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Falcons' first trip to football playoffs holds Christmas memories

Leave it to me to equate Christmas memories with a football game. The Atlanta Falcons pulled off what many would call a miracle by qualifying for the NFL playoffs with a win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday. I personally witnessed the first real miracle in Atlanta Falcons history 30 years ago. I still have the ticket stub to prove it.

On Dec. 24, 1978, the Falcons played in their first ever playoff game when they hosted the Philadelphia Eagles in a wildcard game played in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It was miracle enough that the Falcons were even in the playoffs, but they actually beat the Eagles 14-13 on a comeback led by quarterback Steve Bartkowski.

Other characters for the Falcons in that game were leading rusher Haskel Stanback and leading receiver Wallace Francis. Do you remember those names? The Eagles' quarterback was Ron Jaworski, now known as "Jaws," one of the many ESPN talking heads that covers the NFL.

The Eagles' leading rusher was Wilbert Montgomery and their leading receiver was the long, tall Harold Carmichael.

The only circumstances that I can remember about my actually getting to the game involved a group of guys of which I can now only remember one of them. There were four or five of us in the group that somehow ended up with tickets. I was not then, nor have I ever been, a frequenter of Falcons games, but I ended up as one in the 49,447 in attendance that day. That was about 8,000 short of the Falcons' largest home crowd that season. Christmas and all I guess kept folks at home. Not me.

That particular year, my third in college, I took a job during Christmas break as a night watchman in my daddy's place of employment. My hours were 11 p.m.-7 a.m. and my two nights off were Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It was indeed a graveyard shift. I wouldn't even be off on Christmas Eve or Christmas night.

I did not let these hours prevent me from going to this game. I went in on the night of the 23rd, worked all night and then went to the game. In fact, after working all night after the game, I traveled to South Carolina on Christmas day for a family gathering. My mother wouldn't let me stay up 24 hours for a football game without doing the same to see her family. I don't remember how much catnapping I got in but I was only 20 years old then. Needless to say I'm much the wiser now and (wouldn't/couldn't) even try such a thing.

That Falcons team was an exciting bunch that found a way to win games by using a smoke and mirrors approach. This year's Falcons team is exciting only in the fact that they win games. Their approach under new coach Mike Smith epitomizes fundamental football. They pound the football on the ground with Michael Turner and Jarious Norwood setting up quick passes down the field by super rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.

Falcon receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins couldn't catch a hot, buttered biscuit from their old quarterback. Now all of a sudden they catch everything in sight, especially the tough catches. The Falcon defense has a little age on it but somehow opponents don't light up the scoreboard against coordinator's Brian Van Gorder's schemes. Remember him Georgia fans?

For those of you that don't think these Atlanta Falcons have a following from this area, just go to McDonalds here in Thomson on Sunday mornings of their home games. Fans have bought into Coach Smith's nuts-and-bolts approach. He is clearly an all go and no show coach. He's not interested in conducting a concert of a team full of show-offs. He's never before been a head coach on any level. He has clearly learned his trade in the film room.

I'll always remember Christmas 1978 by my two all nighters and seeing the Atlanta Falcons play. The current Falcons are working hard to create positive memories, Christmas and otherwise. If they beat St. Louis at home this Sunday and the Carolina Panthers lose in New Orleans, these Falcons won't just be a wildcard team, but NFC South divisional champs. Now that's a Christmas memory we can enjoy, without losing any sleep.

Web posted on Thursday, December 25, 2008

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