In the summer of 2007 there weren’t many towns that were suffering a worse sports slump than Atlanta.
Town superstar Mike Vick was indicted on charges of dog fighting after a disappointing 7 -9 season at the helm for the Falcons. The Hawks were putting the finishing touches on a stellar 26 win season, (give them a break – they doubled their win total from the previous year) and made it seven straight years without a playoff appearance. And to cap it all off, those faithful 14-straight-division-title-winning Braves were coming off their first losing season since 1990 on their way to a four year playoff draught.
Although the surface of sports in this town looked bleak, behind the curtain two moves were made that summer that drastically altered the future of Atlanta. First, the Braves drafted a local prospect Jason Heyward 14th overall in the 2007 MLB Draft. The Hawks for some reason drafted (it’s hard to say this) intelligently by taking Al Horford 3rd overall a few months later.
Fast-forward a year and the results on the field don’t look much better.
The Hawks got a whole 4 wins better and failed to reach the playoffs again finishing with a .366 winning percentage. The Braves finished 2007 with 84 wins but for only 3rd in the division. They would follow up in 2008 by dropping 12 wins from the previous year and another spot further down in the final division standings.
The Falcons? They found a way to make the Hawks and Braves woes seem like nothing. Joey Harrington led us to the 29th ranked offense and Bobby Petrino decided midway through the year that he’d rather go scream “Pig Souie!” than coach an NFL team. And in a generous display of class and dignity he snuck out of the city at night after one of the worst loses of the year. (We wish him the best though and hope he enjoys a wonderful season this year – good luck without Mallett!) Please pardon my bitter aside.
It was during that summer the Falcons made one of the best draft decisions any franchise in Atlanta has made. They took Matt Ryan in the first round with the third overall pick. In a draft stocked with offensive line talent and accuracy question marks with Ryan, they took a calculated risk and struck gold.
These three draft decisions have led to some pretty incredible sports stories.
For the Falcons and Braves, the glory of their top prospects came in their very first plays. These have been two of the sweetest moments I have ever witnessed in local sports.
Ryan came to Atlanta with much hype but also many doubters. In his first game as a Falcon, Matty Ice dropped back from under center and threw his first NFL pass complete to Michael Jenkins for a 62 yard touchdown. That was the start of an 11 win season for the Falcons that launched them into a consistent winner and title contender.
NFL Network has recently been counting down the top 100 players of 2011 as voted by the players. Last week Matt Ryan was featured with narration by our own Jerry Glanville. (Pardon the quality)
When Heyward stepped in for his first major league at bat he had the eyes of everyone in Atlanta on him. Chip Caray made the call of his life on a 2-0 count with his immediate classic description of Heyward’s two-run bomb into the right field dugout. His famous words have become sacred to baseball fans and the call was recently rated 46 on the MLB Network’s countdown of the 50 greatest all time calls in baseball history.
“Swing and a drive – belted to right – welcome to the show!”
This was the start to an incredible season from Jason Heyward who deserved Rookie of the Year honors. Apparently a half a year at catcher is more impressive than a full year of quality at bats with a boatload of walks. (How’s that leg feeling now Posey?)
If you haven’t seen it before, check out more of Heyward’s story in this ESPN E:60 piece:
Since then the three Atlanta teams have combined for seven playoff appearances with all teams looking promising for the future. Horford, Ryan, and Heyward are all all-star players who are becoming the cornerstone for the future of their teams. While they have their ups and downs they have begun a new era of success in Atlanta sports in just a few short years.