It’s the perfect plan.”
That’s all I could think about, especially that word “perfect,” as I bought a series of plane tickets Saturday afternoon for the following morning. I was sitting in a Starbucks in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, having arrived half an hour earlier from New York, wearing my “You never know when you might need to sneak into a ball” suit, primed to get my Inauguration on.
The primary motivation for my most unhealthy of decisions is refusing to look my wide-eyed future children in the eye and tell them, “No, I didn’t go to that.” That fear was one of the driving forces for purchasing those two flights, and for my trek to the District for the Beyoncé show, known to some as Obama’s second and final Inauguration.
Once US Airways and Delta had my money, there was no turning back. At that point, all I could do was hope that the pieces fell into place. If they did, this would be perhaps my greatest 72 hours.
Now all I had to do was not miss a series of flights, and all the Atlanta Falcons had to do was beat the San Francisco 49ers and make the Super Bowl.
At 3:52 a.m. Sunday morning, I woke up. I have no idea how, because my alarm was set for 4 p.m. and two hours earlier I was watching ex-Obama staffers mouth-on-mouth flirt while awkwardly dancing to mash-ups that the DJ was pretending to mix but that were actually from various Girl Talk albums. But I was awake, nevertheless, and it was now time to go to the airport. So far, step one in the “perfect” plan — not missing the first flight, thus ruining everything — looked to be in place, giving hope to the idea that this would all work out.
Having traded out the suit for red and black everything, NFL-unauthorized Falcons jersey over NFL-unauthorized “Dirty Birds Miami Bound” shirt included, I found myself in Reagan National at 4:30 a.m., hoping to find other Falcons fans with the same Inauguration-to–NFC Championship–to-Inauguration plan.
What I got was an empty airport. As I made my way through security 30 minutes later, I did stumble upon a few people, but none were allies or enemies. Accepting the fact that my plan to poke my Falcons-covered chest out and strut around the terminal like George Jefferson until departure time would only be met with confusion, I threw on my jacket, boarded the plane, and fell asleep.
Then, mysteriously, I woke up and we were in Philadelphia. I looked at my boarding pass before the flight multiple times, knew I had a connecting flight, and even heard them say “Flight X headed to Philadelphia,” but it never seeped into my brain where I was actually headed.
And when I got off that plane, with an hour layover ahead of me, I was greeted by a handful of 49ers fans. Finally. Even though I wanted some support, I didn’t mind taking on all these fans alone. And with that, George Jefferson mode was officially back on the table. I very intentionally made eye contact with every 49ers fan waiting for the Atlanta-bound flight as I walked by. I don’t know why. I hadn’t acted like this before, but it felt like my duty, if for no other reason than to make them worried about the crazy people they’d potentially be sitting next to in the Georgia Dome later that day. I was just trying to do my part.
Purposely waiting until most of the plane had boarded to enter, I walked down the aisle, mean-mugging anyone with “San Francisco” on his or her shirt. Yes, even a child. I had to. That 6-year-old made his choice. I made mine.
After sleeping through 99 percent of the flight — again — I woke up as the plane touched down in Atlanta. I don’t know what happened in that dream, but upon gaining consciousness, my brashness had all but left, swapped for nerves. This remained for the next few hours, as I spent time with my lovely mother and aunt. I couldn’t speak much, but also couldn’t distract myself. I knew that for the first time, win or lose, I would be an absolute wreck. As we three, decked out in the home team’s gear, made our way to the game via train, however, it was clear I wasn’t the only one.
With each train stop, more and more Falcons fans boarded the train. With each stop, more extreme, elongated stretches of silence filled the car. Nervous smiles, gracious offerings of seats, and small talk dominated the ride north toward the Five Points station, where Falcons fans would get off and transfer west toward the Georgia Dome.
But then, upon arriving at Five Points, the river delta of Falcons fans, in true Atlanta form, the nerves temporarily fell away by way of the excitable:
“A’ight, 49er fan, don’t be hiding in that dark red, we see you … “
On the train platform, a Falcons fan yelled at a guy slightly out of view wearing a Jerry Rice jersey. People from both sides of the platform erupted into laughter and jeers, and the man proudly made his way to the front.
The heckles continued on that platform and subsequently made their way into the crowded subway car. He playfully exclaimed, “None of you Falcons fans touch me, or I’m hollering assault,” much to our amusement, but then, amid all the jokes, he accurately noticed what was really going on.
“You were real quiet on that platform before y’all saw me. Y’all nervous yet?”
Of course, this was met for the duration of the ride (and the trip up the escalator to the street) by a series of taunts. “You’re the one that needs to be nervous,” and “You’re in our house now,” and the incredible “Wait, who let this man ride OUR trains in that 49ers jersey … I know this man did not make it here in one piece wearing that … you mean to tell me this man is about to step out onto Northside Drive and y’all just gonna let that happen … ” Still, power in numbers helped, but the nerves were still there.
Then, upon finally exiting the train station, the real power in numbers kicked in.
And with that, my nerves were gone. Having spent a lifetime attending Atlanta sporting events, notoriously described as “underwhelming” or “under-attended” or “under-cared-about,” this was the result that I hoped to see when I envisioned this plan. “Perfect.” Everyone who could show up did show up, even if it meant drinking and smoking everything in sight before entering the Georgia Dome.
“Rise Up,” the popular Falcons call to arms, was the most shouted phrase, with strangers high-fiving each other as they wove through the lines to gain entry. Watching it all unfold, and then participating in the antics, I couldn’t believe there was a moment in time, less than 24 hours earlier, when I considered skipping this game. In this crowd it became increasingly clear, regardless of the outcome, that this game was now a part of our city’s history. And as my family and I made our way into the venue, I couldn’t help but believe that this day was different. This would be a turning point.
As we took our seats, just in time for the pregame proceedings, the sight before us couldn’t have been more astounding. Even if the Dome wasn’t 100 percent filled, it sure did look that way. Everyone was standing and screaming; those who had obtained towels were swinging said towels, and it felt like what I long imagined a Super Bowl home game would feel like.
And then it was Samuel L.’s turn.
Jackson’s role as unofficial Falcons hype man became a reality at that moment, as the very sound of his voice, coupled with the sight of his face, sent this crowd into a gospel-inspired frenzy. It all seemed appropriate — the choir, and Samuel, and the lyrics:
Jackson: Can you feel it? It’s time. It’s time for every one of us. If we get knocked down, we won’t just get up. It’s time we all rise up.
Choir: OOOH RISE UP!
Jackson: When stars step up.
Choir: RISE UP!
Jackson: When a dome stands up. When a city lights up.
Choir: OOOH RISE UP!
Jackson: We all rise up together.
Choir: RISE UP!
Jackson: When we come on the field, we rise up.
Choir: RISE UP!
Jackson: From kickoff to the last play, WE RISE UP. This is our time, Atlanta; we’ve been knocking on the door and now it’s time to blow it up. Tell me, what do Falcons do?
Choir: RISE UP!
Jackson: WHAT DO FALCONS DO?
Choir: FALCONS, FALCONS RISE UP!
After watching this commercial for the past two seasons, and loving how Southern and religiously tinged it was, it made me smile. On rare occasions, it gave me chills. This time, though, between singing along and watching it and witnessing the stadium react, and, most important, finally believing in the text, I could no longer hold my emotions back. It was our time, as Samuel said. I’d been saying it for years, but now I actually believed it. Because it was, finally, right here. Finally.
Then, after all of these theatrics, the actual game began. And with it, this intense, passionate feeling only increased.
Understanding that we were facing a talented but young and inexperienced quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, the Falcons crowd created a sound so uncomfortably loud in the Dome, it genuinely seemed to rattle him. And while the Falcons defense was playing well, the sound barrier, in some ways, seemed to help keep the 49ers scoreless in the first quarter. It was great to see the fans — such easily maligned fans — do their part. My section, and every section in that dome, erupted when Julio Jones beat his defender to the end zone, catching a 46-yard pass from Matt Ryan. Up 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, a sense of cautious joy filled my section. But it wasn’t too cautious. And I loved that.
Caution didn’t arrive until midway through the second quarter, when the 49ers seemed to figure out how to make a mockery out of our defense. They scored two touchdowns with ease, bringing the score from 17-0 to 17-14.
At this point, it was impossible not to think about the previous game, for better and for worse. Murmurs of “not again” were everywhere, with hands on heads shaking in disgust. But with less than two minutes left in the half, it also positively reminded us that Matt Ryan can score very quickly.
And with 1:55 left, that’s exactly what Matt Ryan did. Fifteen yards to Roddy White. Sixteen yards to Tony Gonzalez. Thirteen yards to Roddy White. Fifteen yards to Julio Jones. Six yards, and then 10 more to Tony Gonzalez for the touchdown. Eighty-six seconds and Matt Ryan and his three main targets not only put his team ahead by a comfortable margin of 10 going into the half, but had extinguished all fears within the Georgia Dome. Lessons were learned from the previous game. Mistakes were corrected. And now, this Falcons team had finally figured out how to play big when it mattered.
Walking around the concessions area during halftime, I heard the phrases “Super Bowl” or “New Orleans” uttered 11 times.
Twice by me.
I couldn’t help it. That’s all I was thinking. It was impossible not to. We were past “not thinking ahead” and “jinxing it.” The end goal was so close, it was almost tactile. Be it bathroom-lining, stress nacho-eating, or just sitting down and staring at the scoreboard, no one could believe it — but with 30 minutes left, no one could believe otherwise.
With the third quarter beginning, spirits were high in the Dome. And though the 49ers responded with an unsettlingly quick touchdown, our offense seemed primed to keep us ahead.
And then, with 7:46 left in the third quarter, Matt Ryan threw an interception.
While still loud and hopeful and confident and excited, this was the first time the thought of losing had crept into my mind since those plane tickets were purchased in that Starbucks. The “perfect” plan, up until that point, had gone just that way. Perfect. No flights were missed; the tickets were real; my mom did, in fact, get a Michael Turner jersey at Walmart; and the Falcons had done everything in their power to suggest they were a Super Bowl–bound team.
But, despite the hitch, hope was not lost. And with a kick from the 49ers’ David Akers hitting the post with just under six minutes left in the third, hope was gained.
And then Matt Ryan fumbled. And the 49ers recovered. And then it was the fourth quarter.
The feeling in the Dome, even as the wheels came off, was still shockingly positive. In the past, this would have been the time for fans to start cursing the Falcons’ very existence, along with everything they stood for — but that just wasn’t the scene. Everyone, whether a first-timer or long a diehard, had given too much emotionally this season to just lose faith.
After watching Kaepernick march his team to the Atlanta 5-yard line, the unimaginable — a 49ers lead — was just a play away. But, as we saw in the Seahawks game, it wasn’t the end. Not yet.
That next play: a Kaepernick completion to Crabtree. And then, miraculously, a fumble on the 1-yard line by Crabtree, followed up by a recovery by the Falcons’ Stephen Nicholas.
There was no way this team could lose. It seemed as though the Falcons wanted to give this game away, but some higher power just wouldn’t let them. But something new had become apparent. While we were hopeful, we were also now becoming dependent on miracles.
The Falcons failed to get a first down in the post-fumble possession, forcing a punt. And with less than nine minutes left, a 49ers drive resulted in a 49ers touchdown, which resulted in the first 49ers lead of the game.
The Falcons were playing horribly, and now were down by four. What was left? Hopefully one more miracle.
And one more miracle we got, with just over four minutes left. After marching his team down the field, like he has so often in late-game situations, Matt Ryan threw a 22-yard pass to his fourth-option receiver, Harry Douglas. Upon catching the pass, the Dome exploded louder than it had the entire game. We were only 28 yards away from the end zone, and with the game creeping to its end, maybe we could find a way to score and just let the clock will us to victory.
But then the 49ers challenged the call, because the ball may have hit the ground. Upon seeing the slow-motion replay on the Jumbotron, my section immediately groaned in sadness — the ball did appear to hit the ground. But with every replay, coupled with the extended time it took for the review official to come back, the mood slowly turned. They wouldn’t overturn it.
While waiting for the ruling, I tweeted my thoughts. Not because I believed the words, but because I was counting on miracles. I was almost sure that ball hit the ground, but I needed that call to get upheld. So, at that point, all that was left was to lie to myself, because there was really no other option.
And then it was upheld. Third miracle. We were meant to win this game.
After getting a much-needed first down, followed by a one-yard run by Jacquizz Rodgers, the game hit the two-minute warning.
This was it. Three downs and only 15 yards away. It almost seemed like the perfect ending to the football portion of my “perfect” plan. The Falcons would score, and then the 49ers would be stuck with less than a minute to try to score for the tie or win. But they wouldn’t. Because, like Sam said, it was our time.
Second down, Matt Ryan throws a pass to Jason Snelling for five yards. We’re now at the 10-yard line with two downs to go four yards. It was no secret that Matt Ryan would be throwing the ball on third, and, if necessary, fourth down. But with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez on our team, the odds were in our favor.
Third down, Ryan throws a pass toward Roddy White. Incomplete. And like that, the air was sucked out of the Georgia Dome. This game, once a 17-point Falcons lead, had now come down to fourth down with just over a minute left. This was officially “it.”
And even still, even with this torturous situation staring us in the face, it almost seemed like the appropriate way to get into the Super Bowl. All season, the Falcons were criticized for their close wins. So why not pull out yet another one, this time en route to the biggest stage. It was the worst feeling, watching the team line up for this fourth down, but the feeling of elation that it would produce when it went in our favor almost made the hardship worth it.
Fourth down. Matt Ryan drops back. He throws it down the middle to Roddy White. The pass is batted away. Incomplete.
It’s hard to sum up the scene in the Dome at that moment, but it was like the entire city flatlined. Imagine a terminal patient making a miraculous recovery only to drop dead a day later. It didn’t make any sense, but it happened.
I looked around and saw my mother and aunt, hands over their faces. The couple seated in front of us pointed, dumbfounded, at the spot where the football sat. It seemed like everyone was filled with sadness, but also like we’d been duped. Not only did the Falcons appear to be headed for a loss, but it seemed that those who found such joy in predicting our demise were right. How foolish were we to believe that they were wrong? And how naive were we to believe that this was a team of destiny? It was overwhelming. Not only were the answers to these questions not easily answerable, but also there was still a game to play.
The 49ers got the ball on the 10-yard line needing just one first down to clinch a Super Bowl berth. It felt as definite as the Falcons scoring just a minute earlier, so while some hope still remained in the stadium, it came from a place of exhaustion and desperation and of, maybe, something not even we deserved: the possibility of a fourth miracle.
Had so many things not gone our way earlier, who knows what shape the fans might have been in. But even with 69 seconds left, there was still a glimmer of hope. A fumble, maybe? Who knows, maybe Kaepernick throws one and we get a pick? Just something. Anything.
What we got, while none of those, was a rare defensive stop. The Falcons defense prevented three running plays from producing a first down, which meant we were down to two plays: a punt return and a Hail Mary.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt completely hopeless. And, worst of all, I had almost lost faith in miracles.
So, as a last-ditch effort, I did the only thing I could do at a time like this.
I no longer thought we could win, but now just wanted to be proven wrong. Last time we were down and all appeared to be lost — last game — I sent out a tweet wish and it came true.
Hoping for lightning to strike twice was all I had left. But, after a negative-two-yard punt return, and then a Matt Ryan completion that was halted before a series of miracle laterals could take the football in the end zone, the game and the season were over.
And with that, so went the perfect plan.
Logistically, the rest of the trip happened as planned, from my Sunday-night flight out of Atlanta back to D.C., to standing on the Mall the following day and watching Barack be Beyoncé’s opening act during the Inauguration festivities. But it wasn’t the same.
Because part of the plan wasn’t standing among a frustrated, angry mob frantically trying to stuff its way into the train station to flee the Georgia Dome as quickly as possible. Neither was riding the train in silence, not talking to my accompanying family members, as they watched me sulk off to the depths of the Atlanta airport. Also most certainly not part of the plan: turning down “Let’s celebrate Barack and Martin at the same damn time” party requests upon returning to D.C.
Yes, on Monday, Martin’s legacy was celebrated, and the Obama family’s elegant reign was revered, and Beyoncé’s snatching out of her earpiece when it was time to lock up that “Diva of the Millennium” title was almost faint-worthy. But I still approached it all with a hint of Scrooge. Because with all of this history in front of me, all I could really think about was a football game. And that angered me. So, 24 hours before expected, I left Washington, D.C., to return to New York. This was something I needed to get past, and that, depressingly, wasn’t going to happen with happiness at every turn. What a waste, these dreams of perfection.
I can’t wait to tell my kids about this weekend.