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Falcons fish with a purpose
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith talks with First Lieutenant Keith Pate, 29, a member of the Mississippi Army National Guard and a veteran of two tours to Iraq, on Wednesday at Van Pugh Park in Flowery Branch. The Falcons hosted a fishing event to pay tribute to wounded military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. - photo by ADAM KROHN | The Times

FLOWERY BRANCH — As the NFL lockout reached the 88-day milestone, its ramifications had a noticeable effect on a good cause that took place Wednesday.

The Atlanta Falcons hosted its fourth annual fishing outing at Van Pugh Park on Lake Lanier, an event that pays tribute to wounded military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. While notables such as coach Mike Smith, and former Falcons greats such as Billy “White Shoes” Johnson were on hand, absent were current Falcons who graced the event with their presence in past years.

Nonetheless, the event served its purpose, as veterans spent the day paired with Falcons representatives, including cheerleaders, alumni, as well as local media talent, on fishing boats competing for various prizes.

“It was good hanging out with them and I had a good time on the lake,” said Justin Brown, 23, of Tumwater, Wash. “I caught a couple fish and it was relaxing. It was good to get out of the hospital.”

Brown served in the First Infantry, based out of Fort Knox, Ky., and suffered a devastating injury in May while serving his second tour in Afghanistan. He crossed a tripwire that detonated a roadside bomb; the explosion leaving him with a compound fracture of his left humerus, a fractured elbow and nerve damage. He must wear an external fixator for a month and will never regain full range of motion in his left arm.

He’s currently living at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, where he spends all of his time rehabbing. Wednesday was just the second day since being admitted that he’s been able to leave the hospital, and he said the day was good not only because he got to spend some time outdoors, but he made a positive step forward in his recovery.

“I did reel in one fish using the arm that was injured,” Brown said. “That was helpful to gain a little confidence in the arm. I got hit the 10th of May. Compound fracture in my arm and now I’m reeling in fish, that’s pretty good if you ask me.”

Brown admitted he didn’t follow sports and didn’t know Smith the coach from Mike Smith the plumber.

He also didn’t have an opinion either way on the current labor strife.

“This will probably go to my father-in-law,” said Brown, holding a football autographed by Smith and others in attendance. “He’s huge into football. But it was just good hanging out with them.”

The feeling was mutual for Smith, who said the veterans served as an inspiration.

“This is my favorite event that we do with the Atlanta Falcons,” Smith said. “It’s just a great day for the veterans, recovering servicemen and women who have gone out and risked their lives to come from Augusta and have an opportunity to fish.

“You find out about their stories, and to hear what they’ve been through, makes you feel proud you’ve got them protecting us as Americans and the rights we have.”

Added Johnson, “This is a way for us to show our appreciation more than anything else. It’s a way of giving respect to those who protect our country and give us our liberties and freedoms, and just a way for us to be thankful for all they do.”

As for the lockout, Smith said he and the coaching staff, despite not being able to communicate with players or hold organized team activities, remain busy during the offseason.

“It’s a difficult situation in terms of being so used to (working with players); we’re all creatures of habit,” Smith said. “I know everyone is making the best of it and doing everything they can, so when they tell us that we’re ready to come back and play, we’re going to be as prepared as we possibly can.”

When that time comes, and the lockout is lifted, Falcons fans will be eager to take a look at the new team, which hopes to build from a 14-2 regular season that earned them the NFC’s top seed.

Though the season ended with a disappointing loss to Green Bay in the NFC Divisional Round, there’s reason for optimism in 2012. The Falcons drafted dynamic receiver Julio Jones out of Alabama with the sixth overall pick, and along with veteran All-Pro Roddy White, the duo potentially gives quarterback Matt Ryan one of the top receiving tandems in the league, .

Johnson, a legendary receiver for the Falcons from 1982-87, sees the potential in Atlanta’s receivers.

“I think (what they’re capable of) is unlimited right now,” Johnson said. “It’s a matter of when Julio gets his chance to get initiated and when he does, I think it’s going to be one of the better receiving corps in the business.”

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