As the Atlanta Falcons historically choked away Super Bowl LI in Houston, nobody knew how to think, how to feel. Those final moments in February were an out-of-body experience.
First came denial. He heard New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman scream—I caught it! I caught it!—but the player with the best vantage point of the most outrageous catch in Super Bowl history was in disbelief: Falcons safety Keanu Neal stared at the videoboard and still couldn't believe it. No way. No chance.
In overtime, the player with the best vantage point of the game-winning touchdown felt the same way: Falcons linebacker De'Vondre Campbell looked at Patriots running back James White, then at an official, then back to White, and waited for a review, but down rained the confetti. White's two-yard score sealed a 34-28 Patriots triumph.
Of course, as the celebration commenced, the play was reviewed upstairs. Campbell didn't know and doesn't care.
To this day, he is skeptical.
"I don't think he got in," he tells B/R Mag.
Next came the shock. Inside his locker, Campbell was motionless and speechless and stared at a wall for more than an hour. That night, he didn't sleep. That week, he locked himself in his bedroom and ignored the 300 texts flooding his phone. He couldn't watch any sports on TV. His Instagram was littered with fans ripping him for the late pass interference in overtime that moved the ball from Atlanta's 15-yard line to its 2. Campbell says he was in a "dark place."
All of which would be followed by the weeks…months…years' worth of torment, as daily regret feeds one mind-numbing realization: You freakin' blew it in front of more than 111 million witnesses, and those witnesses will never forget. The Super Bowl hangover destroys teams, year after year, and here's a group forever known for two numbers: "28" and "3."
The Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit to win 34-28 in overtime against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.(Getty Images)
Hangover? Try life support.
But here's what actually happened next. Rather than let the sickness linger, in the spring, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn told all players in his first teamwide address that they weren't reclimbing Mount Everest from the bottom. No, they were already at "base camp." Established. At that exact point, the Falcons realized they do, in fact, have what it takes to return, with a vengeance, to the Super Bowl.
Forget torment. This could be a revenge tour.
And these are the players leading that tour.
A quarterback, Matt Ryan, who keeps perspective. A safety, in Neal, who'll leave Edelman with a bruise next time. A receiver, Taylor Gabriel, on the verge of stardom. And a second-year linebacker, in Campbell, who's still rewatching the Super Bowl every **** week. Really. Listening to Future one week ("You Deserve It" is a go-to) and Jason Aldean the next (he loves how "authentic" country music is), Campbell deconstructs the loss.
His angle on every tackle. His depth on every drop. Campbell takes meticulous notes. He scribbles a star next to every bad play, vowing to never make that mistake again.
"That's how you recover quickly," Campbell says, "when you face it. When you sit there hiding from it… NFL Network ain't hiding from it!"
He searches for a sign—any sign—that tells him when the game turned. How? Why? Who's responsible? The more he sifts through the ruins, the more Campbell realizes there was no singular moment. What he found was a team that got "lackadaisical," a team convinced "we got this." At STATS sports bar in Centennial Park District of Atlanta, in May, he wonders aloud if other players have reopened wounds.
"Some people are probably running from it," Campbell says. "Not me. I'm facing it head-on. I'll watch it till the next season starts."
This is the group that refuses to hide.
Mid-meal, Campbell makes it clear that his will be the voice of reason this season.
"I've earned the right to be vocal," Campbell says.
Three gold chains around his neck, his dreads tucked tightly, Campbell is emphatic. And scathingly honest. The Falcons choked that night in Houston, and he refuses to let them choke again. Period. Next time, Campbell promises to lock eyes with every other player on the field and demand their best.
Right here, right now, Campbell thrusts himself into that leadership role.
"I feel like there’s nothing I can go through in football or anything I do that’s nearly as hard as what she had to go through with breast cancer, the heart attacks," Campbell says about his mom.(Tyler Dunne for B/R Mag)
He knows he's a product of his mother, Cathryn, who's been through it all.
She's suffered (at least) two heart attacks, the first choking her awake in the middle of the night. "I can't breathe," she screamed, her throat swollen. If the family didn't live five minutes from the hospital, she might've died. Mom battled breast cancer, too. Holding a softball-sized grip of air, Campbell demonstrates the size of the knot.
Doctors thought they had removed it all, but Campbell's mother needed a second procedure.
This is why he wears No. 59, for the year Mom was born.
"At any point, she can die," Campbell says. "Everybody has to go at some point, but I'm not ready for her to leave. She gave me the mindset that I approach everything with. I feel like there's nothing I can go through in football or anything I do that's nearly as hard as what she had to go through with breast cancer, the heart attacks. She never complained about it."
So Campbell doesn't complain. He faces his own trauma head-on. He watches that game again, and again, and realizes now he should've gone rogue. Sure, Quinn might've benched him on the spot. Who cares? He should've spontaneously blitzed Tom Brady and won his team the Super Bowl. That thought eats at him.
More than anything, Campbell wishes he'd spoken up.
"Shoulders were sagging," he remembers. "I don't think I said enough. Just to keep guys motivated and tell them, like, We earned the right to be here. Let's finish the job. We left so much on the table that day. Let's leave it all here, you know? Take a chance. Take a risk. That's what got us here.
"This year they're going to see a totally different person. Going back to sandlot. Just ****-talking."
I don't think I said enough. Just to keep guys motivated and tell them, like, 'We earned the right to be here. Let's finish the job. We left so much on the table that day. Let's leave it all here,' you know? Take a chance. Take a risk. That's what got us here."(Tyler Dunne for B/R Mag)
Campbell can invigorate the defense, but he also knows true revenge starts with the quarterback. One year prior, Cam Newton sulked at his Super Bowl postgame press conference—and his team proceeded to sulk all of the next season. A 17-2 team finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs. Campbell's not shy. Those Panthers "felt sorry for themselves" in 2016, he says, because Newton set a tone.
"I did not like that, man," Campbell says. "You're the quarterback of this franchise. You lost. Get up there. Be a man. And talk about it. You can't get it back. There's nothing you can do about it except go up there and be a man about it. … He's the captain of the team. They sulked so much that it definitely affected them last year if you ask me."
The Panthers took on the personality of their QB.
The Falcons will, too.
Friends, for months, have tiptoed into conversation with Matt Ryan. Their words drip with sympathy.
"Everybody asks me every day, Dude, how do you get through your day?C'mon!" Ryan says.
"Let's have some perspective."
And Ryan keeps football in perspective.
"This is very important to me," Ryan says, "but it's not the only thing that's very important to me."
The player who became synonymous with "28-3" says his mind traced back to when he was 16 years old and his brother Michael was 19. Matt was the starting quarterback on his high school team and Michael a backup at Division III Widener University. On a drive to a country club, their lives changed. Another car rear-ended Michael's Volkswagen Jetta, and they ricocheted into the other lane, where the brothers slammed into a military truck head-on.
Matt lucked out with a broken ankle.
Michael demolished a right elbow that would need several surgeries to fix. A metal plate holds his humerus in place. His football career, instantly, was over.
First, Matt felt guilt. Why did he get to play football instead of his big brother? Over time, guilt evolved into appreciation that Ryan used in the aftermath of "28-3."
“This is very important to me,” Ryan says about football, “but it’s not the only thing that’s very important to me.”(Getty Images)
"Those are all kinds of things that happen throughout your life, and you're like, Listen man, there are worse things than losing a game," Ryan says. "It's really important. There's no question about that. But life goes on. Sometimes I think people have this perspective that you are just what you are on the field. There's a lot of other things that make up who we are.
"Even though you had tough losses, you have tough days, you're still thankful for the opportunity you have to play and be able to go out there and wear shorts and T-shirts in May and consider that a work day."
He's not alone. This Falcons roster is loaded with perspective.
Vic Beasley, the tornado of an edge-rusher who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last season, is driven by the loss of his father to alcoholism and his brother to a car accident. Taylor Gabriel, who made a good offense great, is driven by the death of his mother to a brain aneurysm. And reserve wideout Justin Hardy changed his number this offseason to honor his late father.
Ryan wipes sweat from his brow after an OTA practice and asserts that this team—his team—is in the right mental state. The Patriots loss hasn't lingered.
"If you use it the right way," Ryan says, "it's perfect."
All eyes are on Ryan, and he knows it. He hasn't talked, acted or conducted himself any differently than he ever has. Every practice at Flowery Branch, Georgia, is treated with the same stoicism, the same drive.
And—"no doubt," Ryan says—he personally wants to go down as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
"That's why everybody plays," Ryan says. "I've had some good years, and that's fine. But it's about doing it over and over and over and trying to be consistent. That's what you see in the great all-time players."
The reigning league MVP is positive he'll keep finding the "1 percent" in his game to improve. He was nearly perfect last season, completing 70 percent of his passes for 5,958 yards, 47 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 19 games. Of course, the lasting image isn't a laser to Julio Jones. It's a fumble he should've never lost and a sack he never should've taken—two gaffes that could poison and deteriorate anyone's poise forever.
“I’ve had some good years, and that’s fine," Ryan says. "But it’s about doing it over and over and over and trying to be consistent. That’s what you see in the great all-time players.”(Getty Images)
Then again, this is the same Ryan who was drilled repeatedly in college and kept bouncing off the canvas. His old receiver at Boston College, Brandon Robinson, still remembers a booming Ohhhhh! stopping him mid-route in Death Valley. He turned around, thought, Holy ****, what just happened? and then watched a replay of Clemson's David Dunham harpooning Ryan in the sternum.
"He didn't brace for anything," Robinson says of his former QB. "One of the worst hits I've ever seen."
Ryan's helmet popped off. He sat out one play.
He doesn't know how to react any differently.
"When everything is going crazy," Ryan says now, "you just keep doing what you're doing."
Ryan loathes a question on being the perfect leader at the perfect time—he doesn't want that word attached to his name. At all. Yet a steady CEO who would never ride a Cam-like roller coaster is a must this revenge tour, and that's been Matty Ice's M.O. since that car accident with his brother half a life ago.
"Good or bad," he says, "you're going to get my absolute best every day. And I expect the same from everybody else. I think that's real clear. Regardless of what happened last year—who cares?"
Hour to hour, day to day, the Atlanta Falcons inch back toward the championship. This is, after all, one of America's most cursed sports cities, from the Braves only winning one World Series through 11 straight division titles, to the rise and fall of Michael Vick, to the eternal mediocrity of the Hawks, to the defunct Thrashers.
Living here for a decade has given Ryan a sense of what it'd mean for 5.7 million residents to see him hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
"That's our mission," he says. "That's my mission. To find a way to bring it back to Atlanta. And give our city a taste of what it's like to win a Super Bowl."
To do so, they'll need finishers.
He can't order a meal without a patron recognizing him, approaching him and bringing up the nightmare.
Seconds after Keanu Neal sits down at Taco Mac, on the outskirts of Atlanta, a woman in her mid-30s asks him if he's a quarterback for the Falcons (he's a starting safety) before informing Neal that her four-year-old son is, you know, the biggest Falcons fan.
"After the Super Bowl," she says, "he was devastated."
Neal smiles, tilts his head down and musters a "Yeah…"
“Something changes when the game comes,” Neal says. “It’s going to that dark place. … Not bragging or anything, but I intimidate guys. And that I could use to my advantage. Guys aren’t going to catch the ball in the middle of the field if I’m there.”(Tyler Dunne for B/R Mag)
If only she knew.
If only she, too, could see Chris Hogan running that flag route on 3rd-and-10 with 3:17 left in regulation. Neal knew it was coming. Tom Brady wasn't even looking when he threw it off his back foot in his own end zone. Yet instead of jumping the route for a pick—for a title, for immortality—Neal hesitated, and Hogan's 16-yarder resuscitated a game-tying drive.
If only she, too, were staring at a horizontal Edelman somehow vise-gripping the ball, a strand of floss above the ground.
Neal already had put too much pressure on himself as a rookie. Then, this?
"There are scars," Neal says later, "we won't forget."
He wasn't complacent when Atlanta led, 28-3, but Neal says he might've been…"comfortable." Whether it's the middle of Week 1, the Wild Card Round or a game-tying drive in the Super Bowl, Neal knows someone on this Falcons roster will face another moment of truth. And he knows, next time, the hammer must be dropped.
The kid who coaches used to call "Cotton Candy" because he was afraid of contact, Neal has learned to unleash inner rage. Don't let the charm and GQ smile fool you—this man will send you straight into tomorrow. Ask Derrick Henry. Ask any wide receiver who ran a drag route vs. Atlanta last season. Neal still remembers one diminutive Panthers receiver—he won't broadcast who—alligator-arming a pass so he wouldn't get hit.
"He purposely dropped it," Neal says. "He looked after he dropped it." And, oh, there's Neal getting a finger popped back into place on the sideline against San Francisco.
He felt numbness and tingling then but holds out that damaged hand over a plate of chicken wings today like a badge of honor.
The finger never hurt. Not until the following Monday, anyway. By then, his hand was on fire.
"Something changes when the game comes," Neal says. "It's going to that dark place. … Not bragging or anything, but I intimidate guys. And that I could use to my advantage. Guys aren't going to catch the ball in the middle of the field if I'm there."
Yet Neal also says he stressed too much last season. He'd return home from a win and rewatch himself for one, two, three hours, agonizing over barely noticeable mistakes. "Stop beating yourself up!" his girlfriend pleaded, but he couldn't. Not with that HOME OF KEKE NEAL NO. 22 sign perched outside the flea market back in his hometown of Webster, Florida. Not with so many old friends resurfacing on Facebook. He felt pressure from the 5.7 million here and from the 1,000 residents there to deliver as the 2016 draft's 17th overall pick.
He knows the same kids tempted by drugs in "The Sub," the subdivision he avoided as a kid, are watching him. He could be their inspiration. He could serve as a ray of hope in a hometown where, Neal says, there's nothing but an elementary school and a couple of gas stations.
“I just want to be different,” Neal says. “Be uncommon.”(Tyler Dunne for B/R Mag)
"Everybody's behind me so much that I'm like the heart of the city right now," he says. "It's an awesome feeling. … It comes with a lot of struggles, too. You don't want to let them down."
After safely digesting the chicken wings, Neal is asked to relive the nightmare once more. On an iPhone, Edelman's circus catch awaits on YouTube like a stab to the abdomen.
As the video buffers, Neal closes his eyes, mutters, "Oh my god," opens his eyes and stays glued to the screen. Right there—right when Robert Alford tipped the ball—that's when he was thinking pick.
"How in the heck do you catch that with three guys?!" Neal says. "I watched the review, and it's literally, freakin', this far off the ground."
He holds his hand less than an inch off the table.
Neal exhales and appears refreshed. Renewed. A trip to the Bahamas helped. He escaped to The Cove Atlantis with his girlfriend after the Super Bowl. Cycling through photos on his phone, Neal explains that he left a trail of petals into a private cabana one day. He was kissed by a dolphin.
Stress? Keanu Neal doesn't stress.
"I just want to be different," he says. "Be uncommon."
With that, Neal gets up to leave and is stopped by a restaurant employee to chat.
This time, nobody's asking about the Super Bowl.
The Rising Star
He doesn't laugh away the idea as a quirk or a joke. Taylor Gabriel makes you believe he really will change his first name. The 5'8", 167-pound bullet of a receiver first floated the idea to NFL Network in March.
For four months he proceeded to flood all social media accounts with the name—Turbo, Turbo, Turbo—before actually sounding half-serious in a July interview with B/R Mag.
"I believe I'm changing my name to Turbo Gabriel," he says. "That might be legit. I might need to call Chad Ochocinco and ask him about that process."
Everyone knows Julio will be Julio. Devonta Freeman will be Devonta Freeman. Beasley will be Beasley. The Falcons need another star to emerge, and that star is Turbo Gabriel. He's the gnarly, jaw-dropping dynamo who's lived "me against the world" his entire life.
His voice is precisely what the Falcons need.
“We want to arrive violently when we get back on that field,” Gabriel says. “I feel like we will. … Coming from a Super Bowl loss, it’s a mindset you have to have. It’s a mode that you have to be engraved in.”(Getty Images)
A year ago, he was told he's too small. Again. The kid who received zero Division I interest was cut by the lowly Browns. From the head coach to the front office to his position coach, he asked everyone why. The answer was a Constanza-esque "it's not you, it's me." The worst team in sports called it a numbers game.
So here he is—fresh off 750 receiving yards and six scores in 16 games—ready to stick it to anyone doubting him or the Falcons.
"We want to arrive violently when we get back on that field," Gabriel says. "I feel like we will. … Coming from a Super Bowl loss, it's a mindset you have to have. It's a mode that you have to be engraved in."
Arriving violently in 2016 meant literally cutting so hard that Seattle's DeShawn Shead tore his ACL in coverage. It meant embarrassing one of the game's best corners, Malcolm Butler, with a stutter step in the Super Bowl. Turbo faced Butler in college and knew Shead personally, so both should have known better.
Arriving violently in 2017 could mean becoming the next Antonio Brown.
Turbo's rare 0-to-60 acceleration blends with an even rarer ability to stop any split millisecond he pleases. He declares himself both the fastest and quickest player in football. He's strong enough to bench 365 pounds and loves pointing out to teammates he can still win jump balls at 5'7" because of a 40-inch vertical leap.
Says Gabriel, "There's nothing that I'm not able to do."
Which means he can realistically follow in the footsteps of AB.
"I feel like I can," Gabriel says. "Just the opportunity. Just showing what I can do. Not saying I'll be Antonio Brown, but the little things he does I feel I can be similar with. In and out of his breaks. Being confident in catching the ball and turning a four-yard catch into a 60-yard touchdown. Those are things I do have in my game, but at the same time it's opportunity."
New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, he's confident, will give him those opportunities, too. This is how an offense that finishes first in points and second in yards gets even better.
He expects Sarkisian to take more shots deep.
“We have to climb that mountain again,” Gabriel says. “We know the things we’ll run into. We know the things we have to do.”(Getty Images)
"We have so much talent I feel like it can get lost at times," Gabriel says. "That's the one thing, that's his problem. Too much talent. That's a good problem to have."
Before training camp began, Gabriel fired off a tweet that he's "coming for everything you said I couldn't," which he described as a direct shot to all friends, coaches and even family members who ever doubted him.
He thanks them all for making him this hungry.
Now the Falcons are back at base camp, oozing with confidence.
Campbell vows to speak up. Ryan refuses to lose his cool. Neal will be the closer. Gabriel will bring the fun.
Of course, so many obstacles will stand in their way this climb. Aaron Rodgers' arm. The Cowboys' ground attack. In their own division, the Panthers are reloaded on offense, Adrian Peterson joined the Saints, and Jameis Winston may be on the cusp of greatness with the Buccaneers. But the Falcons aren't concerned with any of this.
They bought into all of Quinn's rallying cries last season, and they'll do it once more.
"We have to climb that mountain again," Gabriel says. "We know the things we'll run into. We know the things we have to do."
And if they're on that stage again, Gabriel knows what'll happen.
"We get back to the Super Bowl," he says, "and we finish it off."