Sports executives are not unfamiliar with being thrown under a bus, but it was a departure for Thomas Dimitroff last week when he found himself under an RV. Literally.
The return leg of a cross-country trip in a camper with his 10-year-old son hit a horrible pothole, or more accurately a large, indecipherable mangled piece of metal, that sat in the middle of a highway in St. Louis. Dimitroff was sandwiched between two cars. He couldn’t avoid it. So, as he frantically tried to calculate the camper’s clearance level in his head – answer: not high enough – he ran over the object.
“I see this thing, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t think I can avoid it,’” he said. “And then I go over it and it tears the entire 10-foot pipe from the chassis. And there’s this crazy noise. It’s like a horrible clunk, clunk. And then there's a loud scraping sound coming from underneath. Fortunately, I was near an exit."
From the Super Bowl to National Lampoon’s Vacation.
What a poetic mutation.
There were several moments early this offseason when Dimitroff, the Falcons’ general manager, struggled to pull himself out of the funk of the team’s Super Bowl loss last season. But one of those times wasn’t last week, when the man more accustomed to repairing football rosters attempted to bring his damaged and traumatized camper back to life. There he was late Saturday afternoon, under his vehicle, holding a sawzall and some wire, taking direction from a mechanic he was communicating with via Facetime, and using the assistance of a car salesman dressed in a white shirt who had been deputized for just this moment.
Strangely, the real-world problem of a broken-down car was a nice departure from the stresses of football life.
“I’m underneath this RV for four hours, messing with mechanics tools that I shouldn’t be messing with, cutting off a three-foot piece of pipe, I’m all sweaty and grimy, and the last thing I really cared about was football,” Dimitroff said. “I thought, this is like the roots of life a little bit. Nobody gave a crap about who I was or what I did for a living. It was kind of helpful.”
It took Dimitroff nearly three days to make the return drive home from Boulder, Colorado. His camper’s exhaust system looked like it had been repaired by a prehistoric surgeon using a rock and a club. But it worked. Winning ugly. Once he felt comfortable enough to push the vehicle to 60 miles per hour – “The mechanic told me, ‘If you smell exhaust in the car, pull over.’ Gee, thanks” – Dimitroff made his way from St. Louis to Nashville.
He pulled over to rest for four hours at a Nashville campsite. "I probably owe them $25 or $30,” he said.
Dimitroff made it back to town just in time for a promotional event at a DeKalb YMCA on Monday, when he helped several youths build their new bicycles. This he could handle without Facetiming.
From this road-to-Wally World experience, Dimitroff and the Falcons return to football reality this week. It has been nearly six months since arguably the most magic season in franchise history brought the Falcons to the Super Bowl and a 28-3 lead over the NFL Godzilla of New England, only to lose. This week, they open training camp for a new season that they hope enables them to forget the past one.
There are two primary objectives this season: 1) Stay healthy because if the Falcons can do that they have an excellent chance to end up in the next title game, in Minneapolis; 2) Shut up everybody who believes this team is so emotionally scarred from what happened against New England that there’s no possible way they can recover.
The Falcons don't have a glorious history, but they now rank as one of the best-run organizations in the NFL. Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn have proved to be one of the top general manager/coach combinations in professional sports over the past two seasons. This year's team has the potential to be better than last year's because of a deeper and more experienced defense that has added four players to their front: tackle Dontari Poe, end Jack Crawford and rookies Takk McKinley and Duke Riley.
The offense can sustain the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who wasn't the most popular individual at the end, anyway.
If the Falcons don’t make it back to the Super Bowl, it won’t be because of a hangover. Failure more likely would stem from injuries and luck. It’s hard to make it through consecutive seasons with everything falling in place. But talent, coaching and confidence aren’t issues.
There was a moment after the loss to the Patriots when Falcons owner Arthur Blank could be seen consoling a young boy on the field who many incorrectly assumed to be his son. In fact, it was Dimitroff’s son, Mason.
“He was waiting for me outside of the locker room, crying his eyes out,” Dimitroff said.
“Later on he said to me. “Papa, I didn’t want to tell Mr. Arthur, but I kind of had all kinds of snot running out of my nose.”
Dimitroff, Quinn and players will be reminded of the Super Bowl weekly, if not daily, by the media and fans. But Dimitroff said, "I haven’t been wallowing in any pity," and players insist they're past that. They need to be. Athletes are more programmed to operate with a day-to-day mentality than people watching from their couch.
"Our focus is not on the past, it’s moving forward," Dimitroff said. "No one is pointing fingers. No one is focused on (last year), contrary to what has been written. I was really impressed by how Dan handled the troops in the spring and how everybody went about their business. I truly believe we have a chance to make a difference in that way."
If a man with no mechanical skills can fix an exhaust pipe with a sawzall and some wire, maybe it's a sign.
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC's Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.
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