtime field goal that sent the Falcons to their first Super Bowl. Andersen was one incredible athlete: During his 25-year NFL career, he took the field in 382 games, more than any other player in league history. Furthermore, he’s also the NFL’s all-time leading scorer. Andersen clinched this latter record as a member of the Falcons. During a 2006 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, he nailed an extra point attempt in the second quarter. This gave him 2435 career points overall—one more than the previous record-holder. By the time he retired, Andersen had drilled in a grand total of 2544 points, including the 806 he made in a Falcons jersey.  

9. THEIR “DIRTY BIRD” DANCE WAS A HIT WITH FANS.

Show us a Falcons fan who grew up in the 1990s, and we’ll show you someone who probably knows the “Dirty Bird” dance by heart. Running back Jamal Anderson is usually credited with inventing the jig during Atlanta’s ’98 Super Bowl run. Before long, everybody on the roster was doing it—even head coach Dan Reeves showed off his own version right after the Falcons were handed the 1998 NFC Championship trophy.

The following off-season, Atlanta linebacker Jessie Tuggle made an appearance at a local elementary school function. At one child’s request, the NFL veteran started doing the Dirty Bird. But just a few seconds in, the kid interrupted him. “He said, ‘That’s not how Jamal does it!’” Tuggle recalled to The New York Times. “And then he started doing it himself to show me. That was pretty much the last time I agreed to do the Dirty Bird when someone asked me.”

10. THE TEAM’S MASCOT ONCE FLEW AWAY DURING PRACTICE DRILLS.

For the club’s first 15 seasons, an actual falcon assumed mascot duty. Back then, the team played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which didn’t have a roof. As avian trainer Mike Cady found out the hard way, this was not an ideal situation. While practicing drills on the field one day in 1966, Cady’s raptor suddenly flew out of the building. “[The bird] just chickened out,” Cady told the press. The wayward falcon was later recovered when somebody saw it loitering at a Kraft food plant in suburban Atlanta and called Cady, who quickly recaptured his escapee.

11. THE TEAM’S GOT A STAR-STUDDED FAN BASE.

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The Falcons have one star-studded fan base: Jeff Foxworthy, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Carter, and Usher are among the many celebrities who live and die with the Dirty Birds. Believe it or not, one of their most prominent boosters is now the quarterback of a rival team. Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton grew up in Atlanta, where he rooted for the Falcons through thick and thin. Despite the fact that he presently plays for another franchise in the same division, Newton’s affection for his hometown team remains strong. “I’ve always been a Falcon fan,” he said in a 2013 interview, “and I’m still a Falcons fan—except for those two times a year [when they play Carolina].”

Another Falcons diehard? Moe Szyslak from The Simpsons. In the season 10 episode "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday," Springfield’s number one bartender leapt at the chance to attend Super Bowl XXXIII because it features his “favorite team,” the Falcons. “Ever since I was a boy,” he tells Homer, “I’ve always loved the Atlanta Falcons.”

12. THEY WERE THE FIRST TEAM TO FACE OFF AGAINST THE SAINTS IN NEW ORLEANS AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA.

In week three of the 2006 season, the Falcons were the visiting team in the first post-Katrina home game of their perennial archrivals, the New Orleans Saints. As a Monday Night game, it was broadcast by ESPN. Over 10 million people across the country tuned in to watch the meaningful matchup, giving it the second-largest cable audience of any broadcast in history at the time.     

13. IN 2012, THOMAS DECOUD PLAYED THE “MEOW GAME” WITH AN ESPN REPORTER.

Back in 2012, Thomas DeCoud, a free safety who suited up for Atlanta from 2008 to 2013, decided to mess with ESPN sportscaster Bram Weinstein by playing the Super Troopers “meow” game during a live interview. For the uninitiated, the rules—as established in the 2001 cult comedy—are straightforward: Just find somebody to talk with and then see how many times you can sneak the word “meow” into your sentences before he or she catches on. In the span of four minutes, DeCoud dropped 14 audible meows. Weinstein later claimed that he finally realized what was going on near the end of the interview. “You killed me man,” he told DeCoud on Twitter after the fact. “Funny. I’m a Falcons fan now. Meow.”

14. QUARTERBACK MATT RYAN’S CAREER GOT OFF TO A GREAT START.

Talk about a great first impression: Current starting quarterback Matt Ryan’s very first professional pass in the NFL, in 2008, was a 62-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Michael Jenkins. 

15. A PLAYER’S WIFE WAS RECENTLY AWARDED THE TEAM BALL—AND WITH GOOD REASON.

Last month, Atlanta held off Seattle with a final score of 36-20 to secure an NFC Championship appearance—the club’s second in five years. Katie Levitre, wife of Falcons guard Andy Levitre, would’ve had a great excuse for missing that Seahawks game: She went into labor just before kickoff.  But instead of calling an ambulance, Katie decided to stay put in the stadium. She also refrained from breaking the news to her husband until after the game. That afternoon, the couple went to a local hospital where Katie gave birth to their first child, a healthy baby girl they named Lily. In recognition of her amazing toughness, the proud new mother was awarded the game ball by head coach Dan Quinn.

16. THEY’RE ABOUT TO GET A NEW HOME.

The Falcons will soon have a new nest to roost in. The team is set to move into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.5 billion venue presently under construction, for the upcoming season. Among other things, the surrounding plaza will feature the largest metal bird statue on Earth—a football-clutching metallic falcon with a 64-foot wingspan.

17. ONE FALCONS SUPER FAN HAS BANNED THE SALE OF SAMUEL ADAMS BEER IN HIS STORE UNTIL AFTER THIS YEAR’S SUPER BOWL.

Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for NYCWFF

An Exxon gas station in Gainesville, Georgia recently made headlines when the manager, Hadji Chhadua, decided to ban the sale of Samuel Adams beer in his establishment until after Super Bowl LI. The story quickly gained traction on Twitter, where the Boston-based brewery weighed in with a couple of tweets, one of which read “don’t worry Atlanta, we’re still drinking Coca-Cola.”

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Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.


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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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Arizona Teen Becomes First Female to Earn a College Football Scholarship
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In recent years, women have made great strides in male-dominated sports. Currently in the NBA, Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman have proven their worth as assistant coaches for the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings, respectively, while Sarah Thomas made news as the first official female referee in the NFL in 2015. Now, an Arizona teenager named Becca Longo is joining their ranks.

On April 12, Longo, an 18-year-old kicker from Basha High School in Chandler, Arizona, signed a letter of intent to receive an athletic scholarship and play for the Division II football team at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. She is the first woman to be on scholarship at a Division II school or higher—a fact Longo herself didn't even realize until her high school coach informed her at the signing ceremony.

Longo’s kicking prowess in high school was highlighted by her making 30 out of 33 extra point attempts during her senior season, which caught the attention of Adams’s head coach, Timm Rosenbach. She also sent the school a highlight reel and began following coach Rosenbach on Twitter to show him what she could do.

"She's kind of put herself out there to let everyone know she wants to do this," Rosenbach told CNN. "If she's able to compete at a level we think she's able to compete at, we should afford her that opportunity to do that."

Longo’s persistence led to a visit from Adams’s offensive coordinator, Josh Blankenship, who told the young kicker that the school was interested in her being on the team. But being on scholarship doesn’t mean a spot on the starting roster is guaranteed. The kicking spot is up for grabs, according to Rosenbach, and there are two other kickers who Longo will have to beat out for the job. But despite the pressure, Longo told ESPN, "I'm ready to compete. I don't really have any expectations beyond that."

In addition to the football team, Longo has also committed to play basketball at Adams State next year.

[h/t CBS]

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