In years past, Sundays at my folks’ house in north Atlanta were reserved for leaf raking, not football. Before the age of technology, phone checks weren’t sufficient when trying to get a glimpse of the Falcons’ score.
Instead, faking a “bathroom break” would be my window of opportunity to run inside and stand in front of the TV, sipping a glass of water and anxiously announcing back to my father, “I’ll be back out in a second.” That only worked for so long.
Professional football culture in Atlanta was, in my teenage years, different. It was different than what I saw on NFL Films clips. The Falcons game was an event, and it was optional.
My father, a true Southerner brought up on the voice of Larry Munson, never once voluntarily turned on a Falcons’ game.
My twin brother and I broke the mold. We obsessed over the Falcons, from the Dirty Bird, to the sweet feet of Michael Vick, to the miracles of Matty Ice. The unconditional love was instilled, manually.
Nevertheless, nothing has made me cringe more than hearing the truth from outsiders: Generally, Atlanta fans aren’t quite up to snuff with the standard of diehard fandom.
I’ve always adamantly insisted my love for the Falcons equals the respective allegiance of my proverbial enemies, but on Sunday, Oct. 4, I discovered first hand, in my own backyard, just how far locals have to go to catch up with — well — other locals.
Oct. 4 (12:47 p.m.)
It’s week four. The Falcons are 3-0 and hosting the Houston Texans at 1 p.m. in the Georgia Dome. I don’t have a ticket. I rarely do. Instead, I make last-minute plans to catch the game with a neighborhood friend at the local Taco Mac.
Every television in the building has the Falcons game on, while a lone pair of Bengals fans asked for the last screen on the right side of the bar to get switched over to CBS.
There’s a healthy mixture of residual church clothes and Falcons garb, as well as late-arrivers donning their Julio Jones jerseys on top of their church clothes.
Still, as the Falcons lead 7-0, 1 4 - 0 , 2 1 - 0 , 28-0, 35-0, and eventually, 48-21, fans clap and holler their way through scoring plays as if the touchdowns come with talk show queue boards getting flashed in front of our faces. We scored? Oh, may as well clap.
We’re trying, but we’re not doing game day right. Not even close.
Right before I grab my check to leave, a friend of mine who is a server arrives for his work shift. Like every other employee, they’re required to wear Falcons gear on Game Days, but my buddy has been awarded an exception: the Packers play at 4:25 p.m., and he’s allowed to wear his throwback Aaron Rodgers jersey instead. Navy blue with a gold circle donning the digits ‘12’ in the center, he’s the one person in the bar you can track with peripheral vision.
It is in our peripherals, almost hidden, where genuine pro football culture lives and thrives in the Atlanta area, and we could learn a lot from it.
4:27 p.m., same day
I’m en route to TJ’s Sports Bar & Grill in Alpharetta. The task? It’s simple. Watch a Packers game.
Heading into the weekend, I asked followers on Twitter if there were any spots where non-Falcons fans met to watch games. I didn’t get many responses, other than one suggestion, to call TJ’s.
So I did, asking them if they were showing the Steelers game that Thursday. “We’re a Packers bar,” was what I heard over the line, with a hint of condescension, but mostly an inflection of pride.
“Great! That works too,” I said, apologetically. “I’ll see you Sunday.”
My expectations? Maybe a dozen fans, huddled in a corner somewhere around a TV, blocking out the exterior ho-hum of a rainy Sunday in Atlanta, especially once the Falcons were off the air. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first step is to find TJ’s. Once you make a right off the northbound exit on Ga. 400 onto Holcomb Bridge Road, you slope in and out of strip malls and residential depositories before you inevitably, on your first try, swoop right past TJ’s, the first building on the left after a pine tree forest, right at the Alpharetta-Johns Creek border.
TJ’s is located smack dab in the middle of suburban, affluent Atlanta, where more folks watch hockey, root for the Yankees, and are described by Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, jokingly but also offensively, as “Alpharetta Unicorns.”
In other words, what Koonin meant, is that once you go too far north, Atlanta fans are a minority. He may have been somewhere near right about that, but to insinuate that these residents are too preoccupied with their country club lifestyle would be to forget about the folks at TJ’s.
Take a hard look at the parking lot TJ’s sits in when you drive by. If it’s Sunday, you’ll likely notice a bunch of green and gold flags, illegible in their folded state, hanging from car doors. A gust of wind reveals the place’s true purpose — it’s a Packers bar, and has been since the “early ’90s, but we can’t remember the exact date,” according to manager and son of the owner, Mark Ecclestone.
But it’s not just any Packers’ bar; it’s a venue. With Green Bay fans coming in the hundreds on biggest game days, TJ’s nearly registers as a home stadium.
In fact, for 4 o’clock games and playoff games, the far-left side of the strip mall parking lot is closed off as a tailgate lot. Fans show up hours early, break out the grills and folding chairs, and fill the Alpharetta air with the sweet smell of sausage, brats and beer.
Step inside, and you forget where you are. With the game day volume blasting, it’s more likely than not the voice of Joe Buck draws you in.
The food at the tables is simply fixture, as every fan, decked in Packers attire, stares at the giant, hanging projection on the left wall.
Dozens upon dozens cringe and tense their muscles in unison, and release with a sigh, every 40 or so seconds. It’s almost like the entire room is a set of lungs, holding breath and exhaling.
During an exhale, or at halftime, you can sneak a word or two in with a patron, but once you do you’re probably going to be hooked in conversation for a while.
Bethany Girard, a 24-year old waitress experiencing her first Packers game day, gave me a good briefing.
“They’re all just so nice, and positive,” Girard said. “Even when the game isn’t going well, either they’re encouraging the team or screaming and cheering. There’s no yelling. You don’t see that every day.”
As Girard explains this unique dynamic, Aaron Rodgers has his would-be touchdown run from about 15 yards away called back because he stepped out of bounds. I knew this without watching the TV because a few Packers fans in front of me stated, “Yep. He’s out at the two.”
I could have talked to them, but I singled out the cheese head. On the opposite side of the divider wall in the main sitting area, Collin Denoya, 26, sits with the infamous triangle-shaped hat, covered with holes and digging into a wing with his left hand and balancing a cigarette with his right, while also preventing the tied-tip of his beard from dipping into his ranch dressing.
A powerful, greasy handshake was an invitation into what sounded like an automated message from Denoya, who proudly boasted about his inherited love for the Pack.
“I was born in Tulsa, but have lived here my entire life,” Denoya said. “My first NFL game I watched was the Packers-Patriots Super Bowl; my Dad stuck one of these (pointing to his headgear) on me and I’ve been a Packers fan ever since.”
Denoya found his Packers family by happenstance five years ago. He worked across the street, mainly on Sundays, but would walk over after work to get drinks in the late afternoon.
He didn’t realize until the 2010 Super Bowl, where he stumbled upon one of the bar’s famed tailgates, that his weeknight spot was a home for many of the displaced.
“I saw the tailgate, walked inside and saw all of the people and just exclaimed, ‘I’m home,’” Denoya said. “Every year we run into the same people during football season. We become friends here, add each other on Facebook and all of that stuff. Year after year, during the season, this place is incredible. You should see it during Bears games,”
Back on the “jumbotron” side of the bar, Matt Reyburn, his cousin, Robert Reyburn, and friend Steffani Meusburger sit around a beer tower.
The trio has been reserved compared to the louder patrons in the bar, but Matt, 24, has the Packers at the center of his soul.
“I originally came down to Atlanta from Milwaukee for a girl,” he said. It didn’t work out. The opposite sex comes in and out of your life, but the Packers—they’re forever.
“This place is pretty much a piece of home now. This is the greatest sports bar I’ve been to in the Atlanta area.”
I asked him what local football fans, native football fans could learn from such an environment.
“I can’t really answer that question, I don’t think,” he said. “All I can say is, as a Packers fan, it’s instilled in you the second you’re born. You root for the green and gold. There’s no other option.”
With each score, which only came three times on this Sunday, the bar erupted. Remember, this isn’t a Super Bowl, it’s an early season game against a struggling 49ers team with blind implications. The pureness of a single touchdown is enough for the staff to take a moment off.
Ecclestone stands at the reception podium in a bright red company shirt, distinguished from the crowd. He describes to me that the original plan was for TJ’s, which was started by his father — former NHL player Tim Ecclestone, who played for the Atlanta Flames before getting injured and becoming an assistant — was originally meant to be a hockey spot.
In hindsight, 25 years later, he smiles. “We’d probably be out of business.”
So, what morphed the place into what it is today?
“A few years after we opened, a small company who had just moved down here from Milwaukee, their employees were just looking for somewhere to watch the Packers games,” he said. “This was back before you could get all of the NFL games through a television package, you know.
“So we reserved a room in the bar as the ‘Lambeau’ room, and those guys would go in there to watch the Packers. We’d use a dish to get the signal for them.
“Before you knew it there was 15, 20, 50 guys showing up, and it just kept growing.”
There’s many other sports in the Atlanta area where you can meet up with lost souls from other football towns.
The Steelers Fan Club of Atlanta is a dues-free, membership-free, intellectually constructed organization that meets at Hammerhead’s Seafood & Sports Grille in Suwanee, Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta or Pepperoni’s Tavern in Alpharetta.
Browns fans can join the Hotlanta Browns, an arm of the Browns Backers group that meets at the Famous Pub off North Druid Hills road, inside the perimeter.
Though the biggest question remains unanswered: Where can Atlanta fans go, other than the Georgia Dome, for this same type of environment?
“I think they’re getting there," Reyburn said. "I think the new stadium will help.”