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Atlanta shakes its feathers; Football: The Atlanta Falcons are in their first Super Bowl, and that gets their fervent fans doing the "Dirty Bird" dance.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- This is not Tom Wolfe's Atlanta. The author of the Atlanta-based "A Man in Full" has, to our knowledge, never shaken his coat-tail feathers while performing the Atlanta Falcons' "Dirty Bird" dance.

This is not Ted Turner's team. For once, Turner's Braves aren't the talk of Peachtree Street/Circle/Road/Way/Avenue. Greg Maddux who? It's the Falcons' "Bomb Squad" all the way, baby. Chop that.

This is Dan Reeves' Atlanta. While mending from quadruple-bypass surgery, the former deposed coach of the Denver Broncos performed the Dirty Bird after his underdog Falcons shocked the Minnesota Vikings, 30-27, to win a trip to Super Bowl XXXIII on Sunday in Miami. ("We're going to win, and they're going to be sorry, and thank God they sent us Dan Reeves!" bellowed Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes at a recent Falcons pep rally, where a large time was had by all. More below.)

This is Bob Klepak's team -- Bob "You don't know me, but I'm one of a kazillion Atlanta businessmen" Klepak, who will look you right in your out-of-town eyes and explain the facts of life of a Falcons fan: Losers. A state joke.

Others remember the feeling.

"My dad used to joke about contributing money to the owner to move the team elsewhere," says Atlanta native and Baltimore historian-in-residence, Taylor Branch. Branch was in Atlanta last week to plug his book "Pillar of Fire." In between signings, Branch was subjected to full Falcon Fever, which featured townfolk attempting the Dirty Bird dance. Did he?

"No, I did not -- and I didn't press it too much either," Branch says. But to his credit, Branch did sample one football game all this year. The Falcons-Vikings game, of course. The best game of the season.

Last year the Falcons were 7-9. This year, 16-2 -- and that isn't a typo. Since the city first fielded an NFL team in 1966, the Falcons have, for the most part, played weakly to weak crowds. (Yes, Atlanta is painfully aware they drafted Brett Favre in 1992 but sent the soon-to-be star quarterback to Green Bay.)

"It's like the Mets in '69," Klepak says, referring to baseball's New York Mets, whose Cinderella season ended in World Series glory when they beat the Baltimore Orioles. "Like the Mets, Atlanta is the juggernaut that can't be stopped!"

But there's something else. Something else Atlanta wants to accomplish besides producing a championship football team boasting its own funky-chicken-style dance.

"We're down home when we want to be," Klepak says. "But the South is not just a bunch of yokels."

Maybe one or two people might have said disparaging things about Atlanta when it was host to the 1996 Summer Olympics. But we came not to measure Atlanta's heart nor to criticize its ways and means. We just ducked in to feel Falcons Fever: maybe learn the Dirty Bird dance, get an "F. O." (Frosted Orange shake) at The Varsity, see the Georgia Dome, or lap the greenish Pot Likker soup at Mary Mac's Tea Room in Midtown.

Mary Mac's Tea Room is performance art in the art of Southern hospitality. Guests fill out their own food orders with pencils that say "Mary Mac's: A Revival in Southern Hospitality." Conversation is low and polite. Older men wear bow ties. Kids order the Georgia Peach Cobbler. And everybody drinks sweet tea, "the table wine of the South."

But Mary Mac's is not the place where you waddle up to a sports junkie, face painted in Falcon red and black, and say, "How about them Falcons?!" No, for that we must go uptown. A Southern gentleman offers directions to the city's biggest pep rally of the season in a upscale neighborhood called Buckhead.

"When you come to a fork in the road, stay right," he says in an Atlantan accent, and darned if "fork" doesn't sound like a word usually not associated with traffic engineering.

On to Buckhead, via Peachtree Street, past the NationsBanks and SunTrusts, places "in keeping with the new lean, mean fashion of jamming names together with a capital letter sticking up in the middle," wrote Wolfe. Past Caribou Coffees and Kudzu cafes and "Dirty Bird" T-shirt stands and fat, columned homes with Georgia Bulldogs lawn flags.

The pep rally, centered on a sports bar called The Lodge, will draw a couple thousand Falcons fans before the night cries uncle. Streets are roped off; TV helicopters hover, then split; Bob Klepak is here somewhere, so is every guy who listens to sports-talk radio. Black stretch limos dock outside the bar, meaning a flock of Atlanta Falcons have landed to lead the crowd in the Dirty Bird dance.

"We went from the toilet bowl to the Super Bowl!" says fan Wes Heerboth, who suited up in quarterback Chris Chandler's No. 12 jersey.

The wondrous National Football Conference championship game between the Falcons and Vikings is being replayed inside the bar. One Falcons fan has a spider monkey (in Osh-Kosh overalls) atop his shoulder. Outside, a designated Ford Bronco awaits bashing -- a four-wheel sacrificial lamb. Affection for Denver quarterback John Elway rivals Atlanta's affection for Sherman.

Up next, two stockbrokers from across the street. "Buckhead Plaza," says Tim Terry, 38. "It's a building in Tom Wolfe's book."

The market has closed, so Terry and his brokering buddy Tom Outler have dropped by for Miller Lite tall boys. They people-watch, as hundreds of guys talk sports until their voices are ragged; the aggregate perspiration factor is downright collegiate. The other gender is also heartily represented, as if colonies of CNN anchors have set upon the rally.

But the stockbrokers are watching a man called "The Great Falconi" flop about in wild costume. "See that guy there? He's from the North. We're the only natives left. Everyone else here is from the North," Terry says, now looking our way. "Eh, did anyone tell you Baltimore isn't going to the Super Bowl?"

The subject, in theory, is football. "We didn't get the coverage or respect this year," Outler says. "Even the fans think it's a fluke -- but not the people we played."

The Falcons even sneaked up on the National Football League. Last week, the NFL front office notified the team it would be wearing its red home jerseys in Super Bowl XXXIII. But since 1990, the Falcons have worn black home jerseys. It's not a slap to the helmet, but a reminder that Atlanta's football history has been steeped in obscurity.

In 1965, an insurance company president named Rankin Smith paid $8.5 million for the NFL's 23rd franchise. An Atlanta schoolteacher, Miss Julia Elliot, suggested the name Falcons because "the falcon is deadly and has a great sporting tradition." In 1966, Atlanta joined the NFL, and teams such as the Colts regularly pounded them into submission. Atlanta went 3-11 in 1966, 1-12-1 the next year, then 2-12.

Coaches came and went, fine men with first names such as Norb, Norm, Leeman and June, and the prototypical Southern gentleman, Jerry Glanville. Stars were few, but Atlanta fans do remember Tommy Nobis and Claude Humphrey, and later Steve Bartkowski, Gerald Riggs, William Andrews and Deion Sanders. Today's stars include linebacker Jessie Tuggle, defensive end Chuck Smith, running back Jamal Anderson and quarterback Chandler -- formerly nicknamed "Crystal Chandelier" because of his injury record.

Still, visitors to the Atlanta History Center won't find much in the way of Falcons football. There are exhibits showing Atlanta's Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam of Golf in 1930; Braves manager Bobby Cox's jersey from a World Series; and fittingly, tributes to home run champ Hank Aaron.

Pinned to one wall is the jersey worn by none other than Falcon center Jeff Van Note in 1986. Bet he couldn't have done the Dirty Bird.

"Big guys with no rhythm can't do it. That's why Dan Reeves can't do it," says Frances Aguilar, who works for an Atlanta ad agency where she's been practicing the Dirty Bird before co-workers all week. "I got the steps off the Internet."

At the Buckhead pep rally, Aguilar predicts the Falcons will beat the Broncos 28-21. She also wisely predicts that the visitor from Baltimore won't try the Dirty Bird, either.

"Jordan is gone and the Falcons have arrived! Get ready to do the Dirty Bird!" hollers a deejay on stage. Falcon Chuck Smith soon manhandles the microphone. "We've all been underdogs! We were hunted at first and now we are the hunter!" Everyone is talking as if they're pro wrestlers.

At 6: 55 p.m., the moment arrives: Atop a mighty flatbed truck, 10 contestants will perform dignified acts of human ingenuity. Failing that, they plan on making complete fools of themselves in hopes of winning Super Bowl tickets.

The throng inches toward the thonged -- Contestant No. 1 -- a woman who, with the crowd's approval, is dunked in chocolate syrup and then enthusuastically rolls herself in a pile of feathers.

"This chick is insane," says Amy Peterman, an Atlanta schoolteacher. "She's going to hate life after this. Does her momma watch the news?"

Contestant No. 2 is a male stripped down to just his jock strap. With a trip to Miami on his mind, he dives into a wading pool full of chocolate pudding, emerging as the crowd's new favorite. He shakes his tail feathers as pudding shoots off him. He removes his jock's athletic cup and hurls it into the crowd like a bride's garter.

The cup skids and stops at Amy Peterman's feet. There it stays, untouched. It will not become a souvenir from Atlanta's pep rally for its Falcons.

"This is a Jerry Springer show," the schoolteacher says.

No, this is Falcons Fever.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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