FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Keith Brooking made it to the Super Bowl in his very first season - playing for the Atlanta Falcons, no less.
Hey, what's all the fuss about?
"I don't want to say that I took it for granted," Brooking said Monday, speaking now from the perspective of a wily ol' veteran. "But I really didn't know what an accomplishment it was at the time. I didn't know how special it was."
Time can be valuable teacher.
It took six years for the Falcons to get another shot at the Super Bowl. On Sunday, they travel to Philadelphia to meet the playoff-tested Eagles for the NFC championship.
The visiting team at the "Linc" will include only two holdovers from 1998 - Brooking, a Pro Bowl linebacker, and backup defensive end Travis Hall, a former Kenai Central High School star and one of two Alaskans currently in the NFL (the other is New York Jets defensive back Reggie Tongue of Fairbanks). Better than anyone, they know what a long, arduous journey it is.
The Falcons followed up their Super season by going 5-11. The next year was even worse. It wasn't until 2002 that Atlanta finally made it back to the playoffs, winning an historic game at Green Bay before falling to the Eagles in the divisional round.
Then, more of the same. Atlanta plunged to 5-11 last season, doomed by Michael Vick's broken leg in a preseason game.
"We had some pretty tough years, a lot of ups and downs," Brooking said. "That puts things in perspective. I want to enjoy every minute of this. I'm enjoying the ride as much as I can."
Brooking and Hall managed to stick it out, while those around them came and went. Two serious knee injuries ended Jamal Anderson's career. Jessie Tuggle retired. Chris Chandler was released after the Falcons drafted Vick. Dan Reeves was fired as coach.
Hall was among those who thought the Falcons had turned the corner back in '98. In Reeves, they had a coach who took Denver to three Super Bowls and quickly built a winner in Atlanta.
"I thought we were going to have the same thing he had in Denver," Hall remembered. "I was like, 'Man, this is going to be exciting. We'll continue to go to the playoffs and have a chance to win the championship every year."'
It didn't turn out that way, of course. There were some key injuries, and the Falcons weren't prepared to replace several players coming to the end of their careers.
But nothing can take away the most compelling memory of that Super season - the improbable victory at Minnesota's raucous Metrodome in the NFC title game.
The Vikings were already being touted as one of the best teams in history, an offensive juggernaut that scored a record 556 points. Even though the Falcons went 14-2 during the regular season - only one win behind Minnesota - everyone had already penciled in the Vikings for the Super Bowl.
Everyone except the Falcons, that is.
"No one gave us a chance. Literally, not a chance," Hall said. "At least we're getting more talked about this year. Back then, even though we went 14-2, no one gave us a chance. Everyone was saying the Vikings were the greatest team since the '72 Dolphins, maybe the greatest team ever. They weren't just beating teams - they were destroying teams."
In the end, that dominance seemed to work against the Vikings.
They jumped out to a 20-7 lead in the first half and led by 10 points in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons wouldn't go away. After Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season, a 38-yarder that would have clinched it, the Falcons tied it on Chandler's 16-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis with 49 seconds left in regulation.
Facing a challenge for one of the few times all season, Minnesota didn't know how to react. In overtime, Morten Andersen kicked a 38-yard field goal - from virtually the same spot where Anderson had missed - for a 30-27 victory that sent Atlanta to the Super Bowl.
While some memories have faded, Brooking and Hall will never forget that game in Minnesota.
"Just the atmosphere there," Brooking said. "You couldn't hear yourself talk when you were trying to make adjustments on the sideline. Then, after going through all that, you could hear a pin drop when Morten Andersen kicked that field goal."
The Falcons flopped two weeks later, losing to Denver 34-19 in John Elway's final game. Atlanta's first Super Bowl appearance was marred by the arrest of team leader Eugene Robinson the night before the game.
Brooking and Hall hope for a chance to finish the job. They certainly won't take anything for granted. Not after what they've been through the last six years.
"To me, that makes it even more meaningful," said Hall, on the downside of his career at age 32. "I know how hard it is to get here. I don't know if this opportunity will present itself again."
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