That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
– Alex Hawkins, Atlanta Falcons 1966-67
When you’re 14 and want to be a sportswriter you pray the Good Lord will drop an NFL team into the stadium they just built 10 minutes from your house.
That’s how I became a fan of the Atlanta Falcons, the team that kicks off its 46th season today against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Like many my age who grew up in Georgia’s largest city, that’s why I still have an official Falcons poster featuring a dashing halfback running to daylight. That’s why I have a fading black Falcons pennant with very faded red trim and chipped white lettering.
That’s why I have a leather MacGregor Falcons football that eventually developed a sort of hernia when the rubber bladder inside weakened on a seam and bulged out.
I had all that Falcons stuff because like my friends I was thrilled over the team.
I also had all of that stuff because Coca-Cola, our Atlanta-based soft-drink company, came up with a promotion with its bottle caps. Beneath each it printed the face of a Falcon player. I think there were about 40 of them. If you collected the entire set you could go down to the Coca-Cola office and exchange it for a poster or a pennant or a football, though the football might have taken two or three collections.
This was difficult because back then most mothers were not indulgent enough to buy bottle after bottle of a soft drink in the hope that the cap you popped off showed the fearsome flat-top of Tommy Nobis or the subversive smirk of Alex Hawkins.
But the mothers on my block had no need to worry. The parents of a Coca-Cola delivery routeman lived right across the street.
“Oh, I can get you boys bottle caps,” he told us. “No problem.”
It seems that one of his jobs, in fact the main part of his job, was to drive around southeast Atlanta filling empty Coke machines with bottles AND emptying the box inside the Coke machine door where a bottle cap would fall after a purchaser popped its top. (If this whole procedure needs some explanation, consult someone older than 50.)
Soon our favorite Coke employee began to bring us grocery bags FULL of bottle caps. Not hundreds. Thousands.
Before you knew it every boy on our street had enough complete sets of bottle caps that we all had Atlanta Falcon pennants and posters and pigskins. I’m not saying we cleaned out Coca-Cola’s gimmick locker, but the next year they dropped the bottle cap contest.
They did, however, sponsor the usually woeful team, which lost with truly remarkable consistency. Atlanta remains one of the NFL teams NEVER to win a Super Bowl.
And you know, I have no problem with that because the Falcons have taught me a personal lesson over the past four decades: You might win a game here and there. Hey, you might win more than you lose, but still, in the end, you lose.
Don’t complain about it; at least you’re playing. You got on the field. You gave it a shot. And maybe some kid somewhere has a poster of you on his wall.