Atlanta Falcons have helped revive community spirit — win or lose

By Maria Saporta

The energy — and the tension — in the Georgia Dome on Sunday captures a feeling that has been lost in recent years — a feeling of being in the game.

The last five years have been tough for Atlanta, a city used to being an economic star in the country. The Great Recession hit Atlanta harder than most other cities because it targeted the real estate and banking — two industries that had helped build Atlanta.

And yet, during Sunday’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers, the city’s troubles are put aside as people rallied behind a team that is only one win away from the Super Bowl.

John Imlay, a software entrepreneur who became a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons in 1991, had moved up his knee replacement surgery so he would be well enough to be able to go New Orleans for the big game. Less than two weeks after having surgery, Imlay is in his Georgia Dome suite soaking in all the energy in the arena.

“I’ve been with the Falcons for 23 years, and the excitement in the last two weeks has excelled over everything since the Olympics,” Imlay says. “All the problems of the economy tend to beat you down. Now people of all stripes from all parts of the city are invigorated by their team rising to the occasion.”

Imlay says Atlanta did not get to experience that when it went to Miami for the 1999 Super Bowl because the play-off games were held out of town.

“Atlanta is one great town. It shows beautifully today,” Imlay says during the first quarter when the Falcons are leading. ”Atlanta’s spirit is here. It’s been hidden in us, and. we are bringing it out by winning.”

Tim Lowe, chairman of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, also says the spirit in the Georgia Dome is similar to when Atlanta was on top of the world.

“It’s one of the most exciting times in Atlanta history since 1996 and before that, in 1991 with the Braves,” Lowe says.

Steve Sears, a senior vice president of global sales for Delta Air Lines, says professional sports franchises contribute to a city’s success.

“I came here from Chicago about a year-and-a-half ago,” Sears says while entertaining customers in the Delta suite. “When you put a winning team out on the field, people will want to come and support it. It’s very exciting for this city. Atlanta is a powerhouse and a center of business.”

For Atlanta native Thomas Forsberg, a first vice president of SunTrust Banks, is enjoying the moment both personally and professionally.

“We are so privileged to have an NFL team. We have banked the Falcons since the Smiths brought the Falcons here in 1966,” Forsberg says. “The diversity of the fan base is just phenomenal. It’s a tribute to this city itself.”

By this time, it’s in the middle of the second quarter, and the 49ers have narrowed the Falcons early lead.

Pacing in front of his suite is John Williams, a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons and founder of the real estate company Corporate Holdings.

Saying he is too nervous to watch the game from his suite, Williams is keeping up with the game by watching a small television set positioned between his suite and Arthur Blank’s suite.

“This is too much like last week,” Williams says. “It’s just like last week.”

Inside Williams’ suite is a just as nervous Steve Bartkowski, a former Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback who is now on the team’s board.

“It was easier being a player,” Bartkowski says about being a spectator. And then he takes a look at the cheering fans in the Dome. “It is a great time for the Falcons, a great time for the fans, and it’s great for the city.”

The Falcons score a touchdown just before half-time — gaining a 24-14 lead, so everyone is breathing a little easier.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed emerges from Blank’s suite. He had just flown in from Washington, D.C. for inaugural activities so he could be at the game. And he is leaving right after the game to fly back to D.C. to be on the inaugural platform watching President Barack Obama being sworn in for a second term.

Win or lose, Reed says the Atlanta Falcons making it to the second round of the playoffs has brought a winning spirit to the city.

“Sports teams can have an impact on a city’s reputation,” Reed says. “Winning is a culture, and I think the City of Atlanta’s record is one of undeniable success, and it’s nice to have a winning team in Atlanta. The last game was a big hurdle for us. Winning is a habit.”

By this time the third quarter is underway, and the 49ers have scored another touchdown, but the Falcons still have a narrow 24-21 lead.

“Everybody I know is fired up,” says Jim Hannan, CEO of Georgia-Pacific Corp. who is watching the game from Georgia Power’s suite. “I’m a huge sports fan, so for me this is a great day. We are fortunate here to have strong sports teams. The community rallying around the Falcons has been pretty special.”

In the fourth quarter, the mood has become increasingly tense. The 49ers have scored another touchdown, and they now are leading the Falcons by 28-24.

In Bank of America’s suite, Geraldine Thomas, the bank’s Georgia president, is glued to her seat watching every move. She waves from her seat, but now it’s getting serious.

As the seconds run out with the Falcons failing to make a come-from-behind winning play, the super energy that had filled the Dome during the first half is deflated. Sad faces and tears have replaced the optimism and smiles that existed just moments earlier.

After the game, Warrick Dunn, a former Atlanta Falcons’ running back who is now a minority owner of the team, is working his way to the team conference room for post-game comments.

“There was a lot of excitement,” Dunn said. “The city bought in and there was a lot of support. They are dying for a winner. They are dying for a Super Bowl. You came so close – just a drive away from the Super Bowl.”

A somber Arthur Blank still is able to exude strength and perspective despite the loss.

“We didn’t make the plays in the second half that we had made in the first half,” Blank says in a matter-of-fact way. “We got really close today. We just didn’t get it done this week.”

And then he begins to take a longer view.

“The team is only going to get better. We have a lot of young talent,” Blank says. “The fans have been wonderful all year long. I’m deeply appreciative of what they’ve done for the franchise. I know the way the fans and the coaches feel tonight — a lot of pain and sadness.”

And then Blank thanks the community for its support of the Atlanta Falcons.

“The community has been incredibly supportive for the 10 years I have been an owner,” Blank says. “One of the great things about sports in general is what it does for the community. It’s incredible.”

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