CUMMING -- Just days away from the hometown Atlanta Falcons’ second trip to the Super Bowl, many longtime fans are hoping for a win, but some have been waiting longer than others.
“It’s very exciting. I think they’ve got a really good chance to win it, too. It’s going to be close,” said Forsyth County resident Bob Whitlow, a center for the Falcons’ inaugural team in 1966 and the team’s oldest living player. “It’s great; the whole town is really excited down here. I’m telling you, it’s a good sports town; Atlanta’s very good.
“They’re opening the new stadium next year; it’d be nice to hang a championship banner in there, wouldn’t it?”
While some have doubted Atlanta’s allegiance as a pro football city, Whitlow, 80, said there has always been excitement for the hometown team.
“When we first started, we played at (Atlanta Fulton) County Stadium, and we sold out almost every game,” he said. “So there was a great interest. Football is really big down here, the whole South, it’s the number one sport, I think.”
Whitlow wore No. 51 on his jersey, a number with special significance this year for not only being Super Bowl LI but the Falcons 51st year in operation.
As is almost always the case, the team struggled in its first year, though Whitlow said there were some bright spots.
“Although we had an expansion team, we knocked the St. Louis Cardinals out of the playoffs in the next to last game,” he said. “We only won three games, but that was more than any expansion team had won and we knocked them out of the playoffs.
“That’s got to be embarrassing for them.”
Whitlow was already an NFL veteran by the time he was with the Falcons, having played with Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions in the early-60s, and also spent a season for the Cleveland Browns before surgery forced him to retire.
In his career, he was able to play at some of the most well-known stadiums in the country.
“I liked to play in Memorial Coliseum out in L.A.,” Whitlow said. “It seated about 95,000 and they’d draw a good crowd. The Rams weren’t a great team back then, but they had some good players and it was fun. We played in New York at Yankee Stadium; that was nice.”
He played in the league at the same time as Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas and played alongside the likes of Dick “Night Train” Lane, Joe Schmidt and Alex Karras.
One of the league’s most prolific head coaches was also a common foe.
“I was almost even with [NFL Hall of Fame Coach Vince] Lombardi, as far as when I was with the Lions,” Whitlow said. “We beat them as much as they beat us. We usually split every year.”
His competitive days did not end with football.
“I’m the only player that I know of that ever drove a race car,” he said. “I did it full-time for four years. Once you wreck it, you didn’t have a sponsor, so once you tear it up you say bye.
“I ran with Ron and Bob Keselowski. Bob Keselowski is the father of [former NASCAR champion] Brad Keselowski.”
Whitlow also has a background in track and field and had qualified for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome as a shot putter, but decided to attend football camp instead.
He was an assistant coach with nearby Northview High School over the last three years. He also previously coached college basketball.
While it has been a few years since Whitlow wore the Falcons’ black and red, he said he feels good about 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.”