It was a grave digger named Wade Traynham who began digging the hole the Atlanta Falcons languished in for much of the last 33 years.
When Traynham wasn’t digging graves, he was kicking footballs.
Or trying to.
Traynham kicked off in the first game the Falcons ever played, a 1966 exhibition against the Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Stadium. Except Traynham whiffed, missing the ball completely.
Talk about bad omens. Traynham was gone in two years, but the Falcons’ troubles were only beginning.
Unlike the 1990s, when free agency has given the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers the opportunity to be competitive right away, there were no such quick avenues to success when the Falcons were born in 1966.
Al Thomy, who covered the Falcons from their inception until 1978 for the Atlanta Constitution, recalls that first team as “a bunch of castoffs, malcontents and unwanted players. They were a bunch of losers, but colorful. They were kind of like the French Foreign Legion.”
That first Falcon team gathered at a YMCA camp at Black Mountain, N.C., for training camp.
“There were no screens on the windows and the mosquitoes were as big as birds,” Thomy said. “We almost had the first NFL players’ strike over the food. The hamburgers bounced off the floor. The players threatened to go on strike if they didn’t improve the food.”
The food got better, which is more than could be said about the team.
The Rev. Billy Graham came by to say a prayer for the Falcons, but no divine intervention could be detected.
Vince Lombardi, in the midst of building a dynasty in Green Bay, had expressed interest in becoming the team’s first head coach, but he also wanted part ownership. Owner Rankin Smith turned him down.
Instead, Smith, acting on a recommendation from Commissioner Pete Rozelle, hired Lombardi’s defensive backfield coach, Norb Hecker.
On his roster, Hecker had wide receiver Alex Hawkins, who knew about winning from his years with the Baltimore Colts in the Johnny Unitas era. So Hecker told Hawkins he wanted him to be a team leader, a man the younger players could look up to.
That lasted until Hawkins came into camp one night at 5 a.m. on the back of a watermelon truck.
“Do you want to say anything in your behalf?” Hecker asked him.
“Would you believe I was kidnapped?” Hawkins replied.
So much for the leadership role.
The Falcons’ first quarterback was Randy Johnson, who once got mixed up and tried to take a snap from his guard instead of the center. With little protection, Johnson could usually be found under a pile of opposing players. Asked what he said to his players in the huddle, Johnson replied, “Help!”
Their first draft choice was linebacker Tommy Nobis, who had been a star at Texas.
“With my background, having won a national championship and having a heck of a lot more wins in college, it was tough,” Nobis said. “We won only three games the first year in Atlanta and the second year we really tore it up and won one. It was really discouraging. It hurt to lose.
“I’m certainly not one to accept losing, but the early years in Atlanta, the Falcons were such a big thing that it was just such an exciting situation, win or lose. Of course as time went on, people expected more.”
No matter the score, Nobis played hard. In one game, he was credited with 26 tackles.
“My uncle was the scorekeeper that day,” he said with a smile. “The problem was that many of those tackles were 15 yards downfield.”
Nobis admitted that, in those days before free agency, he was sometimes desperate for a way out.
“You would get so low on some Monday mornings after defeats that all sorts of things would go through your mind,” he said. “Not only playing for another team, but maybe you thought it would not be so bad being a bread-truck driver or something.
“But my love for the game always brought me out of the low points because I was doing something most young men would give dearly to do. Thank goodness I was rational and did not take off and do something stupid.”
After going 4-26-1 in two-plus seasons under Hecker, the Falcons found themselves under the command of Norm Van Brocklin, who had a fiery temper and an intense hatred of losing.
That was a bad combination for a team that was a long way from even playing .500.
The Falcons kept losing under Van Brocklin, but he made it an even worse experience than it had been under Hecker.
Running back Paul Gipson, one of Van Brocklin’s favorite targets, had a particularly bad first half in a game against the New Orleans Saints. In the locker room at halftime, an infuriated Van Brocklin told Gipson in front of the entire team, “I could cut your heart out and put it in a thimble and still have room in there for enough soup to feed an entire family.”
On another occasion, Gipson went up to Van Brocklin on the sideline and said, “Coach, my leg hurts, my arm hurts and my back hurts. There is no place they can hit me that doesn’t hurt.”
Van Brocklin listened and then put Gipson back in the game.
Van Brocklin had an annoying habit of wandering around the locker room after the players had undressed and spitting hot coffee on their backsides.
“I don’t know if he did that to take away his anxiety or ours,” said Jeff Van Note, a Falcon center from 1969 to ’86.
Things got so bad for the Falcons in those years, they once had to break up a fight in their own huddle. Running back Art Malone and tight end Jim Mitchell exchanged blows before teammates separated them.
“We wanted to be champions, we wanted to get to the Super Bowl, but it just didn’t work out,” Van Note said. “What are you going to do, wallow? We weren’t like the Keystone Kops. We just didn’t win a lot. We just couldn’t put it all together.”
Marion Campbell followed Van Brocklin midway through the 1974 season, but Campbell had General Manager Pat Peppler on his back constantly. Peppler would sit in the press box and criticize his coach to the media.
When Campbell lost four of his first five games in his second full season, he was fired.
“Who do you think we should look at?” Peppler asked his owner, Smith.
“You seem to know what the problems are,” Smith said. “So I’m going to make you the coach.”
Peppler was 3-4 when the Falcons came to Los Angeles near the end of the season to play the Rams. The media were starting to give him credit for finally turning things around.
But the Rams beat Atlanta, 59-0. And after one more loss to end the season, Peppler was fired.
Campbell was brought back in the late ‘80s, but when he had fallen to 3-9 in the third season of his second tour of duty, the Falcons fired him again and asked Jim Hanifan to take over for the rest of the year.
Hanifan agreed with one condition: All ensuing losses that season would go on Campbell’s record, not his.
It took a while to convince Hanifan that was not possible.
Hanifan reluctantly took the job, and went 0-4.
And then he too was gone, those losses all his.
The Falcons had their share of stars, from Nobis to quarterback Steve Bartkowski to the exciting receiver/return man Billy “White Shoes” Johnson to Deion Sanders, who could play offense and defense and oozed excitement.
“It’s different now, but I wouldn’t trade the years I played for anything,” Johnson said. “We had 25,000 to 35,000 solid fans and we wanted to give them a show, but it seemed like a rash of injuries or something always put us behind the eight-ball.”
Linebacker Jessie Tuggle, now in his 12th season with the Falcons, knew all about the losing and the frustration before he put on an Atlanta uniform. He grew up in Georgia.
“I was a big fan,” Tuggle said, “and I always wondered why they couldn’t win, why they had so much bad luck. No matter how hard they played and how much they tried, it seemed like there was a jinx. Then I experienced it myself as a Falcon and I found out how hard it was.”
In only seven of their 33 seasons have the Falcons been above .500 in the regular season. In only five seasons before this one had they been in the postseason, and they had never made it past the second round.
In 1995, the Falcons were 8-7 heading into the final game of the regular season. They needed a win over the San Francisco 49ers to assure themselves of a postseason berth. They needed confidence. They needed determination.
They didn’t exactly get it from linebacker Darryl Talley, who backed a moving truck up behind the clubhouse before the game and cleaned out his locker, figuring he was going home.
This time, the Falcons proved the doubters wrong, beating the 49ers, 28-27, to make it into the postseason, where they were defeated by the Packers the next week.
Another sad ending going all the way back to that embarrassing beginning. Wade Traynham, see what you started?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Atlanta Falcon wins per season:
Super Bowl XXXIII
Denver vs. Atlanta
* RANDY HARVEY: Falcons’ DeBerg redefines “veteran.” Page 2
* NOTES: Headlines for a typical media day: painful hair and a dog collar. Page 4
* THE SPIN: In sponsor heaven, Davis chunks big throw but gets quick relief. Page 5