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A new slant on an old game in Atlanta

Under Van Brocklin, the Falcons have spirit and some black hopes

Norm Van Brocklin said, "Well, I'm glad Pete Rozelle is going to let us on the field with St. Vincent and his boys," and then the Washington Redskins beat Atlanta Saturday night 24-7, with Sonny Jurgensen throwing two touchdown passes, ending the Falcons' preseason winning streak at two and leading observers to wonder if the South's first .500-or-over professional football team were slouching toward Georgia to be born, after all. But there is more to the story than that.

In the 1950s and early '60s the city of Atlanta must have been in a state of grace. Somehow it seemed to be Southern, urban and yet not hung up. While other cities in the region were stagnating and putting their best police dogs forward, Atlanta won a reputation for progressiveness, efficiency, moderation and even gentility in race relations and municipal affairs.

But that was not such a neat trick, compared to what Atlantans became used to in the way of football during that period. Under Coach Bobby Dodd, Georgia Tech football seemed to be casual and yet firmly principled. Dodd's training regimen was notoriously lax, but he dropped star Halfback Billy Teas from the squad for breaking training when Teas was one yard short of the school's career rushing record. Tech was clean-living. "If you send a good boy to Tech," Dodd said, "we'll send you a good boy back home." Tech was clean-playing. Dodd righteously canceled Tech's series with Alabama after Bear Bryant's Darwin Holt gratuitously bashed in the face of Tech's Chick Graning. Tech football had room for diverting unorthodoxy. Dodd loved inelegant, improvising quarterbacks like Pepper Rodgers and Billy Lothridge. And it was on a human scale. Tech always had a tiny halfback and an All-America center who was no more than good-sized. And yet it was fine football. Dodd teams won six straight Bowl games between 1952 and 1957.

People in Atlanta would chuckle and call Tech and Dodd lucky and opportunistic, but they were inclined to believe it was a spiritual thing—not entirely facetiously did people say, "In Dodd We Trust." There was something almost ethnic about it. An Atlanta boy who listened on the radio to Tech coming from behind again and again by some quirk of fate or character to beat a favored and heavier opponent was likely to become confirmed in a particular sort of white Southern American dream.

Mystiques do not last forever, though. As far as Atlanta goes, business is still booming, but it has become clear that not everyone in town is "too busy to hate." The umbrella organization, which was to assure Atlanta of culture on all fronts, has folded and nowadays the most notable cultural development is the Great Speckled Bird, an underground newspaper that is at such odds with the going order that its personnel keep getting arrested for one thing and another. A new solicitor general recently had an Andy Warhol movie seized, the projectionist arrested (in lieu of Warhol himself) and, for good measure and future reference, the audience photographed. The successor to the esteemed, peace-keeping Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. may well be an elderly alderman whose primary pledge is to wipe hippies and dirty movies off the face of the city.

Furthermore, the biggest football game in town is no longer the Tech Yellow Jackets, who are barely competent and less distinctive under Coach Bud Carson, but the professional Falcons, who have so far been nearly awful. Tech football at its best was the flowering of fantastic local virtues. Professional football is a heavy industry, and Atlanta has been hard pressed to gear up for it.

The fans were ready in 1966, when the Falcons were founded and went 3-11, a record they have not matched. The folks in Atlanta had television, they had seen pro football and they were willing to pay to see it in person. They have bought over 40,000 season tickets every year so far, and although the average home attendance was down to around 51,000 last year from around 56,000 in '66, it is still healthy and the Redskins game Saturday was a sellout (56,990). "The people here will come out to see a winner," says Falcons Owner Rankin Smith. "I think they'll give us another couple of years to start winning."

Presumably, Atlanta could have satisfied those fans right away had it picked up an established pro football team the way it picked up the Braves in baseball and the Hawks in basketball. But it is somehow more fitting that football, which was already big time in Atlanta on the college level, has had to be assimilated slowly as a professional sport, as though the grooves had already been worn and needed retooling.

Consider the situation from the viewpoint of the aforementioned Atlanta boy who learned about winning football from broadcasts of the charmed Yellow Jackets. That boy is having to get used to a drastically new kind of coach, for one thing. Norb Hecker, the Falcons' head coach from their first game in '66 through their third in '68, was skillful but perhaps not sufficiently superhuman or Lombardi-like. He never got a galvanizing hold on his players and he blew the entire 1967 draft—not a single one of Atlanta's choices that year is still a Falcon or was ever a Falcon of value. Hecker's replacement, Van Brocklin, has said he wants to be the best coach in pro football, which presumably means better than St. Vincent. No Southern gentleman but a brusque Dutchman, Van Brocklin fired all his inherited assistant coaches last year after tacking a 2-9 record onto Hecker's 0-3. Since taking over he has also traded or waived 13 starting players, some of them good ones. This summer, in his first preseason camp with the Falcons, Van Brocklin has been tough and equitable and unusually suspicious (he has the Falcons lock up their playbooks when not using them). Concerning the remarkable number of intrasquad fistfights, he has said "good spirit." Van Brocklin's first head coaching job was with an earlier expansion club, the Minnesota Vikings, whom he commanded from their inception and led to an 8-5-1 record in their fourth year. This is the Falcons' fourth year, and they would like to beat the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins to the distinction of being the first Southern team to have a winning season. However, Van Brocklin's effect on the local press and on the fans of the fired players has been so abrasive that even if his toughness does put the Falcons pretty close to the Vikings' schedule of development, he may prove to be too hard for Atlanta to absorb.

Another new influence the Falcons have brought to Atlanta is represented most notably by their 6'5", 244-pound defensive end and last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Claude Humphrey of Tennessee State. Humphrey wants to be the next Deacon Jones or Willie Davis. With the possible exception of the Falcons' one established star, Linebacker Tommy Nobis, he has been the leading pugilist in camp this summer. In the dressing room he seems affable enough, but there is no doubt what mode he belongs to on the field. He is one big, bad man—and one of the most lustily cheered players. Last year Humphrey tackled Virgil Carter of the Bears and told him, "I'm going to be Rookie of the Year, not you." Humphrey also informed Johnny Unitas that he was going to run him out of the league. This year Van Brocklin has told him to shut up on the field. Also solid with the Atlanta fans are other black standouts such as Running Backs Jim (Cannonball) Butler and Junior Coffey and Defensive Tackle Carlton Dabney. It has only been 14 years since a great furor was raised over the idea of Georgia Tech playing in the Sugar Bowl against a team with a Negro player, and Southern Negro football stars almost never play in the SEC. But white Falcon fans, aside from those who once gave the term "Falcoons" a certain low currency, have been eagerly receptive to the black speedsters and crunchers.

But if pro football has in some sense broadened Atlanta racially, it has also raised a troublesome quarterback question. It happens that there is a Dodd-type quarterback living and working in Atlanta in the off season: Fran Tarkenton, who starred at the University of Georgia. But even if the New York Giants could be persuaded to give Tarkenton up, Van Brocklin wouldn't be in the market for him. Van Brocklin had Tarkenton at Minnesota and didn't like him; he abhors scrambling, prefers classic drop-back passers such as he was himself in his illustrious playing days. In 1966, when the two were still coexisting at Minnesota, Van Brocklin astoundingly benched Tarkenton against the Falcons and put in Bob Berry, an alumnus of Van Brocklin's alma mater (Oregon) and a cocky, orthodox quarterback in Van Brocklin's mold—only not nearly so good, as the Falcons would seem to have established by edging the Vikings that day 20-14. Tarkenton subsequently demanded to be traded, and Van Brocklin soon quit the Vikings himself.

Now the Dutchman is in charge of a team with two potential starting quarterbacks—Berry and Randy Johnson, who has been with the Falcons since their first game in 1966. Atlanta beat Philadelphia 13-7 behind Berry in its first exhibition game this summer, then won a laugher for the first time in its history, 34-16 over the Boston Patriots, with Johnson running the team. Against the Redskins, Johnson was intercepted twice and fumbled the ball away and Berry took over, throwing a touchdown pass to Jerry Simmons. It now looks like Berry will start and that Atlanta needs a better quarterback.

But unlike the Great Speckled Bird, the Falcons are—however slightly—aboveground and Establishment, if not established, and if they can win some, Atlantans will doubtless forget all about the innocent old days when Dodd set the tone.