New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons Rivalry: True Happiness Is Hating This Much

Randy SavoieAnalyst IISeptember 24, 2010

Is Matt Ryan the modern-day Steve Bartkowsi, the QB who broke Saints fans hearts thirt years ago?
Is Matt Ryan the modern-day Steve Bartkowsi, the QB who broke Saints fans hearts thirt years ago?Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

(Best of Randy) Halloween, 2009

Hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside-down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.
Walker Percy  

Any Saints fan 40-plus remembers when they became a Falcon hater like it was yesterday.

It was Nov. 12, 1978, when New Orleans Saints fans discovered the kind of true happiness that only the hatred of a bitter rival can produce.

With the Saints still in playoff contention on that fall afternoon 31 years ago, Archie Manning and a stubborn defense held the Steve Bartkowski-led Atlanta Falcons at bay for 59 minutes.

The Falcons had closed the gap to 17-13 on a Hascal Stanback touchdown run with 57 seconds to go. Then, the Saints took over presumably to run out the clock.

Legendary Saints radio Voice Wayne Mack , a Chicago native, had the call:

"With this big win, the fans will be dancing on the tables at Pat O'Brien's."

A melancholy Mack would say later, "I should have learned from the Chicago Tribune headline that proclaimed, incorrectly, the victory of Tom Dewey over Harry Truman in the presidential election of 1948."

On fourth and two, Saints coach Dick Nolan decided to run Chuck Muncie. The Falcons defense held. Then, Big Ben, and we're not talking Roethlisberger here, reared his ugly head.

With 19 seconds remaining, Atlanta QB Steve Bartkowski lined up in what came to be known as the Big Ben formation: three wide receivers on his right. At the snap, the receivers started flying toward the New Orleans end zone with seven defensive backs in hot pursuit.

Bartkowski launched a missile to the goal line and then everything seemed to move in slooooowwwwww motion.

Ten bodies collided around the ten yard line, like tourists at Mardi Gras fighting for a pair of beads flung from a Bourbon Street balcony.The ball seem to hang in the air forever.

It was then that diminuitive Falcons receiver Alfred Jenkins attained his moment of glory.

Jenkins caught his only pass of the afternoon emerging from the sea of bodies and darting into the end zone.

An eerie silence followed in the jam-packed Superdome. Kind of like one of those spooky New Orleans Victorian mansions on Halloween night.

The crowd sat in stunned silence enduring sheer agony no sports fans should ever have to endure but ultimately does. 

Atlanta had won 20-17, cruelly dashing the Saints' playoff hopes.

A local radio talk show host printed up a batch of "I Hate the Falcons" t-shirts." The batch sold out in three days. Three decades later, mine still hangs in my locker. I sneer every time I look at it.

Two weeks later, the Saints traveled to Atlanta for a rematch.

Different city. Same creepy results.

With 53 seconds left and the Saints leading again 17-13, New Orleans went into the infamous, dreaded prevent defense. Bartkowski marched the Falcons to the Saints' 23 with 16 seconds remaining.

Deja vu all over again Rocky....ugggghhhhh.....Deja vu all over again....

Bartkowski fired to the end zone. Saints defensive back Ralph McGill intercepted.

Flag on the play!!! Oh My Sweet Jesus, you gotta be kidding me!!!!!

Referee Grover Klemmer called interference on New Orleans DB Maurice Spencer. Falcons receiver Dennis Pearson would admit later he didn't feel a thing. Two weeks later the league office informed the Saints that Klemmer blew the call.

Same spooky final score: Falcons 20 Saints 17. 

New Orleans States-Item sports editor Bob Roesler began campaigning for instant replay, a revolutionary idea in those days.

"We had the biggest meeting in the the history of the fan club Tuesday night, Joey!!!!! I haven't been able to sleep: I hope the players aren't as nervous as I am."

Turns out one player was suffering from extreme anxiety that day, punter Russell Erxleben. The Saints spent a number one draft pick on Erxleben in hopes that the former Texas Longhorn could handle both the kicking and punting.

Incumbent Saints placekicker Rich Szaro of Poland ribbed Erxleben mercessly in training camp.

" He's a punta, not a keecker......ha ha ha ha.....he will not kick in this league," said Szaro in his Polish accent.

Turns out he was neither a kicker nor a punter. More head case than anything else.

This time it took four quarters plus about 8 1/2 of overtime for the Dirty Birds to traumatize the City of New Orleans again. John Watson snapped the ball over punter Erxleben's head.

A mad dashed ensued. Erxleben recovered it at the goal line and under heavy pressure threw it into the waiting arms of Atlanta's James Mayberry who raced into the end zone for a 40-34 Falcons win. 

Three fluky wins in a row by the hated Atlanta Falcons.

True happiness is hating this much!

So for all us Saints fans who remember the days before ESPN, the seeds of hatred for the Dirty Birds were sown over 30 years ago.

As one of those Greek philosophers said, (I think it was Aeschylus), "Before the old wound is healed, there is fresh blood flowing."

I'm sure the Falcons will receive a warm Southern welcome Monday night. The kind of  a Halloween weekend welcome you receive only in New Orleans.

A former Saints All-Pro told me Friday morning that Atlanta rockstar QB Matt Ryan has never seen anything like he's gonna see from Gregg Williams' defense Monday night in the Dome.

Surely, a much better defense than the one that suffered those Shakespearean losses back in the late 70's.

Said New Orleans safety Ralph McGill all those years ago, "We got nothin' but buzzard luck. They did to us what buzzards do to you when they die."

Yeah, losing like that three times in a row....well, it was just a damned shame. A hell of a thing. A real damned  shame.

Those kind of memories they cut deep ya know. Cut real deep.

They say the first cut is the deepest, but the second and third aren't much fun either.


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