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HOUSTON – Atlanta could taste the sweetness of victory….until the final few moments of the first Super Bowl overtime in history.
New England Patriots 34. Atlanta Falcons 28. Yet this loss was different from previous ones.
“We will be back,” proclaimed Paul Bowers, Georgia Power’s CEO who flew to Houston Sunday morning along with Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife Sandra among others before flying back to Atlanta Sunday night.
Atlanta’s top leaders quickly exited NRG stadium. Owner Arthur Blank, known for taking losses to heart, slipped out shortly after the end of the game without talking to the media. So did the other minority owners – John Williams and Doug Hertz to name a couple.
“The energy this season brought to the city is something that will be contagious,” Bowers said. “We are the home of NFC champions and just played one of the all-time classics in Super Bowl history!”
It was a sentiment shared by all.
“ As devastating as this loss is, I have faith the Falcons will rise again from the ashes,” said Wonya Lucas, the Public Broadcasting Atlanta executive who got Super Bowl tickets in a lottery so she was able to attend with her beau – William Taggart, chief operating officer for Morehouse College. “The Atlanta spirit is strong.”
At the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Houston, John Williams’ Super Bowl Sunday began with a family breakfast – 13 extended members in all. They had just flown in on his private plane from Atlanta.
A few feet away was actor Mark Wahlberg, who got up from his table to talk to Atlanta performer Ludacris.
Before that, Williams had wagered a bet with Wahlberg. If the Falcons won by three touchdowns, Wahlberg agreed he would come to Atlanta to cook dinner for Williams.
For much of the game, it looked as though that could actually happen.
Williams had hired a luxury, smaller-sized bus to take his entourage to NRG Stadium. While on the way, a police-escorted motorcade passed the bus on the right-hand shoulder.
“That’s Vice President Pence,” Williams speculated.
Once at the NRG complex, the group stopped by the pre-game Atlanta Falcons tailgating party in a large tent only accessible to those wearing a “cricket” badge.
The governor was there. TI and Ludacris performed. An open bar and a full luncheon spread welcomed Atlanta leaders. Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Hala Moddelmog danced to the beat with her associate Katie Kirkpatrick.
At the far end of the room, Bowers was talking to Deal’s chief of staff Chris Riley and Georgia Power associate Chris Cummiskey. Donna Hyland, the CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, was chatting with Amy Hertz Agami, the daughter of Doug Hertz.
Williams and his wife Nancy as well as his children and their significant others were saying hello to old friends including Williams’ cardiologist Dr. Charlie Brown.
Close by SunTrust CEO Bill Rogers said hello to Georgia-Pacific CEO Jim Hannan. Would the Falcons win? “Why not?” Rogers responded.
For Steve Cannon, the former CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA who is now running all of Blank’s private business interests, this was a defining moment for Atlanta. “Everything has come together. We are going to make Atlanta a great sports town,” Cannon said. “Everybody told me since I’ve been here that Atlanta is not a great sports town. Everybody comes from somewhere else. There were all sorts of excuses.”
“But in the last two weeks, at the Green Bay game, we saw what an amazing fan base we actually have,” Cannon added. “It’s like someone handed me the most awesome script –the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Getting the 2019 Super Bowl. And now to be in the Super Bowl.”
While Atlanta did not win this year, the resounding sentiment among the city’s leaders was that Atlanta would be back. “While we are all disappointed, we must not be disheartened,” said William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “Atlanta must thank the Falcons for energizing this entire city during their amazing Super Bowl run. We will rise up again!”
That was the same sentiment expressed by Atlanta Marriott Marquis general manager Erica Qualls-Battey.
“It was great to win the NFC Championship and play in the Super Bowl,” she said. We look forward to coming back next year. We are proud to hang our National Championship in the New Mercedes Benz Stadium. Atlantans, Arthur Blank and the Falcons should be proud. Rise up!”
DanCorso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council, texted after the game. “Tough to see them come up short, but the buzz in Atlanta created by the Falcons over the last several weeks was energizing and exciting to be a part of — it was great seeing the community rally behind them (in Atlanta and in Houston).”
Michael Paris, CEO of the Atlanta-based Council for Quality Growth, was looking toward the future. “ As a long time Falcons fan and 13 year season ticket holder, I couldn’t be prouder of my team,” Paris said. “Although disappointed in the outcome of the game, we are true competitors in every way. What a game! Congrats to Matt Ryan on MVP!”
And then looking to how the largest city in Texas had handled the Super Bowl festivities, Paris said: “Houston hosted this event in a stellar manner, and I know that in 2019 Atlanta will proudly do the same.”
One of the more philosophical comments came from Dr. Ellen Frauenthal, who is married to Lenny Silverstein, the chief operating officer of Williams’ company Corporate Holdings. “No interview necessary but it still is a game,” she said. “And I’m still happy I got to be here, and I loved seeing Lady Gaga! These are the distractions we are so lucky to have , we have much bigger crises to be depressed and worried about.”
For renowned Atlanta chef Kevin Rathbun (the official chef who represents the Atlanta Falcons at the annual “Taste of the NFL”), it was personal. Rathbun and his wife had taken Uber to the game – he waved to the Williams crowd as he walked by their bus that was caught in traffic jam while he was walking to the stadium.
Later after the game, Rathbun and friends were in the longest Uber line ever – allowing for moments of reflection.
“We got invited to the party, and it was our second time to the party,” Rathbun said. “Maybe the third time will be the charm. Let’s just hope it won’t be another 18 years.”
It just so happened that during the game he had been sitting right in front of the parents of Atlanta Falcons Quarterback (and season MVP) Matt Ryan. “I turned around and told them I really felt badly for them,” Rathbun said.
Then he acknowledged that familiar feeling that Atlanta had come up short. “I’m disappointed nonetheless,” Rathbun said. “It really felt like we were going to win. They gave it their all.”
Maria Saporta covers non-profits and philanthropy
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