Start them young! Atlanta Falcons mascot Freddie Falcon holds a young Falcons fan during pregame festivities on Friday at City Park in Gainesville. / photo: David Weikel
Be sure to check out Access North Georgia's "Friday Game Night" page, which will launch in the coming weeks. The page will not only preview 30 area teams, as well as the area's top players and regions for the upcoming season, it will also stay up throughout the campaign to bring you the most complete source of information available on northeast Georgia football.
GAINESVILLE -- When Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith took the job in Flowery Branch six years ago, one of the first things he mentioned to his staff and team owner Arthur Blank was bringing the Falcons closer to the surrounding communities.
"Friday Night Lights" -- in which the Falcons travel to a local high school to conduct practice and meet with school officials and players once every preseason -- was born soon after. The Falcons conducted the first "Friday Night Lights" at Mill Creek High School in 2008 and followed with visits to Brookwood, North Gwinnett, and Peachtree Ridge high schools over the next few years.
And while all four were held in front of capacity crowds, the Falcons may have gotten their biggest response to date when they rolled into Gainesville and City Park Stadium Friday for their fifth installment of 'Friday Night Lights'.
"We obviously have to go to places that can accommodate us because of our numbers," Smith said. "But the goal is for us to stay in touch with the fans and the community and we try to find places not too far from our complex. (Gainesville) met every criteria and is a great community for football. You can tell by the (size of the) crowd that they have a lot interest in the Falcons. It's great to see."
Gainesville is the first non-Gwinnett County site the Falcons have visited during Smith's tenure. Gainesville High athletic director Wayne Vickery, along with Gainesville School Superintendent Dr. Merrianne Dyer and head football coach Bruce Miller, helped negotiate to bring the Falcons to City Park Stadium. But according to Vickery it's not the first visit by the Falcons to Bobby Gruhn Field.
(Check out a video presentation of the Falcons' "Friday Night Lights" at City Park by pressing "play" below.)
"We did one of these type of things back in the 1970s when Leeman Bennett was the coach, but it was nothing like this," Vickery said as he seemed to marvel at the turnout. "I think the new (P.K. Dixon) fieldhouse had a lot to do with it. We couldn't have done this two years ago because we didn't have the facilities to dress out 200 people. Now we can."
Fans of all ages came from far and wide to watch the Falcons' two-hour practice. The Falcons announced that a crowd of 14,250 -- the largest to attend a Friday night event -- crammed into Bobby Gruhn Field. Virtually every section of stands on both sides of the field and most of the grassy hill north of the field were completely full. Fans lined the end zones five deep and more still lined the street between the Civic Center and the stadium above the field on lawn chairs.
Some, like Randy Jenkins of Helen, waited for hours at the corner of Green Street and Riverside Drive for a chance to see their favorite players.
"We got here at noon and wanted to be one of the first ones in to get a good seat," Jenkins said. "We wanted to show our support for the team. We're just looking forward to seeing them on the field and having some fun."
Eleven-year old Triston Knight of Dahlonega, sporting a No. 2 Matt Ryan jersey and attending his first Falcons practice session, had no hesitation when asked who he wanted to see.
"I want to see Matt Ryan. He's my favorite player," Knight said. "I don't play football yet but I want to be a quarterback."
Casey Tanner, 20, of Gainesville, came to do a little scouting of the Falcons as the season nears.
"I've been to see them many times but never this close to home. I've seen many games here and I wanted to see them on my home-town field. It's pretty exciting to see them here," Tanner said. "What I'm really looking for is to see some of the younger players and to see how the backups do."
Fair Street Elementary School Principal Will Campbell also came to show his support.
"It's very exciting to see the Falcons here. I think it's great for the community and I think it's great to see how the community has come out to support the Falcons," Campbell said.
Fans weren't the only ones to see the Falcons up close and personal. Current players of the defending Class AAAAA state champion Red Elephants got to participate as ball boys during the practice.
Senior linebacker Devon Stringer was all smiles before practice began.
"This is great for the town and it's just crazy to see this many people here," Stringer said. "This definitely gets me fired up to get our season going."
The practice even featured four parachutists descending upon Bobby Gruhn Field before the national anthem and few people left before the practice ended. The Falcons were even treated to a huge ovation and a lengthy autograph session when it ended nearly three hours later.
"It was real cool," 13-year-old Andrew Rismondo of Marietta said as he and his family were leaving the stadium. "We just wanted to come see the Falcons. It was a lot of fun."
Which is exactly what Smith and the Falcons hope for with every new installment.
"We want people to have fun and that's what we try to make happen," he said.