It was Sunday, January 17, 1999. I was in Augusta, Georgia, for the first big junior tennis tournament of the season, the Mayor’s Cup. Two days earlier, I walked onto the court, unseeded, for my first-round match with the 9-seed. The end result: a three-set loss. Ever the type to get down on myself, I was bummed, a feeling that continued through my first-round consolation match the following day. I lost that too. I had traveled all the way to Augusta, during my long MLK weekend, to go 0-2. I was devastated.
Then, to make matters worse, I couldn’t leave. I had made the trek with a couple other players, and they were still in the tournament. So on Sunday, the penultimate day of the tournament, I showed up to the tennis center in street clothes, my racket back at the hotel. Coming empty-handed meant both spectators and participants alike were reminded that you’re a loser. I was 11, and at that point in my life it got no worse than this.
And then it started raining. A light drizzle turned into a monsoon. All of the players, coaches, and families left the court and made their way into the large, but not large enough, tennis center to await a ruling on whether the tournament was canceled or simply postponed. Selfishly hoping that it would get canceled so I could escape this tween hell, I sat in the corner by the window rooting for the storm to strengthen. Hours went by. There was still no ruling.
As one of the few people in the building no longer involved in the tournament — emotionally or physically — I searched for distractions and found one in the form of a small TV in a corner of the room. It was now just after three o’clock and a small group had gathered. Because of my one-track pity party, I had completely forgotten that the Atlanta Falcons were playing in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. I plopped down and saw that the Vikings were up in the fourth quarter. Unsure if I could handle any more bad news, I almost walked away. But looking around, I realized there was nowhere else to go. So I stayed put.
It wasn’t looking great. The Vikings were up 27-20 with a little more than two minutes left, and they had the ball, and they had Gary Anderson waiting to kick — and presumably make — a field goal to put the game out of reach. He hadn’t missed once all season.
And then, to put the Vikings up 30-20, from only 38 yards away, he missed.
No one could believe it — not in that tennis center, not in that stadium, not on that television. The focus of the room, full of Atlanta natives who’d made the drive, shifted from the future of the tennis tournament to the future of the Falcons. With two minutes left, Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler marched the Falcons down the field and threw a touchdown pass to Terance Mathis, sending the game into overtime. The extra period had its own 38-yarder, this one for Falcons kicker Morten Andersen.
The second the ball left his foot, the tennis center erupted. This time, the ball sailed through, and the Dirty Birds were headed to Miami. High-fives and hugs happened between strangers left and right. No one seemed to care about the tournament (which was eventually canceled). No one seemed to care about much. The underdog Falcons had made the Super Bowl for the first time ever.
I’ve never forgotten that day — down to the details — because it was always the day I thought I became a real sports fan. Sure, sports were the only thing that mattered to my 11-year-old self, and yes, there were moments that came with celebration before that (Sid‘s slide and Grissom‘s catch), but something changed that day, for the better.
It wasn’t until almost 14 years later that I realized I’d been fooling myself all along. My investment in sports may have changed in that room in Augusta, but I didn’t become a real sports fan, a person with a team that takes precedence over all, proudly and unhealthily, until yesterday. Ten a.m. on Sunday, January 13, 2013 is when everything actually changed.
I woke up scared, not for what the future held, but of the anxiety that was attacking my insides. I felt nauseated. I needed a beer. It wasn’t a completely foreign feeling, but never had it been the product of a sport I was watching.
More than anything, I was confused. It wasn’t as if I had just developed a newfound love of the Falcons (I’ve been wearing a lucky Falcons jersey every Sunday for years, have written about them at length and with a biased heart, and I even yelled at my hero, 2 Chainz, for betraying me by showing up at a 49ers game draped in red-and-gold gear a day earlier). They had been a team I adored my entire life, my favorite Atlanta team since we drafted Michael Vick, but never had I felt like this.
I didn’t know how to handle these new feelings, but I knew I needed people going through the same thing.
Up until this point in my Falcons-watching adult life, one that has primarily taken place away from Atlanta, I had been completely satisfied with watching games alone, or with a friend or two, or if I was feeling especially sassy, at the rival bar, decked in Falcons garb with the hopes of being obnoxious in victory without getting into a scuffle.
This morning was the first time I couldn’t guarantee that last detail. For the first time, my internal pride was mirroring the external façade, and my true feelings matched the hyperbolic, dramatic way in which I spoke about my team. I didn’t know what would come from this new-look me. I needed to be in a safe space. I didn’t want to see anyone from Seattle, but I also couldn’t be alone.
Thankfully, Manhattan’s Atlanta Falcons bar was but 11 blocks from my house. I ran there.
Arriving just a minute before the game began, the scene in the bar felt like a mirage. All I saw were people wearing Falcons jerseys, of players old and new. Was it the Bud Ice talking, or did this place actually exist? And why did it take me so long to find her?
Sitting with my ever-growing crew of Atlanta-expat loved ones, as close to the televisions as we could, we grew more and more excited as the game began and a field goal + touchdown + field goal + touchdown first half produced a 20-0 lead.
Normally, this was the point at which I would begin to worry. As much as I’d like to pretend that the outside world hasn’t affected me, nightmares of Matt Ryan’s playoff failures and talk of the team’s inflated record had seeped into my brain. Up until that point, any and all overconfident proclamations that I made about the Falcons were exercises in hiding fear.
When I woke up on Sunday, that was all gone. The Falcons were going to beat the Seahawks because they are my team and because they are the best team in the NFL. The doubt was gone.
When the Seahawks scored a touchdown to make it 20-7, I was still good. Aggressively stress-eating, but still confident. That feeling only increased as the Falcons scored another touchdown to regain their 20-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
It was at this point that everything bad that could happen happened. Twenty-one Seahawks points in 14 Earth minutes, with a Matt Ryan interception sprinkled in for good measure. With 31 seconds left, the Atlanta Falcons were down 28-27.
Staring at the television, face in hat, hat on bar — thus, transitively, face on bar — all I could think of was a video I had watched not 24 hours earlier.
I’d watched this video, of the Falcons making the Super Bowl, due in large part to that Gary Anderson miss, as a form of pumping myself up and remembering what it felt like to feel unadulterated joy. But now, with the Falcons down a point after being up by three scores, the clip’s unforeseen effect was coming back to haunt me. It wasn’t the Falcons’ victory I aligned with. It was the Vikings’ misery.
“It has become one of the mythic moments in sports history in this town.”
“’98 was the season. All the stars had aligned.”
“When you have the perfect storm that this was — that perfect season, your Hall of Fame kicker, you’re at home, you’re in a dome, you’ve led the whole game — and you miss. And then you end up losing. It’s pretty tough to top all those factors together.”
I didn’t know what to do. I was only about five hours into this new-look, highly emotional sports fandom. I looked over at my friend, colleague, fellow Atlanta expat, and (most importantly) sports fan Lang Whitaker, who seemed to see the fear in my face. “We’re fine,” he said. “Matt Ryan, 31 seconds, and two timeouts? We’re fine.”
For some reason I believed him. Never before that Sunday would I have done so. Typically, I operate under the guise of practicality. I hedge my bets. I act so as not to have my words come back to haunt me. Down with 30 seconds left, normally I would have been in reputation damage-control mode, thinking of excuses along the lines of “I mean, whatever. #GoAtlantaHawks.” Not anymore. For the first time, if the Falcons lost, I felt like I lost. And I couldn’t have that.
So, with 25 seconds left, after a great Jacquizz Rodgers return, Matt Ryan got the ball and made two passes to get the Falcons within field goal range. The bar, which had gone quiet but had yet to become defeated, suddenly felt like the Georgia Dome. The whiskey shots ordered after the Seahawks’ 28th point were suddenly looking less like vials of gasoline and more like trophies.
With no timeouts and 13 seconds left, Falcons coach Mike Smith brought out kicker Matt Bryant. I looked up to the sky. I had to talk with someone. I don’t know who it was, maybe it was God, maybe it was Melissa, the woman upstairs who told me about this bar, but all I knew was that I needed something, because this was it.
The ball left Bryant’s foot and veered to the right, but even as Pete Carroll called timeout and everyone around explained the fallacy of icing the kicker, I thought for a moment that the Falcons had lost, and my heart sunk to a depth I didn’t know was possible.
But it didn’t count.
And then Matt Bryant walked out again.
I screamed. I teared up. I jumped on things.
The Seahawks still had an opportunity, but it all came down to a Russell Wilson Hail Mary, which did land in the hands of a wide receiver — one who played for the other team.
I screamed. I teared up. I jumped on things. And then I ran through the bar, eventually getting accidentally punched in the nose, which just made me all-out cry. I couldn’t have been happier. I didn’t even know I had these emotions, but here they were for all to see.
To win was amazing, but the realization that I was finally a sports fan is what really sent me over the emotional deep end. This was now my team, and, for better or worse, I’m stuck with them for the rest of my life. Not just geographically stuck. Emotionally stuck. I never thought I’d get here, but here I was.
For years, since moving to New York, I’ve mocked the MSG television channel (and those who love it) for seemingly existing to show memories from the 1994 Rangers and Knicks seasons. They were great successes, yes, with the former winning it all and the latter coming up just short, but this was almost 20 years ago. I’ve long been bewildered at why footage from these seasons — sometimes just normal, unremarkable regular-season games — is always on.
My thoughts on this were all I could think about as I stayed up past 2 a.m. for my fourth helping of SportsCenter. I needed to relive it. I needed to see Rodgers run over the Seahawks defense again, and to react to it like it was my first time. I needed to remember what it felt like when it was slipping away, and then what it felt like when the clock finally hit zero. And I needed to hear Stuart Scott say, in reference to the Falcons, “but one win away from the Super Bowl.” I now understood why they cared. I understood, because I knew I’d be thinking about this game, and this day, for the rest of my life. And I knew I wouldn’t forget a single detail. The next few weeks will decide if I think back on this year like a 1994 Knicks or Rangers fan, but either way, what happened Sunday will never leave me.
It took me 25 years, but I’ve finally arrived. Sports, thanks for having me. It feels great to be here.