FLOWERY BRANCH — If last year’s success wasn’t validation enough for an Atlanta Falcons organization that had 11 wins and made its first playoff appearance since 2005, then surely the scene around the Falcons Training Complex in Flowery Branch on Saturday was.
By the time the first practice of training camp began, the parking lots at C.W. Davis and South Hall Middle schools were full and the grassy knoll to the right of the Falcons’ practice fields were a sea of red, black and white-clad fans.
For those fans who were unable to fit their cars in the school’s parking lots or the various nooks and crannies along Falcon Parkway, there was Delores Stidham’s yard.
More than 70 cars sat on the grass and gravel surrounding Stidham’s white house — which sits in between the complex and South Hall Middle — and she couldn’t have been happier.
"There’s never been a crowd this big," Delores said. "It’s truly amazing how many people are here."
Sitting under a green tent with her mother Ruth Stidham, and cold drinks and homemade snacks, the Falcons season ticket holder of four years was all smiles.
She loves the ambience, the energy, the random conversations held with strangers, and making a little extra money.
"I happened to be blessed to live next to them" said Delores, who added that she will walk the quarter of a mile to see training camp this month when it isn’t so crowded. "It’s also nice to be able to talk to people, hear their stories — everyone’s happy coming to camp and I like welcoming them and smiling with them."
Delores even has regulars, those who have for the four years the Falcons have trained in Flowery Branch, parked in her yard.
"One guy that parks here every year comes in full Falcons’ uniform," Delores said. "They call him ‘Stats’ because he knows everything about every player."
"Yea, he comes dressed for the game," Ruth added with a chuckle.
For the entirety of the hour and 40-minute practice, fans of all ages and all levels strolled toward practice with an anticipatory gait. Most of the children could be heard talking about who they’d see while their parents tried to reign them back in from walking too far ahead.
Those who exited practice early had a look of fullfilment on their faces and toted red pompoms, Falcons’ hand fans, training camp programs and souvenirs from the fan shop.
Two of those fans were Jerry Ainsworth and Ethan Rogers, both of whom were experiencing training camp for the first time.
Ainsworth is a Kansas native who moved to Gainesville in Sept. 2007 and makes it clear he’s a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Had it not been for him voicing that, however, the Falcons hat on his head, the one he was carrying, and the red and black that both he and five-year-old Rogers were wearing gave little clue to his true affiliations.
"(Rogers) had never been (to training camp) before and I thought i’d give him his first experience," Ainsworth said. "He can’t wait to come again, he had a blast — but right now he’s hungry, hot and tired so we’re going home."
Ainsworth admitted that the Falcons’ success last year on top of the team’s accessibility to the community could lead to him becoming more of a fan than in years past.
"This gives you a sense of loyalty," he said. "When you’re able to just come out and get right next to the players, see where they live and what they do during training camp.
"It’s clear they’re trying to reach out and so it piques your interest."
Dale and Taylor Done of Augusta were evidence of that piqued interest. The duo made the trek from Augusta on Saturday morning just so 14-year-old Taylor could get a glimpse of his favorite player, Michael Turner.
"I like watching how awesome they are," Taylor said.
"And I like watching the fans," his mother Dale added. "I really enjoy this, (Taylor) wants to be a football player anyway and seeing these guys work gives him incentive to work towards that goal."
As practice wound down and the fans slowly trickled back to their cars, Ruth and Delores still sat under their green tent waving and smiling.
"It is just wonderful. It’s a true blessing," Ruth said. "We are blessed to have the Falcons here; there just isn’t anything like them."