This time last Sunday, we were filled with so much hope and optimism.
This, we hoped, would be Atlanta’s shining moment. A Super Bowl victory. A parade down Peachtree. A time for Georgians and Falcons fans across the nation to Rise Up.
And, for most of Sunday evening, everything went our way.
“This was the game that, with 17 minutes and seven seconds remaining, could not be lost,” Mark Bradley wrote.
It turned out to be a roller-coaster ride of emotion – joy followed by utter bewilderment followed by despair.
“It hurts,” Falcons fan Ryan Tweedle told us. “It really does hurt.”
While Falcons fans tried to make sense of it all, we did, too.
Inside our newsroom, we busily remade front pages, rewrote stories and, in some cases, scrapped some of our best work entirely.
Two weeks ago, I provided a behind-the-scenes look at some of our Super Bowl plans.
Today, I want to share some secrets on what could have been – and tell the story of how we reacted when everything changed.
In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s game, we had been working on a hard-cover, 128-page book to celebrate the Falcons’ first Super Bowl victory. For Monday’s newspaper, if the Falcons had won, we planned to produce two different collectable front pages. All the while, we were designing a special 64-page section that would have captured this most magical of football seasons.
First, the book.
I won’t share the book’s title, because, as all Falcons fans do, I believe we’ll get to use it someday. But I can tell you this: It would have been available the instant the Super Bowl concluded.
With that in mind, more than 90 pages were completed and “proofed” the Wednesday before the Super Bowl. Editors spent hours poring over headlines and stories looking. We double-checked scores from the regular season and the playoff games. We finessed some of the captions beneath the photos.
By the start of the fourth quarter, 10 more pages had been completed. Steve Hummer, one of our sports reporters, began writing the book’s foreword from Houston. Editors in Atlanta were busy “proofing” newly designed pages.
After all, victory – and a book – seemed all but certain.
In the meantime, we also continued work on our special 64-page celebratory section. Like the book, most of it was already designed and copy edited before kick-off. By the start of the fourth quarter, we were certain we’d begin printing the section at 6 o’clock Tuesday morning, just as we had hoped for all along.
As for those two different front pages celebrating a Falcons’ championship?
Those, too, were laid out in advance – minus the celebratory photos and the stories. I won’t share our headlines, because, as with the book, I believe Falcons fans will one day have the chance to celebrate, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
Let’s just say you would have been proud of both.
Here’s another newspaper secret. Many of the advertisers for Monday’s newspaper created two different versions of their ads depending on the outcome of the game.
Of course, we decided not to place those ads on our pages until we knew for certain which version we’d be using. And to make sure we didn’t make a mistake, we devised an elaborate system of double-checking those ads to make sure the correct version appeared in the newspaper.
By the start of the fourth quarter, we wondered whether it would make sense to begin loading the victory ads – with the understanding we could always swap them out if Patriots pulled off the unthinkable.
But that couldn’t happen, could it?
We decided to wait, just in case.
All the while, Bo Emerson, one of our reporters, was busy collecting fan reaction from writers scattered around metro Atlanta to craft a front-page story. When the game concluded, Bo would have less than 30 minutes to finish his piece. With so little time, most of his story had to be written as the game unfolded.
At halftime, I looked over Bo’s shoulder and checked on the story again at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Of course, the story was written as if the Falcons had won, though we were prepared to change the story’s direction, if the unthinkable happened.
But the football gods aren’t that cruel, are they?
Apparently, they are.
When the game went into overtime, our hearts sank.
Not only was a victory now in jeopardy, but so, too, were our deadlines. They had already been pushed to their limits. Regardless of the outcome or what time it came, our presses needed to roll – and soon.
One of our print editors took a few moments to collect her thoughts by sitting under her desk. She just couldn’t watch. (And you’d think she’d be used to this. After all, she’s a Bills fan.) My colleagues from Advertising huddled in one of our conference rooms, hoping for the best. Earlier in the night, Ray Cox, our sports editor, told me he thought the Falcons would need to put up 31 points to win. I never guessed he’d be so right.
By then, work on the book and the special section had stopped. Bo was now thinking of how he could recast his front-page story – and quickly.
And then, just like that, it was over.
No Super Bowl victory. No parade. No book. No special section.
“I can’t believe what I just saw,” the book publisher wrote in an email as the Patriots celebrated an historic Super Bowl comeback.
In the event the Falcons lost, we had pre-written a front-page headline that read, DEFLATED. But that no longer seemed to capture the magnitude of what we just witnessed. It was quickly changed to HEARTBREAK.
As for Bo’s story, it began with one word – “Agony.” The advertising group moved from the conference room to the newsroom to oversee the placement of its ads. The printouts of the 64-page unpublished special section sat on my desk for a week. I just couldn’t bear the thought of tossing them in the recycling bin.
A week later, it’s still hard to believe that such a glorious moment had been stolen from this team, this city and its fans. But let’s not forget what a great season it was – and how much hope and optimism the Falcons provided all of us.