FORSYTH COUNTY -- After 18 years, the “Big Game” is finally here.
Today, the Atlanta Falcons will face off against the New England Patriots at Super Bowl 51 in Houston, Texas, at 6:30 p.m., marking the Falcons’ second-ever trip to the game and the first since 1999.
Just up Ga. 400 from Atlanta and the Georgia Dome and across Lake Lanier from the team’s training camp and headquarters in Flowery Branch, Forsyth County is fired up to see the Dirty Birds attempt to capture their first championship.
At schools, in line at stores and even in government meetings, Falcons jerseys and game day predictions have been nearly inescapable.
Forsyth County resident Bob Whitlow, an 80-year-old center for the Falcons’ inaugural team in 1966 and the team’s oldest living player, said he likes the team’s chances.
“You’ve got to have a great quarterback and they’ve got one now in [Matt] Ryan,” Whitlow said. "They’re going to be hard to beat. They’ve got so many weapons. They’ve got a lot of receivers, because they’ll double up on Julio [Jones], he won’t catch a lot of balls Sunday probably. Then they’ve got those two running backs [Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman], so they’ve got an excellent chance.”
Some are taking unique ways to express their love for the team.
Sisters Scarlette and Savannah Mason painted a giant Falcons logo in the front yard of their family’s east Forsyth home, which is filled with pictures of the family at games and team memorabilia.
“What they did is they printed a logo off the internet and staked it with yarn and made squares out of it every five feet,” said their father, Tom Mason, who has been a season ticket holder since the days in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
He already has seat licenses for the team’s new home at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will open this fall.
When the Falcons made the Super Bowl in 1999, he painted the yard with the Falcons’ previous logo and said he is happy to see his kids carry on the tradition.
While longtime fans are getting ready, some newcomers to Falcons fandom were also celebrating this week.
At the preschool of Cumming First United Methodist Church, pep rallies were held on Thursday and Friday, including a visit from former student Katie Veldhuis, a former Falcons cheerleader.
“With the big win a couple of weeks ago, it just seemed like it would be the right thing to do,” teacher Jeri Ewing said. “I think it’s about a lot more than football; of course, it gets the kids excited, it teaches them a little, tiny bit about the game, which many of them don’t know about.
“But it also brings our school together as a community, and I love that aspect of it.”
Even the government was not spared, as one speaker at this week’s Forsyth County commission meeting began his remarks with an enthusiastic “rise up.”
Gov. Nathan Deal has been a loud supporter of the team’s playoff push and gave a proclamation while wearing a Matt Ryan jersey, declaring the Friday before the game “Falcons Friday” and encouraging “all 103,706 state employees to dress accordingly in their favorite Falcons attire.”
Flowery Branch Mayor Mike Miller made a wager with the chairman of the governing board in Foxborough, Massachusetts, home of the Patriots. If the Falcons win, Miller will receive New England lobsters, clam chowder and spring rolls.
If not, Foxborough leaders will get Big Red gum from the Wrigley’s plant in Flowery Branch, coffee from Common Grounds, cookies from Calliope Sweets and treats from Liberty Candy Company.
The jerseys of the Patriots’ Tom Brady and Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen, a Flowery Branch resident, were also exchanged, with the loser having to wear the winner’s jersey to their next meeting.
“I won’t say bless his heart until after the game,” Miller said.
Even local businesses are getting excited by changing signs and offering specials. Patriot Auto Wash at Tri County Plaza temporarily changed its name to “Rise Up!!! Auto Wash.”
“All of us fans haven’t recovered from the Big Game loss in 1999,” said Lewis Alston, a spokesman for the business. “We are extremely proud and excited for our home team and, to show our loyalty, we have to change our name to help Atlanta rise up.”
In Gainesville, Viral Chhadua’s Exxon station on Browns Bridge Road has taken away his stock of any Sam Adam’s beers, headquartered in Boston, until after the game. Instead, he’s been promoting one of Atlanta’s signature brands.
“We’ve had people come from 45, 60 minutes away just to grab some SweetWater, because that’s what we’re promoting right now instead of Sam Adams,” he said.
Forsyth’s Castleberry Ale House also has not been serving Sam Adams until the game ends.
Local restaurants are also preparing – Rooster’s Café on Atlanta Road is planning to cook more than 15,000 chicken wings for the game.
“They’re opening the new stadium next year,” Whitlow said. “It’d be nice to hang a championship banner in there, wouldn’t it?”