EVERY GIVEN SUNDAY: The Man Who Lives for the Atlanta Falcons

jkovac@macon.comJanuary 19, 2013 

The man who has witnessed more Atlanta Falcons games than anyone on Earth can see them no more.

Oh, he can watch them a little when he scooches his leather easy chair within a couple of feet of the big screen in his apartment at Macon’s Pinegate retirement home.

But the players are blurs from his perch in the stands, 32 rows up on the 50-yard line, where Joe Curtis has seen more Falcons home games than any human being.

His blue eyes don’t work like they used to. Like they did in the late 1930s when he was a basketball player at Indiana State University, setting a free-throw mark that, as he recalls it, stood until a fellow named Larry Bird came along. Or the way they did when he was piloting P-47 Thunderbolts in World War II. Or, say, when he was checking out Miss West Virginia and, later, Miss Oklahoma, escorting them to military balls.

Since Atlanta first fielded a team in 1966, the Falcons have played 738 games. Curtis has attended 553 of them -- all 367 home games in the team’s history, and 182 on the road. (That’s not counting preseason home games. He’s been to every last one of them, too, including one in Japan.)

For him, going to games ceased being about a fanatical streak ages ago. “It’s in my blood,” he says. It is no longer a question of if he will get out of bed Sunday mornings and make an hour-and-change pilgrimage that predates Interstate 75. It’s a matter of what time he’ll depart. He prefers 10 a.m. -- after some oatmeal and a banana.

His is a quest for the NFL zealot’s ultimate bragging right, one that has proven elusive for him and the rest of Atlanta’s pro-football flock.

After all the wrinkling campaigns, nearly half a century of crumpled hope, what he seeks is an Atlanta Super Bowl triumph, something to wash away 413 losses, 29 losing years, decades of empty seats, and punts -- all those punts.

But 94-year-old Joe Curtis is running out of seasons.

* * *

It is no stretch to suggest that the Falcons have had a hand in keeping Curtis alive. When you think about it, he has done the same for them.

Curtis has been there for the Falcons when few others have.

He has spent upwards of $500,000 on tickets and travel. The preseason trip to Tokyo in 2000, where he was the lone Falcons fan, set him back $2,500.

At the final game of the 1989 season, a home loss to Detroit, he was one of 7,792 in the house. The place held 60,000.

“I think there were really only about 2,000 there,” Curtis says.

When he dies, his most trusted friend, Atlanta’s former all-pro center Jeff Van Note, a Falcon for 18 seasons -- longer than anyone else -- will be executor of his estate.

“I think we all try to hang our hat on some things in life,” Van Note says. “The obvious ones are family, friends, your religion, your faith. But then there are things that you find interest in that maybe fill the down time.”

He says Curtis, who grew up in Indiana, is “the greatest sportsman I know.”

Curtis’ basketball coach at Indiana State, Glenn Curtis -- no relation -- had been UCLA legend John Wooden’s high school coach.

Curtis, or “Col. Joe,” as most everyone calls him, was an Air Force colonel. He flew missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The day he was stationed at Robins in the mid-’60s, he bought 10 Falcons season tickets. And he never stopped buying them.

He has been to 20 Super Bowls. He made it to every Indianapolis 500 and Masters golf tournament for half a century. In 1974, Curtis was in the crowd the night Henry Aaron belted home run No. 715 to break Babe Ruth’s record. It was the only Braves game Curtis has ever attended.

He was a vocal member of Arnold Palmer’s “army.” A 1996 USA Today story from Augusta noted Curtis’ “ear-splitting,” “Give ’em hell, Arnie.” Curtis befriended Palmer and his late wife, Winnie, and visited them yearly in Florida.

“I think that was one of the great joys of his life,” Van Note says, “to attend sporting events to get to know people.”

Curtis once arm wrestled then-rookie Brett Favre at Falcons training camp. He used to chat up Deion Sanders before games. He was pals with more coaches than most fans can remember. He knew original owner Rankin Smith. He sometimes calls current honcho Arthur Blank to congratulate him on wins.

He used to fly on the team charter to away games. He endeared himself to the players on those trips. When games ended, he’d be outside the stadium with a grocery buggy full of iced-down beer. “Players would grab as many as they could before the bus left,” Curtis recalls.

He bought New Orleans season tickets for more than three decades, until he couldn’t travel anymore, just so he’d have a seat when the Falcons played the hated Saints at the Superdome.

At Falcons home games, his seats have always been behind the visiting team’s bench. People wonder why he doesn’t sit on Atlanta’s side.

“Hell,” he tells them, “I don’t want to watch their hind ends. I want to see the front of them.”

* * *

It was freezing. The sun wasn’t up yet. The line seemed to stretch around Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It was late December 1980. I was 12. I’d ridden up from Perry with my cousin Steve to buy tickets to the Falcons-Cowboys playoff game.

The game was but the third postseason tilt in Falcons history. You had to have a ticket just to get in line to buy tickets. We left, ticketless. I remember stepping on a doughnut someone had dropped. It was so cold the doughnut crunched.

It’d be a better story if someone had seen my disappointment and come to the rescue.

But they didn’t. That’s the icy truth of Falcondom, or it was. There were no Band-Aids back then, just another crop of promising, high-dollar draft picks who rarely panned out.

My cousin, who was 24 and could chunk a football farther than anyone I knew, had turned me on to the Falcons a year or so earlier. Before then I’d rooted for the Dallas Cowboys.

I had a Cowboys book satchel, a ring with their logo on it, team pajamas. The Cowboys always seemed to be on TV back then. They had style. I was a sucker. I fell for the flash. I didn’t know any better. As a boy you don’t understand regional allegiances or the agonies that can accompany them. You know zip about the joys of savoring long-awaited success.

The first NFL game I ever saw was an Atlanta-Dallas matchup in 1976. I got tickets for my 8th birthday. My parents took me, but we only had two tickets. When we couldn’t find a third, my mom ended up watching from the lobby of a nearby motel.

The Falcons won 17-10 and I cried on the way home.

Within two years, Atlanta was in the playoffs for the first time and I was in the Falcon fold.

Steve Bartkowski, Atlanta’s cannon-armed quarterback, could heave the deep ball, the bomb. When you’re 10, the bomb is better than girls; the long spiral more thrilling than a first kiss, but only because you don’t know about kisses yet.

I came to despise other teams, especially ones that didn’t lose as much as the Falcons.

On Sundays when I was in junior high, I’d ride around Warner Robins on my bicycle with a couple of buddies. One had a radio bungeed to his handlebars. We listened to the Falcons as we made the rounds: Dry Lake Park, Kmart, the Houston Mall, Western Sizzlin’ steak house.

I’d imitate Falcons play-by-play guys Brad Nessler and Steve Holman.

I perfected Nessler’s going-to-commercial-break line, “Back in a moment on the Falcons Football Network,” which he could spout in about 2 seconds.

My buddies and I were at the Krystal on Watson Boulevard one Sunday afternoon in September 1981. The Niners were down 24-10 in the third quarter, but quarterback Joe Montana had them driving. He threw into the end zone. Atlanta safety Tom Pridemore swooped in, intercepted the pass and rambled 101 yards for a Falcons touchdown. For years after that, my friend Paul and I would re-enact the radio call, howling, “Tom PRIDE-MORE! ... Ho-ohhhhhh!”

The victory was the team’s third in a row to start the 1981 season. But the Falcons would win just four more times that year.

In 1986, the Birds started 4-0. I taped a Falcons pennant to the hatchback window of my ’77 Pinto. Atlanta missed the playoffs.

After I started working for The Telegraph in the 1990s, aside from covering the police beat, I wrote a weekly sports column. I always referred to the Falcons -- even during their Super Bowl run in 1998 -- as the “Foulcons.”

Luckily, Joe Curtis didn’t read my column.

I met him in 2005 when I did a fan piece previewing the season opener, a Monday-nighter against Philadelphia, a rematch of the previous season’s NFC Championship. I asked him how hard it was to root for a team so blighted that it had never managed to string together back-to-back winning seasons.

“My hopes,” he’d said, “have been up and down so many times that everybody says to me, ‘How in the hell have you stayed with them this long?’”

He couldn’t come up with a good answer. At least not one that made much sense, not after enduring that much losing.

He still can’t explain his devotion.

I can’t either, and I’ve been driving him to games since 2006.

* * *

Curtis is the nearest thing the long-trampled franchise has to spectating royalty.

Women stop by his seat on Aisle 136 and plant smooches on his cheek.

On Sundays, he shakes more hands than a Baptist preacher.

Fans buy him beers, but these days he is more likely to sip a vanilla Ensure.

Now that his vision is fading -- he says “very depressing” macular degeneration has him blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other -- he tunes in to Falcons radio broadcasts on a headset.

Riding up to the Georgia Dome last season for the Saints game, he gazed out the windshield of his Nissan Titan and noticed the moon, still out late morning. “It’s funny,” he said, “I can see the moon that far away, but I can’t see the players on the field.”

In seven seasons, I’ve never heard him talk trash at games. He hardly reacts to disastrous plays or bad breaks. He has been conditioned by disaster.

The closest he comes to bad-mouthing the team is when, every other game or so, he unleashes his best Vince Lombardi bark: “What the hell’s goin’ on out here!”

His black walking cane has a spaniel carved in its handle. Curtis calls the dog “Sport,” and during games pets him for luck. He even has me doing it.

The Falcons are 68-48 since I started driving him, so maybe it works.

We’ve spent hours together on the interstate. I’ve asked all about him -- his flying days, his ball-playing days in college, his eons as a Falcons fan. I’ve never asked how he affords to go to so many sporting events. I figure it’s none of my business.

His wife died in 2007. He never had children.

“I know that I’m getting near the end of my life,” he says, “and football and the Falcons have been a very important part of it. I never could’ve imagined this little kid from Valparaiso, Indiana, attending all those games.”

On a recent morning at Pinegate, in a private dining room, he mentions that he’s been having nightmares.

“Terrible, ugly ones. Things from the past,” he tells me. “Nothing about football, though.”

He thinks it might be his medicine.

Then he changes the subject.

He wants to know what time we’re going to the big game in Atlanta, the first NFC title bout to be settled on Georgia soil.

We decide on 11 a.m. for the 3 o’clock kickoff. It is a high-stakes showdown -- at home, no less -- that Curtis has dreamt of since LBJ was president.

He sees me to the door, padding along behind his wheeled walker. The walker is red with Falcons stickers on it.

As I’m leaving, he says, “I pray that I’ll live until Sunday.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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