Retired NFL player Bobby Butler will never forget one scalding summer afternoon at the Atlanta Falcons’ Suwanee practice facility in 1995.
Butler, a former defensive back, struggled to catch his breath while scaling a hill in the heat. He tried to process how it was possible for him to play in such conditions. The answer came the moment he noticed a few former teammates cracking jokes from a distance. That’s how, with those guys right there, he told himself.
The Falcons’ “brotherhood” theme has, to a certain extent, been with the organization all along. Coach Dan Quinn’s philosophy gained recognition in his second year, and may be a factor in the team’s second Super Bowl berth in 51 years today against New England.
That aspect has never left Butler, a 12-year NFL veteran who now works part-time for Delta Global Services. Going to battle and enduring the long trek of each season with his teammates is something he’ll always cherish.
“We didn’t win a lot, I can tell you that,” Butler said with a laugh. “But when you’re in the trenches, you laugh together, cry together, bleed together. ... Just lay it on the line. It’s a special bond that you have.”
“To me, we’re the brotherhood,” said Buddy Curry, an All-Pro linebacker with the Falcons from 1980-87, another who can vouch for this longstanding bond. “Those were the guys I worked with, played with.”
Curry, 58, was single while playing, so he relished in those precious moments spent with teammates while striving for goals larger than his own.
“(Quinn) has taken a game that is a job, and occupation that is highly money-motivated and turned it into a ‘Hey man, I want to fight for you. I’ll protect you,’” Curry said. “When you’re a person that plays for money, it’s all about you. ... It just puts in another dynamic that makes the game fun. Being in a brotherhood makes it fun.”
Curry, the 1980 co-defensive player of the year, was No. 41 on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Top 50 Falcons. Butler, a first-round selection by the Falcons in 1981, recorded 27 career interceptions, sixth most in team history. He founded Kids & Pros in 2002, a non-profit and character-based youth sports organization that has retired NFL players get more engaged in their communities by teaching football fundamental skills and character lessons to children ages 7-13.
The two teammates Butler and Curry still talk on a weekly basis.
Butler, 57, was intently listening to his radio at work during the NFC Championship between Atlanta and Green Bay. As the confetti began to fall inside the Georgia Dome following Atlanta’s 44-21 win, Curry was joyously watching the TV broadcast with his family in Buford.
“We were just ecstatic, hooping and hollering,” said Curry. “That’s just incredible. Just real proud of the guys,”
The Falcons’ offense “flew under the radar” despite the numbers put up by MVP candidate and quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Their 540 points tied with the 2000 St. Louis Rams for seventh all-time. And a Super Bowl title could dub this offense among the greatest ever.
But the fascination lies on the defensive side according to Butler and Curry. Witnessing the impact of three starting rookies on defense in recent weeks has stirred up flashbacks from Curry’s first season. He, along with rookies Al Richardson, Jim Laughlin and Joel Williams, powered a young defense. Quarterback Steve Bartkowski threw for 31 touchdowns on the way to the franchise’s first NFC West Division title in 1980.
“We had all kinds of rookies, and we were just playing to fight another day,” Curry said. “We didn’t realize the impact of playing in that level and in the playoffs, and I never had a chance to go to the playoffs after that.”
Butler believes the young defense, led by NFL sack leader Vic Beasley, can pressure four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady.
“We’re gonna hit Tom Brady, ruffle his feathers, and if our offense plays the way it plays, we’re gonna do fine,” Butler said.
The Patriots, under the guidance of Coach Bill Belichick and Brady, are in their seventh Super Bowl in 16 seasons. Experience is clearly on their side, but Curry feels the “brotherhood” may give the Falcons a slight edge.
“I think it would, when it comes down to it,” he said. “Then again, they’re going against a team that has been there, done that. They’re not gonna fold, either. But on any given Sunday, a team that’s closer together, that has a brotherhood has the advantage.”
Butler is confident it’s Atlanta’s time.
“It would do so much for the city, if we could complete this task and win it,” he said. “There’s nobody more deserving than (owner) Arthur Blank, what he’s done since going to the Atlanta Falcons. ... I think it’s going to be great for us, I really do.”