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Atlanta shakes its feathers

Football: The Atlanta Falcons are in their first Super Bowl, and that gets their fervent fans doing the "Dirty Bird" dance.

January 27, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Up next, two stockbrokers from across the street. "Buckhead Plaza," says Tim Terry, 38. "It's a building in Tom Wolfe's book."

The market has closed, so Terry and his brokering buddy Tom Outler have dropped by for Miller Lite tall boys. They people-watch, as hundreds of guys talk sports until their voices are ragged; the aggregate perspiration factor is downright collegiate. The other gender is also heartily represented, as if colonies of CNN anchors have set upon the rally.

But the stockbrokers are watching a man called "The Great Falconi" flop about in wild costume. "See that guy there? He's from the North. We're the only natives left. Everyone else here is from the North," Terry says, now looking our way. "Eh, did anyone tell you Baltimore isn't going to the Super Bowl?"

The subject, in theory, is football. "We didn't get the coverage or respect this year," Outler says. "Even the fans think it's a fluke -- but not the people we played."

The Falcons even sneaked up on the National Football League. Last week, the NFL front office notified the team it would be wearing its red home jerseys in Super Bowl XXXIII. But since 1990, the Falcons have worn black home jerseys. It's not a slap to the helmet, but a reminder that Atlanta's football history has been steeped in obscurity.

In 1965, an insurance company president named Rankin Smith paid $8.5 million for the NFL's 23rd franchise. An Atlanta schoolteacher, Miss Julia Elliot, suggested the name Falcons because "the falcon is deadly and has a great sporting tradition." In 1966, Atlanta joined the NFL, and teams such as the Colts regularly pounded them into submission. Atlanta went 3-11 in 1966, 1-12-1 the next year, then 2-12.

Coaches came and went, fine men with first names such as Norb, Norm, Leeman and June, and the prototypical Southern gentleman, Jerry Glanville. Stars were few, but Atlanta fans do remember Tommy Nobis and Claude Humphrey, and later Steve Bartkowski, Gerald Riggs, William Andrews and Deion Sanders. Today's stars include linebacker Jessie Tuggle, defensive end Chuck Smith, running back Jamal Anderson and quarterback Chandler -- formerly nicknamed "Crystal Chandelier" because of his injury record.

Still, visitors to the Atlanta History Center won't find much in the way of Falcons football. There are exhibits showing Atlanta's Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam of Golf in 1930; Braves manager Bobby Cox's jersey from a World Series; and fittingly, tributes to home run champ Hank Aaron.

Pinned to one wall is the jersey worn by none other than Falcon center Jeff Van Note in 1986. Bet he couldn't have done the Dirty Bird.

"Big guys with no rhythm can't do it. That's why Dan Reeves can't do it," says Frances Aguilar, who works for an Atlanta ad agency where she's been practicing the Dirty Bird before co-workers all week. "I got the steps off the Internet."

At the Buckhead pep rally, Aguilar predicts the Falcons will beat the Broncos 28-21. She also wisely predicts that the visitor from Baltimore won't try the Dirty Bird, either.

"Jordan is gone and the Falcons have arrived! Get ready to do the Dirty Bird!" hollers a deejay on stage. Falcon Chuck Smith soon manhandles the microphone. "We've all been underdogs! We were hunted at first and now we are the hunter!" Everyone is talking as if they're pro wrestlers.

At 6: 55 p.m., the moment arrives: Atop a mighty flatbed truck, 10 contestants will perform dignified acts of human ingenuity. Failing that, they plan on making complete fools of themselves in hopes of winning Super Bowl tickets.

The throng inches toward the thonged -- Contestant No. 1 -- a woman who, with the crowd's approval, is dunked in chocolate syrup and then enthusuastically rolls herself in a pile of feathers.

"This chick is insane," says Amy Peterman, an Atlanta schoolteacher. "She's going to hate life after this. Does her momma watch the news?"

Contestant No. 2 is a male stripped down to just his jock strap. With a trip to Miami on his mind, he dives into a wading pool full of chocolate pudding, emerging as the crowd's new favorite. He shakes his tail feathers as pudding shoots off him. He removes his jock's athletic cup and hurls it into the crowd like a bride's garter.

The cup skids and stops at Amy Peterman's feet. There it stays, untouched. It will not become a souvenir from Atlanta's pep rally for its Falcons.

"This is a Jerry Springer show," the schoolteacher says.

No, this is Falcons Fever.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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