By Peter Thomas
For many long-time Southerners and Atlantans, Super Bowl LI wasn’t simply crushing in its revival of words like “choke” and “soft” to describe Atlanta sports teams.
The larger hurt was to re-open that wound of insecurity that we as Southerners all share: that we are not quite winners on the professional football field, that our destiny is to be second-class fans in a second-tier city.
We had partially overcome those insecurities through college football and chants of “SEC.” But college football, with its different tribal loyalties and traditions necessarily leaves others out, ultimately dividing us as much as uniting us.
With this professional football team and this professional bowl game, however, we hoped that this time – in this sport that best captures our sense of who we are – that this time, might be different.
We had adopted a Falcons team slogan, “Rise Up”. And somehow, we used that slogan – despite its charged historical-Southern overtones – to reach beyond ourselves and greet one another as equal members of a shared community.
And we had adopted another slogan “In Brotherhood” that brought our team and its fans closer to one another, never forgetting our hurts and grievances, but giving us the chance to build new bonds and memories with one another.
All because this team was different. It was led by the two of the highest-character gentlemen in all of sports. It had remarkable, young talent, unaware of the heights it was scaling. It had perhaps the most honorable franchise owners in sports in Arthur Blank.
And it had a true leader in head coach Dan Quinn.
While all of us in our day-to-day work lives sense it, most players on sport teams know and believe it – to their very core – that there is something larger than themselves in their work.
Despite a sports-talk culture preaching that “it’s just a business”, “to take care of no. 1 first”, and to flaunt the milestones of success, these players – multimillionaires though many of them are – yearn to be part of something larger and greater than themselves.
And, Dan Quinn, with his earnestness and genuine love for his players – when combined with just the right, magical set of player ingredients – had created “the Brotherhood”; had ridden that great force all the way to the mountaintop.
After decades in the wilderness, we in the South would finally be able to take our place in the NFL wonderlands of the North and West. And we would do it together, not forgetting our history or our present, but undertaking a healing process with our fellow brothers and sisters and creating a new collective memory for which we could all be proud.
Instead came defeat and ashes.
But, we rise again.
We see a new and towering edifice, so grand and inspiring in its genius and ambition, that we have no choice but to look up, and begin to believe again.
Knowing, now, that last year would have been too soon.
Knowing, now, that we are thankful that we can savor the agony; that it gives us the chance to bond even closer to one another; and gives larger meaning and purpose to our inevitable victory.
Knowing that we can continue to proudly hold up these players and its leaders to our children and say, “this is how we would like you to be.”
Knowing that, for the present, we will continue to endure our fate of scorn from our fellow countrymen.
But, knowing that, with these future champions, we will walk together arm-in-arm, as Southerners and Atlantans, to the great Super Bowl victory that awaits.
Photo from AtlantaFalcons.com