November 25, 2001 — Life on the road. It’s just part of being a professional athlete.
But in the NFL, life on the road doesn’t last very long. During the season, it’s possible for players to maintain a relatively normal home life.
“You’re only gone at the most eight to 10 nights out of the year,” Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure said. “Whereas in baseball, they could be gone for an eight to 10 day road trip.”
Sit back and enjoy as Todd takes Times readers on the road ride for the Falcons surprising 23-20 win at Green Bay last Sunday. But don’t blink.
“They go by pretty quick,” Todd said. “You don’t have time for a whole lot. You go out and play, and then you’re back home again.”
• The practice: At 9 a.m. Saturday, the team watches film of Friday’s practice at the Falcons complex in Flowery Branch. That’s followed by a brief walk-through of a dozen or so key plays. Then the players are sent home.
• The flight: At noon Saturday, Todd met the chartered bus for the airport at the Falcons old training center in Suwanee. Three busses — one in Suwanee, one in Flowery Branch and another at Camp Creek — are available to the players for transportation to the airport.
The busses drive the players right up to the team’s chartered plane.
“It’s different from a regular flight,” Todd said. “A lot of times guys are standing up in the aisle talking, doing whatever they want. Because everybody knows everybody on the plane it’s a lot less organized than a normal flight.”
The coaches sit in first class. The players sit in coach. Some play cards. Some listen to headphones. Todd likes to get his homework done.
“(Offensive line) coach (Pete) Mangurian passes out a play sheet,” Todd explained. “He’ll have every defense they run against every offense we run, and we have to block them up on paper.”
There’s also an in-flight movie. This week it was “Remember the Titans.”
“Pretty good movie,” Todd said.
• The hotel: Busses were waiting for the Falcons when they exited the plane. They went directly to the Radisson Hotel in Appleton, Wisc. It was 3:30 p.m.
First thing Todd does? He changes his clothes. Suits and ties are mandatory on the plane.
“That’s coach (Dan) Reeves,” Todd said. “That’s just one of his rules.”
“And then we’re free,” Todd said. “Free for the rest of the night until 11 o’clock curfew.”
Nothing like a Saturday night in … Appleton?
“Lots to do, man,” Todd said facetiously.
Right guard Travis Claridge, Todd’s road roomie, went for a walk to some nearby shops. Some players went to the movies. Others visited family and friends, if they had any in the area.
And Todd? After watching some college football on television, he joined receiver Brian Finneran and quarterback Doug Johnson and headed over to place-kicker Jay Feely’s room for a card game called “booray.”
“I think Doug won the most that time,” Todd said.
Todd, Finneran and Johnson then headed downstairs to a steak house for dinner — the players were given a $99 meal per diem — and they were back in their rooms before the start of the Florida-Florida State game.
At halftime, Todd headed down to the Falcons private conference room and watched some last-minute film of the Packers with Claridge, left tackle Bob Whitfield, tight end Reggie Kelly and rookie guard Kynan Forney.
Then it was back up to the room. Todd was already asleep when tight ends coach James Daniel came knocking at the 11 p.m. curfew.
“It’s not bad,” Todd said of gameday eve. “You get a chance to hang out with the guys. It’s not boring.”
• Gameday: The Falcons may now be 3-1 on the road, but Todd prefers the comforts of home.
“I like staying at home, sleeping in my own bed,” Todd said. “Because those beds up there were horrible. Everybody woke up and their backs were hurting.”
Wake-up time was 7 a.m. on Sunday and Reeves scheduled a team meeting for 7:30 a.m. He played his team a tape of General Patton’s famous 1944 speech to the Third Army.
Did it work?
“Obviously, it did,” Todd said. “We felt confident with our game plan. We knew we had a chance. We knew a whole lot of people didn’t give us a chance, but we knew that we had a chance to win. We surprised a lot of people.”
The team ate breakfast and then boarded the bus to Lambeau Field at 9 a.m., three hours before kickoff.
“At that point, everybody is focused,” Todd said. “Everybody is kind of getting ready. There’s not a whole lot of joking going on.”
• Lambeau Field: The Falcons’ locker room was “a little cramped.”
“Normally, the visiting locker rooms are a little bit smaller than what you’re used to at home,” Todd said. “There wasn’t any heat on, either. It was a little cool in there.”
Todd got his ankles taped by the Falcons’ trainer and his sore back adjusted by the team’s chiropractor. Then he headed to the field to test out the turf.
Next, the team conducted its pre-game drills. After that, it’s waiting back in the locker room until the teams are introduced to the crowd.
“Everybody is starting to get a little intense now,” Todd said. “There are some people talking, some hollering going on. Guys are starting to get pumped up for the game. Just guys getting their game faces on, getting ready to play.
“I just like to go sit in my locker and visualize in my head plays that we’re running and different calls that I might have to make. I don’t like to do a lot of talking and hollering. A lot of times, I’ll look at my playbook if I have any last minute questions or just for some reassurance.”
Todd joined teammates for a prayer in the shower before Reeves’ pre-game talk. Then assistant strength and conditioning coach Rocky Colburn led the entire team in prayer.
• The win: The actual game itself is no different on the road than it is at home, Todd said. But winning on the road is extra special.
Atlanta’s win last Sunday wasn’t certain until the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Packers were driving with a chance to either tie or take the lead. Then Atlanta cornerback Ashley Ambrose intercepted an ill-advised long pass attempt by Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre.
“A lot of things are going through your mind at that point,” Todd said of Green Bay’s final drive. “I was just hoping the defense would come up with a big play like they did. I was happy that he heaved the ball down there. I thought for sure that we at least were going to go into overtime, and overtime games haven’t been too kind to us this year.”
Amid the post-game revelry, Todd made time to meet with Packers running back Rondell Mealey. The two were teammates at Louisiana State and had their photo taken together.
After a post-game prayer at midfield, Todd made his way back to the locker room.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but it was an unbelievable feeling after a big win like that,” Todd said. “There’s a lot of celebrating going on. It was a great atmosphere.”
• Going home: That atmosphere carried on for the entire trip back to Atlanta. On the bus, on the plane, and on the bus yet again.
But it’s always good to get home, Todd said.
It’s good when your wife Heidi is waiting for you at the door.
It’s good when your infant son Maverick is still awake and you can put him to bed.
And a big win makes all that even better.