Whatever Happened To … Steve Bartkowski

What he did: For those who grew up loving sports in Atlanta in the mid-1970's and '80's, Bartkowski was the man. Tall, good looking, from southern California and with a gun on his right shoulder, he may have invented the term "man crush''.

Drafted No. 1 overall in 1975 out of the University of California, “Bart,’’ as he was called by everyone, was a savior for the Falcons, a franchise which at that point had just two winning seasons. The night he arrived in Atlanta a local television station broke into the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to announce the news.

He wasted no time making an impact, winning NFC Rookie of the Year honors. In 1974, Bart had come to the Falcons after being named a consensus All-American his senior season at Cal when he led the nation in passing, completing 182 of 325 attempts for 2,580 yards and 12 touchdowns. In addition, he was also an All-American baseball player at Cal. In the draft, the Falcons were slotted to pick third but traded All-Pro offensive lineman George Kunz to Baltimore for the top spot. In his rookie year with the Falcons, he started 10 games and completed only 45.1 percent of his passes and threw 15 interceptions, but he also threw 13 touchdown passes and it was evident he was going to be a star.

But five games into second season, he hurt his knee and went through what was the first of seven knee operations (11 total to date). Then during preseason in 1978 his life changed. Bartkowski was benched. It was then, he said, “I just had awakening. I was playing awful and realized that football was God at that point. I was humiliated and I was at a wits end. I had never failed anything athletically. I heard the message.’’

He quickly won back his job and would take the Falcons to their first playoff victory in 1978, a win over the Eagles. It then came together in 1980 when he led the NFL with 31 TD passes and a 12-4 record. But that season ended with the Falcons blowing a 10-point fourth quarter lead to Dallas in the playoffs.

Bartkowski played 11 years in Atlanta, throwing for 23,470 yards and 154 touchdowns, before finishing his career in ’86 with one year with the Los Angeles Rams. He was placed in the Falcons Ring of Honor in 2004, is currently on the Falcons’ board of directors and was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 2013.

However, his biggest victory has been surviving colon cancer. He was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer in 2005 and has since beat it. He also had both of his knees replaced in 2006.

Where he lives: He resides in Johns Creek and has been married to Sandee for 34 years and they have two sons, Philip (33) and Peter (30) and one grandchild.

What he does now: Bartkowski, 61, has been working for DPR Construction for 14 years, specializing in business development and plays a lot of golf. He says his handicap today is a 1 but added, "I was on the other side of scratch for five or six years.''

On being the golden boy in Atlanta in his early years: "I was young and stupid. There were no cell phones and cameras and I had my fun and it was just went unrecorded. I had a little freedom and had a little money in my pocket. I didn't realize back then how I was perceived. I didn't understand it like I do now.''

On his most memorable moment with the Falcons: "It's odd but ESPN reminds me of it every year and it was the loss to the Cowboys in the playoffs (1980 season). That was our chance when we had arguably the best team in the NFL. I still relive that yearly. You don't get that many chances to close the deal.''

On his first love, baseball: "It is still my favorite sport. I went to college with a mindset on being a Major League Baseball player, but football emerged.''

On being drafted No. 1 ahead of Hall of Famers Randy White and Walter Payton: "Things just fell my way. The Falcons had the third choice and (head coach) Marion Campbell called me and told me he was going to get me. He traded the best left tackle in the game for me.''

On how NFL quarterbacks have changed since he played: "All you need to do is look at the stat sheets. It has to be so much fun to play in this era. It is an offensive-minded game and it would be a blast. You know if the game was invented to run the football they would have put sand in the ball instead of air.''

On how his knees are doing: "I had seven knee operations while I played and three or four afterward. I try not to think about what would have happened if I hadn't been hurt. It is one of those situations you have no control over. I often think what would have happened if I had gone to an organization with a huge will to win. The Falcons back then are the antithesis of what Arthur Blank has created today. I did make a good decision to get both of my knees done, but it was a tougher rehab then it needed to be."'

On the toughest defensive backs he played against: "There were two and they played in Oakland … Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes. Back then defensive backs could do anything but pull a receiver's pants down. We had small receivers and they were two big guys. The shame of it was in 1980, we would have played them if we had gotten to the Super Bowl. I would have gotten a shot to play my lifetime hero (Jim Plunkett), and I think we could of hanged with them.''

On the two best Falcons who protected him: "Mike Kenn was a great football player, and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and so does Jeff Van Note. Unfortunately, playing in Atlanta those days you didn't get a lot of respect. But I wouldn't have traded those guys for any other All-Pros in the League.''

On being the first client of super agent Leigh Steinberg: "Leigh was my dorm counselor and was in law school, and I admired him. I had hired an agent but he was having a tough time getting my contract done. I thought I might have to hold out to get the deal done, but I wanted to get into camp and go win the job. I had dinner with Leigh and asked him how tough this contract should be to get done. He said not a lot so I fired the other guy and in two weeks Leigh had me a contract. He then went on to make a fortune.''

On Matt Ryan beginning to surpass his team records: "Matt did in seven years what it took me to in 11. He is a special player.''

On beating colon cancer: "I am blessed. I got one of my old-age things in life out of the way. I can still do a lot of the things, and I am doing better than I deserve. … It was difficult going through it, but everybody has a course to run. I took it as a challenge. I had the best healthcare in the world at Piedmont Hospital. I caught it just before it was really bad. It was a tumor, but it had not broken through the colon wall. I have stood on a lot of stumps telling people to get checked early. I put it off until I was 52 and if I had done it at 50 when men are supposed to be checked it would have been simply cutting off a polyp.''

On the recent PR problems for the NFL: "Clearly, none of it is good. There is no way in the world you can put up with some of the behavior. But this is a very small percentage of guys in the NFL. There are so many great guys that do great things in the NFL, but society wants to talk to talk more about the bad things then the good things. The locker room is a cross section of society, a big melting pot. I think about what our guys are doing in the community. But all this brings to light things we need to deal with as human beings.''

On being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last year: "Year after year I would look at the list and wonder how in the world people forgot about my college football career. I know a bunch of guys were lobbying for me including Archie Manning. I think they got tired of Archie talking and put me in.''

On being on the Falcons board and Blank: "It has been an exciting time with the new stadium going up. I want to help in any way. Arthur is so passionate and so into all the details. I would have loved to play for the guy.''