Meet NFL Fan of the Year, a Falcons season-ticket holder for 51 years

Henry Ison, photographed at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this week, began attending Falcons games in 1968 and has been a season-ticket holder since 1971. (AMB Sports & Entertainment photo)

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Henry Ison, photographed at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this week, began attending Falcons games in 1968 and has been a season-ticket holder since 1971. (AMB Sports & Entertainment photo)

The Falcons have been an important part of Henry Ison’s life since he returned from military service more than a half-century ago.

“When I came home from Vietnam in September 1968, that was the first thing I did – started going to Falcons games,” Ison, 76, said this week. “I’ve been going ever since.”

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His loyalty, through the highs and (more frequent) lows of franchise history, was rewarded Thursday night when he was named NFL Fan of the Year. The league-wide award was presented to him during the nationally televised NFL Honors show in Los Angeles, part of the lead-up to Sunday’s Super Bowl.

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Ison, born in Griffin and now a resident of Fayetteville, has been a Falcons season-ticket holder for 51 years in three different home stadiums. After buying tickets on a game-by-game basis in the 1968-70 seasons, he purchased season tickets for the first time in 1971 and has had them ever since.

“It has been a journey with this team,” Ison said in an interview before traveling to Los Angeles to receive the award and attend the Super Bowl as the NFL’s guest. “I’ve seen all our good teams, and I’ve seen all our bad teams.

“When I was younger, I used to take the losses so hard. If we lost a game on Sunday, it would take me until Wednesday to get over it. It would make me sick when we lost. My wife told me, ‘You’ve got to stop doing that to yourself.’

“I’m still attached to the team emotionally, but I don’t take the losses hard like I used to because at my age I don’t think I could, you know.”

Still, he remains a passionate fan, thoroughly committed to his team.

He puts up a red Falcons-themed Christmas tree at home each year. He purchased a Mercedes-Benz vehicle when the luxury automaker became the Falcons’ stadium naming-rights partner. In addition to home games, he regularly attends road games in New Orleans.

Family members call him “The Coach” because, he said, “I used to be able watch the games and actually call the plays.”

He currently has eight end-zone season tickets that he shares with his wife, two daughters and business associates.

“I love end-zone seats, always did,” Ison said. “When we moved into the Georgia Dome (in 1992), I had seats the first year on the 35-yard line behind the Falcons bench, three rows from the field. But it was a lot of newcomers (in that section), a lot of people who just bought season tickets because of the new stadium, and they weren’t really true football fans. I couldn’t enjoy the game when I was sitting there, so I moved back to the end zone and have been there ever since.”

He recalled that he paid a total of $122 for two full season tickets in 1971 – “less than I pay” for one seat at each game now.

COVID-19 concerns kept him away during the limited-attendance 2020 season, but he was back at games in 2021 despite being “still leery about COVID.”

Ison was selected by the Falcons in October as the team’s Fan of the Year and subsequently was chosen by a judging panel of NFL executives, “legends” and media personalities over the other 31 teams’ top fans for the league-wide honor. The NFL cited not only Ison’s long loyalty to the Falcons, but also his community outreach efforts.

Early in the pandemic, through his recycling company Ison-Herr Industries, he donated shipping containers that were modified and used as overflow space for treating patients at overwhelmed hospitals.

Ison missed the first two seasons in Falcons history, 1966-67, while in the military, but he has been with them since the third season. Ask him his favorite Falcons players through the decades, and the list is long.

He starts with Tommy Nobis, the great linebacker of the franchise’s first decade. “It’s a shame he’s not in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame. I think he needs to be there.”

One of Ison’s favorite teams was the Steve Bartkowski-quarterbacked 1980 squad. “That team was the best in football that year.” He still laments its playoff loss to Dallas. “Right to this day, to me, it is puzzling how we lost that game.”

He remembers the “electric” atmosphere at games in the Georgia Dome during the Michael Vick years. “I had 24 season tickets for me and my family and friends and cousins during that era.”

Another of his favorites, former wide receiver Roddy White, was on hand when the Falcons broke the news to Ison that he had been chosen as their top fan.

As for the current Falcons team, Ison said: “They have got to fix that offensive line. I hear a lot of people talk about Matt Ryan, say they need to get rid of Matt Ryan. He is a good quarterback. They just need protection.”

In nominating her father for Fan of the Year, Ebony Ison described him as “the ultimate football fan and community activist.”

“He has dedication to everything he loves,” she wrote. “He has been with this team in all phases of their growth. … He shows all-around loyalty.”