For the second time in franchise history, the Atlanta Falcons are headed to the Super Bowl. Will they rise up and claim Atlanta’s first major pro sports championship since 1995? Super fan Samuel L. Jackson has definitely got his fingers crossed. From adventurous mascots to touchdown dance crazes, here’s a quick primer on everything you should know about the “Dirty Birds.”
1. ATLANTA’S TEAM WAS ALMOST THE CARDINALS.
Before the Falcons came along, the Arizona Cardinals (as we now know them) considered migrating to Atlanta. From 1960 to 1987, this storied football team played in St. Louis, where they were briefly holed up in an outdated stadium called Sportsman’s Park. Owners Bill and Charles Bidwill didn’t think much of this home field and the replacement was suffering constant delays, so between 1963 and 1964, they met with Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. to talk about the possibility of bringing their Cards to Georgia’s capital city. Faced with the threat of losing its NFL team, the city of St. Louis appeased the Bidwills by building Busch Memorial Stadium, a $24 million sports venue. It opened in 1966.
2. THEY WERE BORN IN 1965.
The Atlanta Falcons were born in 1965 as an NFL expansion team, which the league awarded to Atlanta-based insurance executive Rankin Smith for $8.5 million. At the time, this was the highest sum that had ever been paid for a professional sports franchise. (By comparison, in 2008 the Miami Dolphins were purchased for $1 billion. How times have changed.)
3. THE TEAM’S FIRST-EVER DRAFT PICK GOT SOME ADVICE FROM AN ASTRONAUT, AND IGNORED IT.
Linebacker Tommy “Mr. Falcon” Nobis has the distinction of being the franchise’s first-ever draft pick. He’s also one of the few athletes who’s ever gotten career advice from an astronaut. In college, Nobis averaged almost 20 tackles per game and led his Texas Longhorns to a national title in 1963. His skills caught the attention of two rival football leagues: the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League. (On June 8, 1966, the two leagues announced that they would merge and form the modern NFL.)
When he decided to turn pro, Nobis was drafted by both the Falcons—who were part of the old NFL—and the AFL’s Houston Oilers. News of this debacle reached the orbiting Gemini 7 spacecraft. In a transmission back to earth, astronaut Frank Borman said, “Tell Nobis to sign with Houston.” But the linebacker picked Atlanta instead. Nobis officially signed with the Falcons on December 14, 1965 and would play a major role in their inaugural season in 1966.
4. THEY’VE BASED THEIR TEAM COLORS ON POPULAR COLLEGE TEAMS.
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Why do the Falcons wear red and black? Their color scheme is an homage to the Georgia Bulldogs. Early in their history, the Falcons paid tribute to another beloved SEC team—the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets—with a pair of gold stripes that graced their helmets from 1966 to 1970.
5. A FORMER COACH USED SOME ODD PROPS TO MOTIVATE THE TEAM, INCLUDING A STICK OF DYNAMITE.
Interim head coach Jim Hanifan used some weird—and potentially dangerous—props in his motivational speeches. While the team was getting ready to take on the San Francisco 49ers in week 13 of the 1989 season, Hanifan walked into their locker room holding an unlit stick of dynamite. Imploring the players to “be explosive with every play,” he invited them to walk up and touch the strange visual aid. (It didn’t help; the Falcons lost 23-10.)
For the next game, when the club visited Minnesota, Hanifan brought in three hand grenades. After the Falcons were trounced 43-17, Hanifan upped the ante by leaving a disarmed bomb in the locker room. (Incidentally, he had the thing painted red and black. Nice touch.) One Falcon was reported as saying, “If we lose to Washington Sunday, [Hanifan’s] liable to show up for that last game with something nuclear.” The Falcons lost 31-30.
6. WHEN THEY DRAFTED BRETT FAVRE IN 1991, A LEAGUE EXECUTIVE MISPRONOUNCED HIS NAME AS "FAVOR."
Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre famously spent his rookie season in Atlanta. When the Falcons nabbed him in the 1991 draft, the announcement was made by NFL executive Don Weiss, who mispronounced the last name of the future superstar. “Atlanta has selected Brett Favor, quarterback, Southern Mississippi,” Weiss said.
7. THEY WERE FANS OF M.C. HAMMER.
The 1991 Falcons chose M.C. Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” as their team anthem. That year, Hammer, who frequented Atlanta home games, gave wide receiver Andre Rison and cornerback Deion Sanders a cameo in the song’s official music video. Then-head coach Jerry Glanville made an appearance as well.
8. A 38-YARD OVERTIME FIELD GOAL SENT THEM TO THEIR FIRST SUPER BOWL.
One of the greatest moments in the Falcons' franchise history came at the end of the 1998 NFC Championship Game, when kicker Morten Andersen made a 38-yard overtime field goal that sent the Falcons to their first Super Bowl. Andersen was one incredible athlete: During his 25-year NFL career, he took the field in 382 games, more than any other player in league history. Furthermore, he’s also the NFL’s all-time leading scorer. Andersen clinched this latter record as a member of the Falcons. During a 2006 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, he nailed an extra point attempt in the second quarter. This gave him 2435 career points overall—one more than the previous record-holder. By the time he retired, Andersen had drilled in a grand total of 2544 points, including the 806 he made in a Falcons jersey.
9. THEIR “DIRTY BIRD” DANCE WAS A HIT WITH FANS.
Show us a Falcons fan who grew up in the 1990s, and we’ll show you someone who probably knows the “Dirty Bird” dance by heart. Running back Jamal Anderson is usually credited with inventing the jig during Atlanta’s ’98 Super Bowl run. Before long, everybody on the roster was doing it—even head coach Dan Reeves showed off his own version right after the Falcons were handed the 1998 NFC Championship trophy.
The following off-season, Atlanta linebacker Jessie Tuggle made an appearance at a local elementary school function. At one child’s request, the NFL veteran started doing the Dirty Bird. But just a few seconds in, the kid interrupted him. “He said, ‘That’s not how Jamal does it!’” Tuggle recalled to The New York Times. “And then he started doing it himself to show me. That was pretty much the last time I agreed to do the Dirty Bird when someone asked me.”
10. THE TEAM’S MASCOT ONCE FLEW AWAY DURING PRACTICE DRILLS.
For the club’s first 15 seasons, an actual falcon assumed mascot duty. Back then, the team played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which didn’t have a roof. As avian trainer Mike Cady found out the hard way, this was not an ideal situation. While practicing drills on the field one day in 1966, Cady’s raptor suddenly flew out of the building. “[The bird] just chickened out,” Cady told the press. The wayward falcon was later recovered when somebody saw it loitering at a Kraft food plant in suburban Atlanta and called Cady, who quickly recaptured his escapee.
11. THE TEAM’S GOT A STAR-STUDDED FAN BASE.
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The Falcons have one star-studded fan base: Jeff Foxworthy, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Carter, and Usher are among the many celebrities who live and die with the Dirty Birds. Believe it or not, one of their most prominent boosters is now the quarterback of a rival team. Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton grew up in Atlanta, where he rooted for the Falcons through thick and thin. Despite the fact that he presently plays for another franchise in the same division, Newton’s affection for his hometown team remains strong. “I’ve always been a Falcon fan,” he said in a 2013 interview, “and I’m still a Falcons fan—except for those two times a year [when they play Carolina].”
Another Falcons diehard? Moe Szyslak from The Simpsons. In the season 10 episode "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday," Springfield’s number one bartender leapt at the chance to attend Super Bowl XXXIII because it features his “favorite team,” the Falcons. “Ever since I was a boy,” he tells Homer, “I’ve always loved the Atlanta Falcons.”
12. THEY WERE THE FIRST TEAM TO FACE OFF AGAINST THE SAINTS IN NEW ORLEANS AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA.
In week three of the 2006 season, the Falcons were the visiting team in the first post-Katrina home game of their perennial archrivals, the New Orleans Saints. As a Monday Night game, it was broadcast by ESPN. Over 10 million people across the country tuned in to watch the meaningful matchup, giving it the second-largest cable audience of any broadcast in history at the time.
13. IN 2012, THOMAS DECOUD PLAYED THE “MEOW GAME” WITH AN ESPN REPORTER.
Back in 2012, Thomas DeCoud, a free safety who suited up for Atlanta from 2008 to 2013, decided to mess with ESPN sportscaster Bram Weinstein by playing the Super Troopers “meow” game during a live interview. For the uninitiated, the rules—as established in the 2001 cult comedy—are straightforward: Just find somebody to talk with and then see how many times you can sneak the word “meow” into your sentences before he or she catches on. In the span of four minutes, DeCoud dropped 14 audible meows. Weinstein later claimed that he finally realized what was going on near the end of the interview. “You killed me man,” he told DeCoud on Twitter after the fact. “Funny. I’m a Falcons fan now. Meow.”
14. QUARTERBACK MATT RYAN’S CAREER GOT OFF TO A GREAT START.
Talk about a great first impression: Current starting quarterback Matt Ryan’s very first professional pass in the NFL, in 2008, was a 62-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Michael Jenkins.
15. A PLAYER’S WIFE WAS RECENTLY AWARDED THE TEAM BALL—AND WITH GOOD REASON.
Last month, Atlanta held off Seattle with a final score of 36-20 to secure an NFC Championship appearance—the club’s second in five years. Katie Levitre, wife of Falcons guard Andy Levitre, would’ve had a great excuse for missing that Seahawks game: She went into labor just before kickoff. But instead of calling an ambulance, Katie decided to stay put in the stadium. She also refrained from breaking the news to her husband until after the game. That afternoon, the couple went to a local hospital where Katie gave birth to their first child, a healthy baby girl they named Lily. In recognition of her amazing toughness, the proud new mother was awarded the game ball by head coach Dan Quinn.
16. THEY’RE ABOUT TO GET A NEW HOME.
The Falcons will soon have a new nest to roost in. The team is set to move into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.5 billion venue presently under construction, for the upcoming season. Among other things, the surrounding plaza will feature the largest metal bird statue on Earth—a football-clutching metallic falcon with a 64-foot wingspan.
17. ONE FALCONS SUPER FAN HAS BANNED THE SALE OF SAMUEL ADAMS BEER IN HIS STORE UNTIL AFTER THIS YEAR’S SUPER BOWL.
Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for NYCWFF
An Exxon gas station in Gainesville, Georgia recently made headlines when the manager, Hadji Chhadua, decided to ban the sale of Samuel Adams beer in his establishment until after Super Bowl LI. The story quickly gained traction on Twitter, where the Boston-based brewery weighed in with a couple of tweets, one of which read “don’t worry Atlanta, we’re still drinking Coca-Cola.”