I was born and raised in Atlanta. It was my home, and as such, it became part of me…even the curse of the Atlanta professional sports teams. If you think the Atlanta Flames are part of Sherman’s March to the Sea, then you don’t know what I am talking about. If you don’t know who Chief Noc-a-homa is and why his teepee is linked to losing baseball games, then you are not a diehard fan. Those of us who have been around know what it means to go to a game to see individual players because the team as a whole stinks. Names like Phil Niekro, Steve Bartkowski, Spud Webb, Hank Aaron, Dominique Wilkins, and Dale Murphy live on in our memories as some of the athletes who loved Atlanta enough to hang in despite our inability to win. Their individual achievements kept the believers among us coming back for more. However, the illusive championships squeezed the heart out of even the most dedicated fans, who arrived as bag-heads, too embarrassed to show their faces. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was said to be cursed, and so we built a new one. We all went on some hope-filled wild rides together only to be disappointed again and again. And we all know, hope deferred makes the heart sick.
Then the Braves’ worst to first season happened. The unexpectedness of that season sent us all into a tizzy of excitement. We began to believe again. The come-back kids, who beat the odds, were a perfect representation of all the years of inconsistency, unpredictability, and instability finding expectation again. Sid Bream’s unlikely slide into home plate, buried him in our hopes. We fell in love with that team. We knew them all. We followed every game. We watched that World Series until the wee hours of the morning and arrived bleary-eyed to work the next morning to gather around and discuss every nuance of the game from the night before. It felt like glory had finally arrived, but the key to that season wasn’t talent or strength, it was heart. The sheer determination and the belief of those guys that they were going to do it resulted in it actually happening.
I realize that the Falcons have not yet made it to the Super bowl, and so this blog may seem a bit premature to some. But to the true, long-time fans…we recognize heart when we see it. We see the determination in combination with the talent and the hunger for redemption, and we know what the results of those factors are. We are waiting on the edge of our seats. During the game last night, we saw a spark of hope ignite into full flame. Our hearts beat faster and we had trouble sleeping for the anticipation rising up. Could it be? Dare we hope again? The giddiness arrived and reminded us of the thrill of victory, after so many years of the agony of defeat.
Do not mistake this team for a point scoring machine. Do not think that the precision with which they produce is why they have risen to the top. Certainly having the talent they do is critical to their success this season, however, we longtime fans are witnesses to talented teams who could not accomplish their dreams. We have watched clubs crash and burn, who talent-wise should have won it all. No… talent is only one piece of the puzzle. The real key is heart and this team has it in abundance. It is the factor that no commentator can predict. It is the factor that cannot be measured in yards, or plays, or points. It is the connection that bonds players into brothers. It is the relationship that turns fans into followers. It is grit, determination, and hope all rolled into one. Heart is what makes believers out of us all. There are more games to play before it will be known how this will go, but for Atlanta fans the thrill of victory has infused us with heart once again. Here’s to hope…can you feel it?