While confetti rains for New England, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan solemnly exits during his last trip to Houston - the devastating Super Bowl LI loss. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

5 career moments: Vick trial, Super Bowl fail on list of indelible memories 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is presenting a series of columns from our staff detailing the five most memorable games they have covered in their careers.

I haven’t been here since 1984 like the legendary Mark Bradley.

The second half of my journalism career started in late 2003 when I was hired by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to cover high schools in Gwinnett County.

I covered South Gwinnett High’s “Sweet” Lou Williams and saw him drop 39 points on Tift County to win the state title in 2004. Future NFL star Jared Cook was jumping out the gym for North Gwinnett and Brad Lester was toting the football for Cecil Flowe’s Parkview team.

There was also a freshman lady hoopster named Maya Moore over at Collins Hill.  

I’d been away from sports reporting since covering the 2000 Sydney Olympics for The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Having been admitted to practice law in the fine state of Wisconsin, I was practicing law and working at Lexis-Nexis. We moved to Atlanta for my wife’s job. I had taken her to frigid Milwaukee, so it was only fair to sign off on the Atlanta move.

I didn’t plan on missing the Georgia attorney’s exam by one point.

So, I was helping out at my friend’s law firm, helping him sue the post office and other entities violating Title VII laws. Employment discrimination became a little boring. The long-term money was probably going to be better, but after climbing the sports writing ranks from roundup desk person at the Charlotte Observer to covering the Olympics, I’d missed the sports writing game.

There was also a fun stop in between Charlotte and Milwaukee at The Cincinnati Enquirer, where I covered high schools, Ohio State football and basketball and some NFL. Also, graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law School (more on that later) and met my wife, Deborah in the Queen City.   

So, I took the job covering high schools again, and treated every day like I was covering the Super Bowl. I’d already covered two different franchises, the Bengals and Packers, who went to the Super Bowl, with the Packers winning Super Bowl XXXI. 

So, my list of the five greatest games and events of my career is a mixture of things from national events I covered to some of the highlights/lowlights from the Atlanta Falcons beat, which I’ve covered since 2005 and as the main beat reporter since 2008.

Here we go: 

No. 5. April 5, 1993: North Carolina 77, Michigan 71. The Fab Five ran out of timeouts. The previous college basketball season, I was the Ohio State beat writer for The Enquirer. The Buckeyes, led by Jim Jackson, beat Michigan twice during regular season on their way to the Big 10 title during the Fab Five’s freshman year.

In the Elite Eight the following season, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, the Wolverines beat Ohio State and went to the Final Four.

I’d left to join the staff of The Milwaukee Journal to cover Marquette basketball. 

As the lead basketball writer, I was at the New Orleans Superdome when Michigan’s Chris Webber called the infamous timeout against North Carolina in the national championship game. 

Webber tried to call a timeout - one that the Wolverines did not have - after getting a rebound. The ref seemed to wave him up the court. The timeout was finally called with 11 seconds left with Michigan down 73-71.

North Carolina went on to win the game and the title after making the ensuing free throws for a four-point lead. 

No. 4. Feb. 5, 2017: Patriots 34, Falcons 28 (OT). I didn’t cover the Falcons’ NFC title win over the Packers. I was recovering from major surgery and watched from home. 

Luckily, I was cleared to fly to Houston just in time for Super Bowl LI against the Patriots.

The story was written. The Falcons were up 28-3. What could go wrong? Absolutely, nothing. Or, maybe, everything.

I think the working headline was “Atlanta captures first-ever Super Bowl title.”

When you’re writing on deadline and have to file the story at the final buzzer in the digital era, you need to start writing at halftime. 

But the end of the third quarter, you should have a nearly finished story.

You just don’t need a bunch of crazy things to happen late and change the course of events.

But on that Sunday in Houston, the Patriots and the Falcons didn’t cooperate. They kept changing the story until the Patriots won in overtime.

A couple of bad calls by the coaches, missed blocks and penalties by the players led to the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history.

Time will not be kind to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for not running the ball more. History will not be kind to coach Dan Quinn for not aborting the play call after the game appeared to be won on Julio Jones’ big catch along the sideline.

History will not be kind to running back Devonta Freeman, who didn’t appear to want any parts of blocking linebacker Donta Hightower, who was blitzing and caused a sack fumble. 

When you blow a 25-point lead, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

I’ve covered 14 Super Bowls. The team I covered has made it four times and are 1-3.   

No. 3. June 14, 1998: Bulls 87, Jazz 86. Michael Jordan wrapped up the Bulls second three-peat with a game-winner with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. 

I covered the NBA from 1994-99. My first assignment was to interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before he was being inducting into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame. We didn’t know if he’d talk to the Milwaukee paper. They had a bumpy past. But thanks to TNT’s Greg Hughes and the AJC’s Prentis Rogers for helping me out. I flew into Hartford and drove over to Springfield for the ceremonies.  

I covered both of the Houston titles and then Jordan came out of retirement.

It was fun watching “The Last Dance” documentary over the past few weeks. It depicted how ruthless those Bulls teams were in their pursuit of greatness. They played hard every night. There was no load management.

When they came to Milwaukee to play the rebuilding Bucks during the Michael Dunleavy era, they pounced. There was no mercy. They’d handle their business and be on the bench chilling with a 30-point lead in the middle of the third quarter. That’s how they did load management. Take out the weak teams and get some rest. 

The Bulls defeated Seattle in the first of the second three-peat. They defeated the Jazz in back-to-back finals to clinch it. 

I always thought Bryon Russell was pushed on that last shot by Jordan. 


 

No. 2. The 2000 Sydney Olympics. My Milwaukee editor, Garry D. Howard, said, “You’re covering the Olympics. You want to go to Atlanta or Sydney?” I said, “I’ve been to Atlanta. Put me down for Sydney.” 

He took all of the Dream Team stories. I was fine with track and field (Marion Jones and Michael Johnson), baseball, wrestling and swimming. 

Australia’s Ian Thorpe won five gold medals and was the star, but a young 15-year old named Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut.  

I interviewed John Carlos at the Olympic Trials in Sacramento and wrote a column about his struggles since the 1968 Olympics.

In Sydney, we didn’t sleep much. I went to the wrestling venue to connect with the AJC’s Curtis Bunn and a story broke out.

Rulon Gardner upset the Russian, the great Alexander Karelin, 1-0 to win the gold medal in the super heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling match. I popped out the laptop and started writing. 

Luckily, I had covered the Greco-Roman and Freestyle Olympic trials in Dallas and knew what was going on. 

There was also the column on the “Ugly Americans” after the 4 X 100 relay team pranced around the stadium like a bunch of prima donnas.

I didn’t know if Jones was on any enhancers, but she sure looked different from her basketball days at North Carolina.  

Artist's rendering shows Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, wearing a black-and-white prison suit, along with his attorney's Billy Martin (left) and Lawrence Woodward (right) as he is sentenced in Federal Court in Richmond, Va., Monday, Dec. 10, 2007.
Photo: Dayna Verkouteren/AP

No. 1. July 17, 2007: Michael Vick indicted on federal dog fighting charges. The old Juris Doctorate came in handy here. When the story first broke, some were skeptical that one of the highest paid players in the league would jeopardize his career fighting dogs.

The headline on my story in the AJC on July 7, 2007 read, “7 state dogfight center detailed.” 

The story: “Property owned by Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was the "main staging area for housing and training the pit bulls" for a widespread dog fighting operation in at least seven states, according to a document obtained Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Also Friday, federal investigators executed the second sealed search warrant in a month at Vick's Surry County, Va., property.

The seven-page document was filed in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va. on Monday, seeking forfeiture of 53 dogs that were seized from Vick's property on April 25.

It does not name a person, but paints a graphic picture of the multistate operation run by the group Bad Newz Kennels from 2002 to 2007 where dogs were mistreated and sometimes destroyed. 

Urban Dictionary lists Bad Newz as the street name for Newport News, Va., Vick's hometown.’

(Ironically, my first internship was at the Newport News Daily Press.)

Early on, I did a search of the Virginia Secretary of State files and discovered that Larry H. Woodward (Vick’s attorney) was on the incorporation papers for Bad Newz Kennels. We were in for the long haul. Falcons beat reporter Steve Wyche went to Virginia to cover the Surry County District Attorney. After that, Wyche stayed with the team and I made the trips to the U.S. District Count in Virginia. 

Vick’s attorney Billy Martin’s goal was to get Vick back to playing as fast as possible. Judy Smith, the lady who the popular television show Scandal was made after, was handling some of the public relations and was more than gracious to the AJC. 

Martin, also went to the University of Cincinnati College of Law, and made sure the AJC was in the loop after I let him know that I’d clerked for his classmate the Honorable Judge Nadine Allen back in Ohio. 

I missed the opening day of training camp because I was in Richmond, but I saw the pictures of all of the PETA protesters and the Dog Killer signs on the plane flying over the facilities.  

On Dec. 10, 2007, I was in court when Vick was sentenced to 23 months in jail by the U.S. District Court judge Henry Hudson. I flew back to catch the Monday Night Game and the Falcons were pummeled 34-14 by the Saints. Coach Bobby Petrino had enough and left for Arkansas the next day. 

I got to work with stellar metro reporters Bill Rankin and Jeremy Redmon and also reported to then managing editor Hank Klibanoff, who along with Gene Roberts, won the 2007 Pulitizer Prize for History for the book The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation.

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