Looking back upon the Atlanta Falcons

by Gary Shelton on September 9, 2016 · 0 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Friday, 6 a.m.

The finest football name I ever knew was Cannonball Butler.

Alas, the finest football player I ever knew was not.

Still, there was something enchanting about the name of Cannonball Butler, something that promised speed and power. But to a kid in his bedroom, listening to the radio, it promised long winding runs and touchdowns. It promised success.

It got a gain of two.

Alas, Cannonball wouldn't bring any of the promise of his name. He never gained more than 636 yards in a season. He was 90 percent nickname, 10 percent ballgame.

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Butler, all he was and all he was not, was a member of the Atlanta Falcons in their formative years, a sit-com of a football team. They were my team because of geography, because of radio airwaves in a time that not every game was broadcast. They were Tommy Nobis and Claude Humphrey, Alex Hawkins and Ernie Wheelright and Tommy McDonald and General Bob Lee and Charmin' Harmon Wages.

And they weren't very good.

Oh, in my neighborhood, everyone always pulled for the old Baltimore Colts and the amazing Johnny Unitas. But when a team came to the deep south, it seemed as if you should pay attention. And so we did.

Poor us.

* * *

One of the first coaches of the Atlanta Falcons was fiery Norm Van Brocklin, who was known to physically challenge reporters. He was a sideline smoker, and he often required backup players (such as former Heisman winning Pat Sullivan) to carry his cigarettes.

Turns out, it was the best thing Sullivan accomplished in the NFL.

* * *

In 1972, the Falcons drafted … John Wayne.

In the years since, they've said it isn't a true story, but NFL Films caught Van Brocklin asking his scouts “"Do we want the roughest, toughest s.o.b. in the draft?” And so they drafted Wayne from “Apache State” until commissioner Pete Rozell disallowed it.

Too bad. Wayne starred in a movie called The Undefeatd. The Falcons could have used some of that.

* * *

Running back Dave Hampton once gained 1,000 yards in the team's final game of the season. He promptly lost it, being thrown for a six-yard loss on the game's final play. He finished with 995 yards.

* * *

The first professional football game I ever covered was in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Even when it was new, it was a dump, a cookie cutter stadium with narrow, concrete rows.

In one of the first games I covered, the Falcons had a linebacker named Screwy Dewey McClain. The opponent was the 49ers, who had O.J. Simpson at that point of his career.

McClain: “I booed him. When he came onto the field, I booed him.”

Yay, Dewey.

* * *

Over the years, the Falcons and Bucs have been cousins on the wrong side of the scoreboard. The Bucs won one Super Bowl; the Falcons lost one. But except for that, it hasn't been stellar.

The Falcons got some good out of Chris Chandler, which the Bucs never did. They appreciated Matt Bryant, which the Bucs never did. Both got use out of Warrick Dunn. Both got some use, for a while, out of Rich McKay.

One of the oddest games the two played was when McKay, in 2003, went from being g.m. of the Bucs to G.M. of the Falcons less than one year after winning the Super Bowl. Some of McKay's draft picks drove Gruden crazy over the years, and success finally gave them a breaking point.


* * *

Through the years, there have been some Bucs' stars. Warren Sapp catching passes. Derrick Brooks catching Michael Vick.

Then there have been some strange decisions. In the final month of Jon Gruden, the Bucs played in Atlanta. All week, Luke McCown practiced at quarterback for Tampa Bay. At the last minute, however, Gruden went with a sore-armed Brian Griese. The Bucs lost 13-10.

* * *

If there was ever a series that heraled the coming stardom of Jameis Winston, it was the Bucs-Falcons. In the first game, he had a game winning drive in overtime. In the second game, it was his 23-yard run that led Tampa Bay to a 23-19 victory.

* * *

And this year? You've got Doug Martin and Devonta Freeman. You've got Mike Evans and Julio Jones. You've got Winston and Matt Ryan.

Winner gets John Wayne.

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