When he was 8 years old, James Liipfert would hurry home from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fort Valley every Sunday afternoon in the fall.
It was a 15-minute drive south to Marshallville on Ga. 49, but he always managed to make it back with his father, Jimbo, in time for kickoff.
“We would watch game after game, and I would ask question after question,’’ James said.
Of course, his favorite team was the Atlanta Falcons. As a youngster, he once got to ride around in a golf cart with Tommy Nobis (the first player drafted by the Falcons as an expansion team in 1966) during a charity tournament for the Children’s Hospital in Macon.
He was tuned to the television in 1999 as Atlanta made its only Super Bowl appearance prior to this season.
“I remember sitting on the floor in front of the TV and watching Denver beat Atlanta in the Super Bowl,’’ he said. “It was a sad, sad day.’’
James once showed up for his first day of school dressed in a Deion Sanders Falcons jersey and wearing a $10 Atlanta Braves gold chain.
He started playing football at The Westfield School in Perry in the seventh grade. And, by the time he was a starter on the varsity as a sophomore, he had claimed Deion’s No. 21 as his number. He also had a framed Michael Vick jersey hanging in his bedroom. When his friends would come over to play the John Madden football video game, they invoked a strict rule.
“Nobody could have the Falcons because it was too easy to win with Vick on your team,’’ he said, laughing.
James was a walk-on at Georgia Tech, where he was linebacker and on special teams. The Yellow Jackets play their games in Bobby Dodd Stadium, less than 2 miles – as the falcon flies – to the Georgia Dome.
For his 21st birthday, his father took him to the Georgia Dome to watch the Falcons play the Dallas Cowboys. They bought tickets from a scalper on the fourth row, so close to the action they marveled at the size and speed of NFL players.
The following year, James was on the field when Georgia Tech lost at home to Boston College, which had a guy named Matt Ryan at quarterback. Ryan, now the Falcons’ quarterback, threw for a college career-high 435 yards in the 24-10 victory.
James, the lifelong Falcons fan, cut the cord in the spring of 2009.
“I took my Michael Vick jersey and Deion Sanders shoes and packed them in a box,’’ he said. “I put them in there with Matt Ryan and DeAngelo Hall. They’re all now in a box at home in Marshallville. There’s a box of legends down there.’’
James was hired in the scouting department for the New England Patriots. His new employer in Foxboro, Massachusetts, wouldn’t have been too cool with all the Falcons personal inventory.
He has been on the staff for eight years now, working his way up to become one of two national scouts for the Patriots. He is responsible for scouting reports on every prospect west of the Mississippi.
His wife, Lacy, was a cheerleader for Southeastern Louisiana University. Four years ago, he scouted a player from Southeastern Louisiana named Robert Alford, who will be the starting cornerback for the Falcons in the Super Bowl. So, James would show up in Hammond, Louisiana, to scout Alford and court Lacy.
On NFL draft day last year, he was one of only five people in the Patriots “decision room” with head coach and general manager Bill Belichick.
At 31 years old, James has a Super Bowl ring and three AFC championship rings. If the Pats beat the Falcons in next week’s Super Bowl, he will have filled an entire hand.
The kid who once bled Falcons red now bleeds red and blue.
“Anyone who thinks there is any love for Atlanta, and that I’m secretly rooting for them — that is 1,000 percent not the case,’’ said James. “There is only one team for me, and that’s the red and blue one.’’
His family has succeeded in turning the tiny town of Marshallville into diehard New England fans over the past eight years. But much of that loyalty will be shelved on Sunday, when the championship-rich Patriots — playing in their NFL record ninth Super Bowl – take on the title-deprived Falcons in Houston.
That’s Houston, Texas, not next-door-neighbor Houston County.
RAISED TO PLAY
Jimbo and Debbie Liipfert became sweethearts their senior year at old Fort Valley High School. Jimbo played football for the Green Wave, and Debbie roamed the sidelines with a camera, taking photographs for the yearbook of a sport she knew nothing about.
They married in 1969 and moved to Main Street in Marshallville on Jan. 20, 1981, the same day Ronald Reagan moved into the White House.
The Liipfert house was built in 1832, which means it’s CLXXXIV years old in Super Bowl language. It’s just down the street from the historic home of Samuel Rumph, who developed the famous Elberta Peach variety and is considered father of the peach industry in Georgia.
The Liipferts had three daughters until James came along in December 1985, the season New England made it to its first Super Bowl. The late Julius Adams, one of the greatest football players to come out of Macon, was a defensive lineman on that Patriots team.
Jimbo taught his only son the fine points of football. He was an avid Falcons fan himself, going back to their days in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium. He was there for the playoff game against Dallas in 1981, when Atlanta blew a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter and lost 30-27. It was 40 degrees and the wind was blowing.
“The coldest I’ve ever been in my life,’’ he said. “I took off my boots and poured hot coffee on my toes, thinking that would thaw them out. All it did was make my socks wet.’’
It wasn’t until James started playing high school football that Debbie knew difference between intentional grounding and a touchback. She bought the 355-page book, “Football for Dummies’’ and studied up on the sport.
Now, she watches more pro football than her husband. A few years ago, while Jimbo was out on the golf course, she and her golden retriever, Gus, paid $75 to watch the Pats clobber the Colts on pay-per-view.
Debbie and Jimbo were in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, when New England lost to the New York Giants, 21-17.
And they were in Glendale, Arizona, two years ago, when Patriots beat the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, 28-24, in a wild finish. The next day, Seattle’s defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, was named as the Falcons new head coach.
The Liipferts don’t plan on traveling to Houston for the big game. Instead, they are hosting a Super Bowl party in Marshallville. They may be in the minority at their own party, but that’s perfectly understandable.
“We always pull for both of them,’’ said Jimbo. “If Atlanta wins, we are not going to be as devastated as we would be if it were against somebody else.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.