published Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Wiedmer: NFL teams delight fans with visit to Chattanooga area (with video)

The Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee Titans practice in front of fans Monday at Coahulla Creek High School north of Dalton, Ga.
The Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee Titans practice in front of fans Monday at Coahulla Creek High School north of Dalton, Ga.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • Tennessee Titans scrimmage with Atlanta Falcons at Coahulla Creek
    The Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons both traveled to Coahulla Creek High School in Dalton, Ga., for a scrimmage Monday. The scrimmage was free for fans, while the concession sales were split among Whitfield County athletic programs.

VARNELL, Ga. -- Coahulla Creek junior wide receiver Michael Ward fully expected to see the Tennessee Titans drop by his high school Monday afternoon for their joint practice with the Atlanta Falcons.

What he didn't expect was to find himself in a game of "Lightning" with second-year quarterback Jake Locker.

But that's just what happened not long after the Titans arrived at the Whitfield County school and headed for their locker-room area.

"As soon as they got to the gym a bunch of them wanted to know where the basketballs were," Ward said. "So we got some out and started shooting around with them. Then it was just Locker and me left on the court."

According to Ward, Lightning is a quick version of H-O-R-S-E. One miss of your opponent's made shot and you're out. Game over.

"I hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key," Ward said. "He missed. I won."

And what did Locker say in defeat?

"He said, 'Good luck with your season,'" Ward replied. "He was really a nice guy."

There were a lot of nice moments at the Falcons-Titans practice Monday before a crowd of 5,000 or more fans of both teams.

There was Southeast Whitfield senior defensive end Gavin Hill wanting to talk to Titans running back Chris Johnson, "but I got too nervous."

And Hill's a Falcons fan, labeling Atlanta defensive end John Abraham his favorite player.

There also was Coahulla Creek junior cornerback Marquis Monroe, who discovered his locker was being used by Falcons wideout Roddy White.

"I'm not going to touch anything in there," Monroe said. "I'm not going to wash anything in there, either. I can't believe Roddy White used my locker."

The Falcons and Titans used both the Coahulla Creek football and baseball fields for this workout, and each NFL team's head coach seemed quite pleased with the results.

In what could have been dubbed the Mike vs. Mike practice, Tennessee coach Mike Munchak said, "I lot of these turn into 'Who's the toughest guy?' But this wasn't like that. This was a chance to practice against a really good football team. I think we'd love to find a way to keep getting together for something like this every year."

Added Atlanta coach Mike Smith, whose longtime friendship with Whitfield County superintendent Danny Hayes led to this "Falcons Football Night in Dalton" event: "This was a great day. I can't say enough about the people of Whitfield County. I hope we can do this again."

Judging from the long lines at the concession stands on a hot and sticky August afternoon -- and the fact those sales benefited the athletic departments of Coahulla Creek, Southeast Whitfield and Northwest Whitfield -- there almost certainly will be much community push to do this again.

The tentative plan is for next year's scrimmage, if there is one, to take place in Tennessee, but not too far from Chattanooga.

"I remember coming to Chattanooga in 1997, when we'd first moved [from Houston] to Tennessee," Munchak said. "It was a great time."

The great time for Northwest High cornerback Colten Leonard started at 7:30 Monday morning, with the Bruins' own practice.

By 1 p.m. he was at Coahulla Creek, helping any way he could.

"My dad's parking cars right now," he said. "My mom's working the concession stand. It's nice to see everybody come out for something like this to help our schools."

A good number of fans came out to see if their team has what it takes to reach the playoffs, and possibly the Super Bowl.

"If we can just get through those first five games," said Titans fan Anthony Burney, referring to a murderers row that begins with New England and includes road games at San Diego, Houston and Minnesota with a second home game against Detroit. "If we can get through those, I think we can make the playoffs."

A true blue fan, Burney said he was looking forward to the post-practice autograph session with one exception: "No Atlanta autographs. Titans only."

He was in the minority, of course. Judging from the red football jerseys, the crowd leaned heavily toward the Falcons. Judging by the ease with which Atlanta's three-headed monster receiving corps of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas snared quarterback Matt Ryan's perfect passes, the NFL season may also lean the Birds' way.

But that didn't stop 54-year-old Bobby Calfee of Cleveland, Tenn., and 11-year-old Kaben Bragg of Chattanooga from supporting the Titans.

"I used to dream of Tennessee having a pro football team," Calfee said. "Now I try to go to one game a year. This is pretty neat."

Said Bragg, who attends Boyd-Buchanan and wants to be a running back like the Titans' Johnson: "I wanted to wear [Johnson's] No. 28, but somebody already took it. I just hope I can get his autograph."

The autographs came afterward, almost all of the Titans and Falcons making their way to the fence surrounding the field to sign for 20 minutes or so.

Said Titans fan Calfee before heading home: "I hope they can do this at a Tennessee high school next year."

Perhaps by then Locker can connect on 3-pointers as easily as he does passes.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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