Super Bowl bound Atlanta Falcons got an early start in Johnson City

Claude Humphrey

Claude Humphrey

By Bill Derby

As a football fan I have had a ‘love/hate’ relationship with the Atlanta Falcons over the years.

Last Sunday’s game put me back in the ‘love’ column.

After their victory over the Packers, I’ll have a team to support in this year’s Super Bowl.

My fan history goes back to 1968. The Falcons had only been in the NFL since 1966 and two years later in 1968 I had the good fortune of being stationed at Third Army Headquarters at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta.    Since tickets back then were about $6.00 for a good seat in the new Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, a couple of Army buddies and I attended some home games.

It was fun watching pro football. The players were enormous and our seats were close to the field. Norm Van Brocklin had just come on as head coach. He was a football hero in his own right as quarterback for the LA Rams and Eagles in 1950’s. Van Brocklin was also a NFL Hall of Fame member. The new team Falcons were not championship quality. Win or lose, we had fun attending the games.  Van Brocklin had a fiery temper and paced the sidelines puffing on cigarettes just about the whole game.  Watching him was almost as interesting as watching the game.

Tommy Nobis

Tommy Nobis

I’ve always been a fan of a team’s defense since playing inside linebacker for coach Harry Range and Jack McCorkle way back in North Jr. High.  I liked to tackle running backs. They liked to run me over too. A good defense always wins games.

In 1968 the Falcons had two of the best defensive players in the NFL in Claude Humphrey playing defensive end and Tommy Nobis at linebacker. Both were first round draft picks by the Falcons. Humphrey went on to become an NFL Hall of Fame member. According to many sports writers Tommy Nobis should have been inducted years earlier but wasn’t probably because of the Falcon’s losing seasons.

Unofficially, Nobis has been credited with the most tackles in one season. As a rookie he made 294 tackles in 1966, a record that still stands today. The NFL did not keep accurate records until later years.

Many local folks may or may not know the Atlanta Falcons summer camp was held at ETSU from 1967-1970. Each July the Falcons invaded Johnson City and there are a number of interesting stories of their exploits on and off the field.

When I came back to Johnson City just out of the Army I went to work as a weekend photographer at the Johnson City Press-Chronicle.  My boss, Jimmy Ellis, sent me out early Saturday morning to the ETSU practice field (now the soccer field) to shoot the Falcons going through their training programs and scrimmage.

Wow, that was an exciting assignment since I had watched the Falcons in so many games. When I arrived the first person I saw was big Claude Humphrey, a 6-foot 4, 252-pound giant of a man.  I started shooting photos. There was Tommy Nobis, one of my heroes, wearing a dirty soiled white number #60 jersey.  Harmon Wages, a running back, was another I watched.

Coach Van Brocklin, still smoking, was watching the quarterbacks warming up.  It was pretty cool being around a bunch of pro football players right in Johnson City. Many of them were only a few years older than I.

After a couple of scrimmage plays two Falcons started fighting, slugging it out and finally falling on the ground rolling around. One of the coaches yelled to let them go at it. I guess it was to see who was the toughest. In the hot July sun it didn’t take long for both to lay exhausted, unhurt and shaking hands after the battle.

Johnson City was not known as a party town but with a bunch of single pro football players running around town with nothing to do there are stories of beer joint parties and a few fights with locals. I’m guessing city officials and even the press kept any mis-deeds out of the headlines to keep the Falcons coming back for a few more years.

In any case, Johnson City has a local connection with the Atlanta Falcons and I’m getting on their bandwagon for a Super Bowl win. Since seats are going for $6,000 instead of $6.00, I don’t think I’ll be attending. They also have a great package deal for a cool $1 million which includes a private jet, Texas mansion and great seats.  Our seats were better in the old days where sometimes you could get hit with flying pieces of turf.


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