Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
There’s this longtime underdog team. Much of its existence has been a mixture of a few tantalizingly close highs balanced out by a preponderance of underachieving lows. The fans are loyal and true, but they’re growing more and more restless. The years of falling just short are wearing on them.
They’re ready to win. Finally.
The team makes it to a championship game. Everything is on the line. The thing the loyal fans have wanted for so long seems within reach.
And things are going great! The underdog has built up a pretty big lead early against an opponent that has long dominated the sport. Surely, this is the year it all comes together. This is the time they finally break through.
But … they don’t.
There are some confusing coaching decisions. The once confident players now seem suddenly unsure. Anxiety builds among the fanbase. That dreaded, familiar feeling washes over them.
Here it comes again.
And, sure enough, just as has happened countless times before, there’s heartbreak. On the game’s very last play, the underdog falls, with the celebrations on the field, as well as in living rooms and bars, once again ensuing for the players and fans of another team.
Will we ever win? Why does this keep happening?
Are we cursed?
If you’re a fan of any of Atlanta’s professional teams or Georgia’s collegiate teams — particularly one that resides in Athens — this probably sounds incredibly familiar.
Surely this above scenario is referencing Super Bowl LI with the Atlanta Falcons falling to the New England Patriots in overtime. Or it could be the national championship game between the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide, right?
Perhaps. It’s pretty much the same situation and same dynamics.
Hopes lifted. Dreams dashed. Hearts broken.
But, I was actually thinking of another team during another time.
I was thinking of Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. I was thinking of Grady Little. I was thinking of Aaron Boone. I was thinking of the Curse of the Bambino.
Now, if you’re an Atlanta/Georgia fan, you’re rolling your eyes right now. Probably pretty hard. And I get it. But you’re rolling your eyes because, in the year 2021, the Red Sox have won four World Series titles after 86 years of futility, 86 years of being second fiddle, 86 years of being the lovable losers, 86 years of being cursed.
That curse is over. So is one for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the St. Louis Blues, the Chicago Cubs and and the Clemson Tigers.
Something changed forever for those programs and organizations, and it’s important to ask some questions around what and why.
How did they break through to end that seemingly never-ending cycle of heartbreak and disappointment? And, more importantly, was there ever a curse at all holding them back?
A lasting legacy of heartbreak
Whether or not you believe curses are real, it’s hard to discount the fact that they feel real for so many fans of Georgia-based sports teams.
For instance, it’s hard to look at the Falcons taking a large lead heading into the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl — complete with the city of Atlanta literally Tweeting out details on the sure-to-follow victory parade — and not think there is a curse after watching the hated New England Patriots stage the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history en route to winning the game in overtime.
It’s a loss that stings so badly, those fans I spoke with universally referred to it only as “28-3.”
“It broke my Falcons fandom,” said Parrish Walton, a longtime fan of Georgia athletics and various Atlanta professional teams. “That game was so gutting and so devastating, that I have not been the same fan since it happened. I still remember watching the game at my house and my mom was over and she left at halftime because ‘They have it won, no way they can blow it.’”
Family overconfidence was a familiar thread for that particular game.
“I was with a bunch of my family members for the game, and we were going nuts at halftime,” said Payson Schwin, a contributor to SB Nation’s Dirty South Soccer blog. “One of my uncles even joked, ‘There’s no way they can blow this, right?’ Well, he was wrong, and we not-so-jokingly blamed him for jinxing it. I’ve never felt that kind of pain as a sports fan.”
That pain, of course, isn’t isolated to just the Falcons. In fact, it’s almost comical to take a look at the near misses, deflating defeats and rage-inducing losses of the past 30 to 40 years of the state’s sports history.
In the 2014-2015 season, the Atlanta Hawks finished 60-22, captured the top seed in the Eastern Conference, went an astonishing 17-0 in one calendar month and cruised into the conference finals … where they were easily swept by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.
In 1996, the Atlanta Braves were just four innings away from taking a 3-1 series lead in the World Series against the Yankees and holding on to a seemingly solid 6-0 lead in Game Four. A Jim Leyritz three-run home run later and the Braves were headed for a painful postseason defeat.
Just this past season, the Falcons squandered leads in the closing seconds against two teams, including one of the most mind-numbing losses ever seen against the Dallas Cowboys, and dropped three other contests in the final moments.
“Watching the Falcons play is almost joyless now,” Walton said, referring to the Super Bowl loss, but also just as easily to a litany of baffling, yet grudgingly expected defeats the past few seasons.
And that’s just a mere sampling of the close calls. It doesn’t include countless Georgia football games or the 2012 “Infield Fly Rule Game” for the Braves or the Hawks-Celtics NBA Playoff series in 1988.
The teams have to be cursed. Right?
Well, probably not.
Are curses a real thing?
Despite this ongoing anguish, not one fan of a Georgia-based sports team I emailed with or spoke to said they believed there was a curse on any of their preferred teams. This was surprising, to say the least, but that surprise began to fade as they began to explain their rationale using a logic that was both pained and reasonable.
“In the same way that some people believe that rolling a six makes it less likely to roll a six the next time, this myth of an Atlanta sports curse is not grounded in any reality,” said Bert Brantley, a deputy chief of staff for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. “For newer fans, they just simply don’t remember that Atlanta used to be known as one of the worst sports towns in the country. We used to lose at everything. The fact is we only started talking about a curse because our teams started winning and competing for championships.
“Granted, we have lost in fantastically incredible ways at the most inopportune times recently, but we’ve only done that because we were in positions to win important games.”
Furthermore, most fans I spoke with asked what would have triggered this curse, which is a fair question. The Falcons didn’t trade the game’s best player at the peak of his powers for a handful of beans, essentially like the Red Sox did with Babe Ruth. There’s no tavern owner hexing the Hawks or Braves because of the way his pet goat was treated, like the Cubs.
Georgia-based teams have just encountered a motley mixture of bad luck and better teams. And for those who do suggest there might be a curse, it’s likely that is more of a coping mechanism than anything else.
“I think there are a couple things to keep in mind — who is viewing/claiming a curse, and is it the fans or the team/programs themselves?” said Dr. Andrew McGregor, a professor of history at Dallas (Texas) College who specializes in sports history. “I personally don’t think curses exist as a real thing, but they are a social-cultural thing. Fans construct and argue about curses to help explain the unexplained. They’re almost soothing in a way, like a form or disassociation, to explain why teams lost or success has been so elusive.”
Tony Waller works in development at the University of Georgia, and he’s one of the hosts of the popular Waitin’ Since Last Saturday podcast. He noted that though it may feel like his favorite teams are cursed, he believes it’s not the case.
“I know that isn’t the sexy answer, and I freely admit there are times I give myself over to the thought there has to be something higher — or lower — at work when the evil that is the University of Florida enjoys success,” Waller said. “However, rational Tony, the one answering this question this morning, knows there is no such thing.”
Seth Emerson is the Georgia beat reporter for The Athletic, so he’s seen his fair share of these loathsome losses. He, too, feels “curse” is a misguided word of choice, but there are elements that can feel like a curse that can hold back the success of various teams.
That’s especially true in Georgia, where it’s been more than 25 years since one of the top-tier collegiate or sports teams won a major championship. The more you fall short, the more inevitable that feeling of falling short starts to creep in.
“Curse is the wrong word, because I don’t believe a literal hex has been put on Georgia or any team by some witch somewhere over a perceived slight,” said Emerson. “But winning and losing culture is a real thing. When losing teams do finally turn it around, it’s through a combination of better players and better culture, but even then winning it all becomes a matter of timing or luck.
“The Red Sox had to keep bashing their head on the door, suffering great disappointment before finally breaking through. Same for the (Chicago) Cubs, the Washington Capitals and Virginia basketball team.”
So what does it take to break through? In recent years, there has been a run of professional franchises, collegiate programs and aggrieved fan bases that have shed the “lovable loser” tagline and experienced the thrill of hoisting a trophy at the end of the year.
Obviously, the Red Sox and the Cubs come to mind. Both were saddled with “curses” that left them each without a championship for nearly a century’s worth of seasons. And both of those teams broke that stigma in a way that
For Boston, it was rallying from a 3-0 deficit against its most dreaded rival — and the literal source of its own curse — to win the American League and advance to and win its first World Series in 86 years. And Chicago also staged its own comeback, fighting back from a 3-1 series hole against the Cleveland Indians to end its title drought at 108 years.
In fact, upon closer look, many of the teams that rid themselves of their championship-less burden did so in a profound, dramatic fashion.
Consider the Cleveland Cavaliers. It wasn’t just the satisfaction of their NBA Finals win in 2016, but how that victory was earned and all the heartbreak and missteps that led to that moment. Ross DiBello is a diehard fan of Cleveland sports, and he said the methodical accumulation of pain the city’s fan base acquired leading up to the Cavs’ 2016 title run made the eventual payoff that much sweeter.
If there hadn’t been Michael Jordan’s last-second jumper or “The Decision” or the unbeatable aura that enveloped that particular Golden State team, DiBello feels the championship just wouldn’t have resonated the same with the community.
“Had the Cavs beaten the Spurs in 2007 in, say a 4-1 series, it would have been parade worthy and huge and symbolic, but not near how meaningful it was after so many years,” DiBello said. “LeBron having to come back and beat a 73-win team from down 3-1. The only way it could’ve meant more in a sports sense was if it was the Browns, and yes, the Browns winning a Super Bowl, 18-3, in a game of all field goals would still clearly mean ‘everything.’”
Waller pointed out these significant breakthroughs feel significant because they regularly come at the expense of established dynasties that block a team’s pathway to greatness.
“It takes monumental moments because winning a title is very, very hard,” Waller noted. “The Red Sox have the distinction of playing in the same division as the most successful organization in baseball. They also faced three dynastic teams when they did make the World Series (in the 1940s, ‘60s and ‘70s). Even the dynasties have those monumental moments in their runs. We just don’t think of them that way.”
But what would that monumental moment look like for a Georgia team?
“It starts with beating Alabama,” said Ryan Lavner, a Georgia graduate and current reporter for Golf Channel. He, of course, was referring to the current barrier to the Bulldogs’ success.
Three of the most heartbreaking losses in (recent) Georgia history have all come at the hands of the mighty Crimson Tide, with two of those contests resolved on the final play of the game. The 2012 SEC Championship Game ranks as the most soul-shattering Bulldogs loss for your humble scribe, relegating me to sitting in silence on my back porch for more than an hour after tossing a patio chair into my yard.
I’m not alone in my inability to process that particular defeat. The head of a local bank in the Athens area was my Sunday School teacher for a period of time, and he’s one of the most mild-mannered people you’d ever meet. That morning after, he regaled us with a tale of him, fueled by anger and frustration, throwing his ChapStick into the darkness, only for it to hit a tree and come back to strike him square in the face.
Walton said he couldn’t quit replaying the game’s final sequence, where Chris Conley caught a tipped pass and was tackled short of the goal line.
“The next day I went grocery shopping and at one point found myself in the magazine aisle stopped for some duration replaying the game’s final moments,” he said. “It could have been five seconds or five minutes.”
These losses hurt. So how do you make it stop?
My suggestion, as well as the ones of several folks I talked to, is that there has to be that moment, that player, that once-in-a-lifetime scenario that breaks that hold and forever changes things.
“I think about Clemson, and how it took landing Deshaun Watson — and for Watson to play one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen a QB play — to barely beat Alabama,” Walton said. “It takes that. Matt Ryan and Aaron Murray were great players in their leagues. Truly great. But they weren’t transformational.”
So, why do we do this ourselves?
I’m not the only fan who has been crushed by a heartbreaking loss and, in the passion of the moment, foolishly sworn off sports for the rest of my life. Such proclamations last only a few days, at best, and I’m right back for the next game.
So, why are we doing this? Why put ourselves through these mood-altering lows?
Because there’s more to it than just winning and losing.
“I don’t want to sit by myself, I want to high-five after a great play and complain loudly about the refs,” Brantley said. “I want to try out that brisket from your new smoker and test a new sauce for my wings. The game may be the reason we get together, but it’s not the reason that it’s fun. We have the best fans in all of sports because they are my friends and family, and you can’t convince me otherwise. And no other form of entertainment — TV shows, movies, the Oscars, etc. — provide the level of entertainment of watching live sports with the people that you care most about.”
Hope springs eternal, and sometimes you get rewarded. Let’s not forget that the state of Georgia does have a team that very recently captured a championship — Atlanta United. While there is some dispute among a few diehards about whether or not Major League Soccer “counts” or not, there is no dispute that 73,000 screaming and raving fans filled Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch the city’s newest team take down perennial power Portland to win the league title in 2018.
They broke through and did so rather quickly. How?
“First, as a new franchise they didn’t have the weight of history on their shoulders,” Schwin said. “Second, Arthur (Blank), Darren (Eales) and Tata (Martino) built an exciting team that could score at any time. Unlike the Falcons at times, they always played to win instead of playing not to lose. Third, only a handful of the players grew up around here, and the international players especially had no knowledge of the Atlanta curse.”
It was a balm for the soul of several long-suffering Georgia sports fans, and there’s optimism among the various fan bases that another title might be around the corner. Georgia’s football team should be a Top Five team headed into 2021, while the Braves are overflowing with talented young players and were one win away from reaching the World Series last fall.
“Georgia football doesn’t have a curse (who would’ve placed it?),” Emerson said. “It’ll just need that timing and luck, and I think it’ll happen in the next decade. Perhaps early in the decade.”
I, for one, am embracing that optimism. As many folks know, I’m a Red Sox fan, so I can appreciate both the hopelessness of the waiting and confidence that comes after finally winning. Having lost to the Yankees in such agonizing fashion for so many years added a richness to the story, and vanquishing them in 2004 made winning those titles the following years so much more gratifying.
There’s meaning in the suffering, I suppose. And, as fans, it’s a life that constantly calls to us.
What else can we do?
“This is the life I chose, or at least the ones my parents chose when they agreed to pay out-of-state tuition for this native Western New Yorker,” Lavner said. “All the years of agonizing losses will only make ‘The Big One’ that much sweeter. Or, at least, that’s what we tell ourselves when watching someone else hoist a trophy at the end of the season.”