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Falcons fan and sports-spectating stalwart dead at 96

Longtime Atlanta Falcons' offensive lineman Bill Fralic, center, is pictured with Col. Joe Curtis at a tailgate.
Longtime Atlanta Falcons' offensive lineman Bill Fralic, center, is pictured with Col. Joe Curtis at a tailgate.

Col. Joe Curtis, a spectator-sports aficionado who probably witnessed more Atlanta Falcons games in person than anyone in history, died Tuesday at his home in Macon. He was 96.

Curtis had been in poor health, said his longtime friend Jeff Van Note, a former Falcons center.

The Indiana native’s streak of attending Atlanta home games spanned nearly half a century and was perhaps one of the most enduring in Georgia sports.

For 48 seasons -- 30 of them losing campaigns -- Curtis never missed a home game. He saw 376 in a row.

He didn’t make it to any games this year, but with his vision failing he kept up as best he could at home.

During a recent Falcons losing skid, Curtis told one of his caregivers, “I want you to call (Falcons head coach) Mike Smith and find out what’s wrong.”

The request wasn’t far-fetched for Curtis.

After all, the coach’s number may have still been in his cellphone.

Early this season when Curtis’ attendance streak ended, the coach called and left him a get-well message. Team owner Arthur Blank sent Curtis an autographed Matt Ryan jersey.

Over the years, Curtis befriended players and schmoozed front-office types. He flew on team charters to road games as late as the 1990s, including a preseason trip to Tokyo.

He arm wrestled a young quarterback named Brett Favre, drank Miller Lite after games in stadium parking lots with star lineman Bill Fralic and chatted up brash cornerback Deion Sanders.

MEMBER OF ‘ARNIE’S ARMY’

But football wasn’t his only passion.

For decades Curtis never missed an Indianapolis 500, where he palled around with A.J. Foyt, or a Kentucky Derby.

Curtis attended the Masters for 49 years.

Champion golfer Arnold Palmer first met Curtis at the Masters in 1956, and Curtis became one of the original members of “Arnie’s Army.”

In later years, Curtis visited Palmer and was a guest at his Orlando, Florida-area home.

“He was a great friend, a good buddy. I knew him very well,” Palmer said by phone Tuesday. “I always enjoyed him very much. ... I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago. He wasn’t well. He told me he didn’t think he was gonna last long.”

Curtis grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana. He played college football and basketball at Indiana State. Larry Bird broke a free-throw-shooting record he set.

Curtis, a fighter pilot, served in Europe in World War II and also saw action with the Air Force in the Korean War and in Vietnam. After the military, he went into business working for aerospace companies.

Curtis’ wife, Elizabeth Hay Curtis, died in 2007. He had no children or immediate family. No funeral is planned, but there may be a memorial gathering this month.

Soon after Curtis moved to the Southeast after living in Colorado and Texas, the Falcons opened up shop in Atlanta. He was the 33rd person to sign up for season tickets.

When the team moved to the Georgia Dome in the early 1990s, his seat was on the visiting side, 32 rows up on the 50-yard line. Win or lose, there he’d be, yelling, “Go Falcons!”

As dismal seasons came and went, with more than 420 losses in the franchise’s 765-game history, he remained faithful.

“My hopes,” he once 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?’”

Even he didn’t know the answer.

“He was the ultimate sportsman,” said Van Note, the former Falcon.

Van Note said Curtis’ outgoing personality allowed him to cross the barrier between players and fans.

“He was bold and upfront. He was just, ‘Hey, I want to meet these people,’” Van Note said. “He knew people. ... He was gregarious, and sports meant an awful lot to him.”

Dan Reeves, a former Falcons coach who led the team to its only Super Bowl -- one of a couple dozen that Curtis attended -- said Curtis “was one of those guys that was with you whatever the situation was. ... We’ll miss Col. Joe.”

TUSSLE WITH SAINTS FANS

In New Orleans for one of more than 180 Falcons road games he attended, Curtis, then 80, brawled with Saints fans who’d spoken ill of Reeves.

“I walked into the wrong bar down there, and there were these three Saints guys in there. ... The guy in the middle said Dan Reeves wasn’t worth a toot,” Curtis was quoted as saying in the recent paperback, “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” (Curtis, by the way, is listed in the book as thing No. 100.)

“I was thinking how I was going to get out of this,” Curtis went on. “I had had a few drinks, I suppose, so I head-butted this one guy in the mouth, and then they were all over me.”

Reeves’ wife, Pam, recalled the story.

“I think he came home on the charter with a black eye,” she said.

He was ornery to the end, especially when the Falcons lost.

“He couldn’t watch the games too much anymore,” said friend Tommy Alexander of Macon. “But I think he knew it wasn’t going good this season.”

The Falcons have won just four times this season. They’ve lost six.

Yet they’re in first place in their division, tied with the hated Saints.

Inelegance aside, Curtis would love that.

Telegraph reporter Joe Kovac Jr. has known Curtis for about a decade and drove him to Falcons games for the past several years. To contact Kovac, call 744-4397.

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