In 1998, I was a freckled-faced 12-year-old with hopes of becoming the next Charles Barkley or Brent Jones (San Francisco 49ers tight end). At that age, it was awesome to enjoy life without worries.
There were no calls from Sallie Mae. I didn’t have to worry about having a job — akin to Tommy Strawn from '90s hit TV show "Martin" (R.I.P. Thomas Mikal Ford), and the future was bright. While life was grand for me, the same could be said for those residing in Atlanta.
As ATL emerged from the shadows of being known for TBS, TNT, NASCAR and the Atlanta Braves, the "Dirty South" capital was morphing into a hotbed for sports and entertainment.
The dynamic duo better known as Outkast went multi-platinum with their album titled Aquemini, Dikembe Mutombo's finger-wag became a national phenomenon, Tom Glavine was fresh off winning a Cy Young Award, and the hip and charming Atlanta Falcons were at the top of the NFL world.
After going 7-9 in Dan Reeves' inaugural season, the following year was unlike many that been entrenched inside of the Georgia Dome. The following season, the team finished with a 14-2 record, despite Reeves battling health problems that ended his regular season prematurely. Headed by the play of Jamal Anderson, the team rode his gargantuan shoulders all the way to Super Bowl XXXIII.
The former Utah Ute was a budding superstar. He was a breath of fresh air, and he wasn't dull like most stars. His smile was as bright as the Georgia sun, and he had the charisma of the professional wrestler. On top of that, he was a dynamo with the ball in his hands. In the era of Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis, Anderson's bruising but suave running style set him apart from his peers. His unique blend of agility, speed, power and size allowed him to have his best season as a pro. He finished the 1998 season with 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Coupled with Anderson's success, quarterback Chris Chandler reaped the benefits of throwing to underrated wide receivers Terrance Mathis and Tony Martin. The duo was good enough to make Chandler look like a competent quarterback. Despite making the Pro Bowl, the Falcons knew that Chandler was a stop-gap quarterback and not anything close to someone who can be a franchise signal-caller.
Like most dominant teams, the special teams and defense units were vastly undervalued. Led by a mix of veterans and fresh faces, Tim Dwight, Morten Andersen, Keith Brooking, Jessie Tuggle, Cornelius Bennett, Chuck Smith, Eugene Robinson and Ray Buchanan took turns tormenting opponents.
With the Falcons going from a local spectacle to a national wonder, they relished in a spotlight that the franchise had never seen before. Despite having big names such Brett Favre, Andre Rison and Deion Sanders, the Falcons of the 1980s and early 1990s had not been a national sensation until the year of the “Dirty Bird.”
Outside of the Atlanta Braves winning pennants in the 1990s, team success in Atlanta wasn't standard. Yes, there was a never-ending highlight reel featuring Prime Time, Dominique Wilkins and Hank Aaron, but from a team perspective, consistent winning never materialized, especially with the Falcons.
The season of the 1998 Falcons was wildly special, because they were known for their losing ways. Surprisingly, they flipped the script and were one of the best teams in all of football. During that year, their biggest accomplishment came against a Minnesota Vikings team that was superior to them on paper.
As supreme underdogs against the Vikings, Atlanta won the NFC championship. While unseating the offensive juggernaut consisting of Robert Smith, Cris Carter and Randy Moss, they went on to play the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, which they lost to John Elway and company.
Despite falling short on football's largest stage, the team's fanfare cultivated into a domain that was new for the Falcons. While they were great on the field, their crossover success in large part was due to their popular touchdown dance.
Enthused by their running back, tight end O.J. Santiago and rest of the team, the nation revered the nifty moves from the Falcons players. Not to get the “Dirty Bird” confused with the style of Dirty Dancing formed by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, it was out of the norm for the NFL to publicize such celebration. The dance moves featured a quirky flap of an arm resembling a bird mixed with a delicate rendition of the Bankhead bounce.
Just like the dance itself, the success of Atlanta was short-lived, an unfortunate career-threatening injury to Anderson the following the following season halted the dance-happy Falcons. The year after the "Dirty Bird" took over the football world, Atlanta finished 5-11. From there, the Dirty Birds' wings were broken, and it opened the door to the Michael Vick era just a few years later.
In comparison to the historic teams of the 1990s, especially in 1998, Atlanta had one of the quietest 14-2 seasons in NFL history. It's worth noting they were more than a team that danced into the hearts of football fans — they were pretty damn good at football too.