ATLANTA, Jan. 22 -- It took the Atlanta Falcons 33 years to make it from their raw beginning at Black Mountain to the Super Bowl, a journey that will end Sunday when they they go to Miami to take part in the nation's most-watched sporting event. And no one understands the difficulty of that long road than Falcons vice-president Tommy Nobis, their first college draft pick as an All- America linebacker at the University of Texas. Recognized as an NFL great, Nobis anchored the Falcons defense for their first 11 seasons (1966-76) and only two of those were winning campaigns, with the best of those a 9-5 mark posted in 1973. 'You'd go into each season with the hope that better days were ahead,' Nobis said. 'But, usually, something always went wrong. It used to gall me that I never got to play in a postseason game. Suddenly, now, the cloud is lifted.' The Falcons and the Super Bowl were born the same season (1966). But only twice since then had the Falcons even reached the divisional round of the playoffs. Not until last week had they made it to the NFC Championship game, much less to the Holy Grail of professional football. Thus, even when they posted their best-ever 14-2 mark this season, there were doubts they would improve on their previous playoff performances. Only the most faithful figured they could defeat the San Francisco 49ers and even less gave them a chance against the heavily- favored Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title matchup.
Excitement, the type usually reserved for the Atlanta Braves and the area college football teams, began to rise when the Falcons used a last- second pass interception to clinch a 20-18 victory over 49ers in Atlanta. And the city went beserk when Morten Andersen's field goal produced a 30-27 overtime road victory over the Vikings. 'I haven't seen anything like it,' said current Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle, who, like Nobis before him, has spent a dozen seasons struggling to reach the top. 'It's extra special for me,' said Tuggle. 'I have been with this organization all my career. I knew the Atlanta Falcons would some day get to the Super Bowl. But I didn't know if I'd still be here.' Black Mountain, a Baptist retreat in the southern North Carolina foothills, was the site of the Falcons' first summer camp. The inaugural team gathered there after the late Rankin Smith bought his way into the NFL for $8.5 million -- about one per cent of the price recently paid to purchase the Washington Redskins. After seeing the 42 expansion players the other teams were willing to give up, Smith felt even that price was too high. He walked out of the expansion draft meeting at a Palm Beach, Fla., hotel and quipped, 'I should have postdated the check.' It took the Falcons six seasons to record their first winning record and 13 seasons to reach their first playoff berth. They appeared to have established stability during the coaching reign of Leeman Bennett (1977- 1982), but Smith, wanting to reach a 'new plateau,' fired Bennett after the '82 season and it was nine more years before they had another winning record. Smith died during the 1997 season, three days before his 72nd birthday. The next week, under the guidance of coach Dan Reeves who had come in that year, the Falcons started a string of success that has seen them win 22 of their last 26 games and book a trip to Miami to play the defending champion Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. 'I wish my father had been around to see this,' said team president Taylor Smith, Rankin's youngest son. 'He suffered through so much with this team, put up with so much, he deserved to be here to enjoy the success we're now having.'