September 30, 2001 — The atmosphere was atypical. There was celebration in the Atlanta Falcons locker room Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons had just defeated the Carolina Panthers, 24-16. It was Atlanta’s first win of the season, and just the team’s 10th victory since playing in the 1998 Super Bowl.
“It was just great,” Falcons starting center Todd McClure said Thursday in the locker room at the team’s training center in Flowery Branch. “After losing the first game (16-13 in overtime to San Francisco in Week 1) we needed a big win. The week afterwards, preparing for the next game, everybody is upbeat and ready to go out and win another game.
“It’s nice after you win a game. Everybody around here is not down and sulking around. After a loss, there’s not a whole lot of talking going on. Everybody just pretty much keeps to themselves.”
Last Sunday, all the talking in the Falcons locker room must have taken Todd by surprise. It was only the second win he has played in as a pro.
Todd’s first win, ironically, also came against Carolina. Atlanta defeated the Panthers, 13-12, in Week 9 last season. Todd started at center that game, the first start of his NFL career.
But the Falcons lost six in a row after that. Todd sat out the season finale — a 29-13 victory over Kansas City — with a strained right calf.
Atlanta was 4-12 last season, 5-11 the year before that. Those nine wins were barely half the team’s total in 1998, when the Falcons went 16-3 and lost to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII.
That was the season before Atlanta drafted Todd, with the 237th overall pick, out of LSU.
“I was excited to come to a team that went to the Super Bowl,” Todd said. “That’s everybody’s dream here, playing in the NFL, to make it to the Super Bowl. I felt really good about coming here to play.”
But Todd didn’t play — he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the second day of summer camp. And the Falcons didn’t win — they went from champs to chumps in less than a year.
“It was tough,” Todd said. “Because first, right after I hurt my knee, I didn’t know what was going to happen with my career, if I was going to be done or if they were going to give me injury settlement or what. Luckily they put me on injured reserve, so I was here to stick around.
“There wasn’t much I could do because I was here rehabbing. But it was still tough, because I was still part of the team, to see them not being able to win many games. It was just a long season.”
And, if possible, last season was even longer. The Falcons lost five games or more in a row twice. They never won back-to-back games. And Todd was no longer a spectator. He was an active participant. He had never experienced so much losing in his life.
“When you’re losing, it’s no fun doing what you do,” Todd said. “It’s no fun being in here every day and going through, doing the same old things, and not getting anything out of it. It makes it tough to come to work every day when you’re not winning the games.”
“How does winning or losing affect the way you are treated out in the community?” I asked.
“When you’re winning,” Todd said, “everybody is more …”
“Receptive,” chimed in offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam, whose hobbies include playing UNO and being quoted in The Times.
“There you go,” Todd said. “There’s the word. Receptive.
“And then the media is not writing articles about the things we’ve done wrong. A lot of times, when we’re winning they’ll write about what we’re doing good, and then that carries over to the fans, how the fans see us. The fans see we’re doing good, they want to come out to some more games and see what we’re doing. It all trickles down.”
The fans played a role in last week’s win, Todd said. They were dressed as much in American red, white and blue as they were in Falcons red and black. They were ready for an escape through football after the NFL postponed the previous week’s games because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Last Sunday, the Georgia Dome was far from full, but 47,804 fans put security concerns aside and cheered their team to victory.
“The crowd was really into it and loud, and it kind of got us going,” Todd said.
The Falcons, actually, could easily be 2-0 right now. They led 13-3 in the third quarter at San Francisco in the season opener, but then allowed 13 unanswered points, including the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Today, the Falcons head to Arizona to play a very beatable Cardinals team. The heat may be Atlanta’s toughest opponent at Sun Devil Stadium.
Todd knows his teammates will be sweaty and tired in the locker room after the game. He just hopes they have reason to talk, too.
How does losing affect the home life?
“Once you leave here,” Todd said, “I don’t think you can take it home and take it out on your family. But I’m sure to some extent, when you’re winning things are a little better. Everybody is happy around the house. And always playoffs, you get that extra money if you make the playoffs, so you can make the wife happy and all.”