On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons play in their second Super Bowl in franchise history. Former Spencer teammates Gary Downs and Randy Fuller remember the first trip quite well.
Downs and Fuller reunited after their high school days to play with the Falcons in 1998, the season the team reached Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami. Despite falling short of a victory, the men still share memories from the experience and the chance to go so far with a close companion.
The friendship between Downs and Fuller goes back to 1986, when Downs was a freshman at Spencer and Fuller was a sophomore. Through competing in football together as well as basketball and track, the two built a strong bond that remained after Fuller left for Tennessee State and Downs went to play running back at N.C. State.
The two remained close as they built NFL careers, which for Fuller included a trip to Super Bowl XXX as a cornerback with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After Fuller became a free agent following the 1997 season, he reached out to Downs, who was entering his second season in Atlanta.
“Gary was a big catalyst for me signing with the Falcons,” Fuller said. “I actually called him and asked him where he felt the team was. He told me that they were missing a few pieces, but he felt the team had the capability to do great things.”
Fuller narrowly made the team after dealing with a high-ankle sprain during training camp. Despite almost not even sticking around, Fuller could also sense something special was on the horizon for the Falcons.
“I have another best friend here in Atlanta, an attorney named John Williams,” Fuller said. “He said, ‘Man, I’m thinking about buying season tickets. What are the Falcons going to do this year?’ I said, “John, this team works really hard, everybody is playing their role and the team trusts each other. I think the team can make it to the Super Bowl.’
“Of course, he laughed.”
But few were laughing once the Falcons got rolling. After a Week 4 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta rattled off 12 wins in its next 13 games. With a victory over the 49ers in the divisional round and an improbable win over the Minnesota Vikings the next week, Downs, Fuller and the rest of the Falcons were Super Bowl bound.
In Downs’ eyes, the string of success was a long time coming. He explained that the duo’s days at Spencer featured a lot of near misses and close-but-no-cigar moments. The football team was 11-19 in the three years they played together, which left making a Super Bowl feel nothing short of warranted.
“We had all those years of frustration where we were always on the cusp of winning the big one,” Downs said. “To finally come back together and experience winning the division, winning the conference and going to the Super Bowl, it was a fulfillment of all those years. We went through all those struggles at Spencer. It just felt like a reward for sticking it out.”
After the overtime victory against the Vikings came an extra week of preparation before the game, which Downs said felt like waiting for Christmas as a kid. Even with the distractions that surrounded the game, he sensed the team members all understood the gravity of the moment. A Super Bowl not only sends a team to the offseason as champs; it puts a title next to their name that carries on forever.
The irony for Downs was that as long as he had worked to reach the Super Bowl, the game itself flew by.
“The game was a blur,” Downs said. “I know I went down and made the tackle on the first kickoff, but even that was a blur. We don’t see all the things that happen before the game, with the jet flyover, the commercials and all that. I remember waking up and it was the second or third quarter.”
As a defensive back, Fuller’s memories center more around the gameplan. He said the focus in the two weeks leading up to game time was to rattle veteran quarterback John Elway, who was seeking his second consecutive Super Bowl victory. Pummeling Elway early and often would be the best chance the Falcons had at getting him out of rhythm and to thwart Denver’s offense.
But the plan never was executed. Elway had a field day against the Falcons, highlighted by an 80-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith to put Atlanta in a 17-3 hole in the second quarter.
At that moment, Downs recalls coming back down from the adrenaline rush.
“We were very prepared for that game,” Downs said. “I remember when Rod Smith caught that ball, and we woke up. We were behind, and at that point we were trying to come back.”
Atlanta managed a field goal before halftime, but Denver’s 14 unanswered points in the third quarter put the game out of reach. The Falcons comeback attempt ended with the score 34-19 in favor of the Broncos.
Even in a losing effort, the team held a parade in Atlanta, and Downs and Fuller later traveled back to Columbus for their own parade. The celebration in Columbus was particularly special for Downs, who moved around a lot in his childhood as part of a military family.
“If you ask me where I’m from, well, I’m from a lot of places,” Downs said. “It gave me a sense that Columbus was my launching pad as a football player. To be able share it with someone and say Spencer helped me in my growth and development as a person is special.”
Today, Downs is the running backs coach at East Tennessee State. Fuller, meanwhile, handles marketing for Timberline Knolls, a residential treatment facility in Lemont, Ill, and will provide pre- and post-game analysis of Sunday’s game for Fox Sports Latin America. The two talk to each other on a daily basis, and Fuller is the godfather to Downs’ oldest daughter, Kameron.
As far as this year’s Falcons are concerned, both Downs and Fuller advised sticking to the routine that brought them to this point. Fuller lamented that he and Downs regularly ate dinner and watched a movie every week of the 1998 season except for one: the week of the Super Bowl.
A significant link in the connection between Downs and Fuller stems from that Super Bowl run nearly 20 years ago. The loss ended that era on a sour note, but from both men’s perspectives, it took nothing away from the memories.
“Football definitely brought us together,” Downs said. “The Super Bowl just made it all the more significant.”