NFC South: Stephanie Blank
|David Stluka/Getty Images|
|Linebacker Stephen Nicholas will be able to concentrate on winning a starting job.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. -- Stephen Nicholas' arms were wrapped around his infant son, somewhat loosely because he didn't want to bump the tubes that had kept the child alive the past four months.
Wife Irene sat nearby and the doctor began talking. The doctor said the tubes were going to come out that afternoon. Stephen and Irene looked at each other and started crying as both minds registered the same two thoughts.
Stephen Nicholas Jr. had been in Children's Hospital Boston since last summer, waiting for a heart suitable to transplant into his little body.
"That was the doctor's way of saying there was a heart coming in,'' Stephen said.
Stephen Jr. was going to get a shot at life with a new heart. Tears of joy for a few seconds. Then, tears of sadness.
"The most bittersweet moment you can imagine,'' Irene said. "Our baby was going to get a new heart. But then you realize the heart had to come from someone his age and his size.''
Somewhere, someone else had lost a baby.
The date was Oct. 17, 2008. The surgery took hours upon hours and finally ended sometime around 4 the next morning. When the father saw the son at around noon, the baby had better color and was looking more alert than ever.
In another few weeks, Stephen Jr. would be given a clean bill of health and sent home to Atlanta. The doctors all have said Stephen Jr. should have a normal and healthy life.
If you looked over at the bleachers where the families sat during the Atlanta Falcons' minicamp practices last month, you never would have guessed life had been far from normal for the Nicholas family. When practice was over, the father went over to where the son sat with his mother. Within a few seconds, the two were running around and rolling in the grass.
Teammates walked by and smiled at the scene. Their wives and girlfriends watched the two Stephens and there might have been a few tears. This was the happiest ending to the best-kept secret of the 2008 season for the Falcons.
While rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was lighting up the NFL and the Falcons were making a run to the playoffs as the NFL's most surprising team, there was a little family secret that wasn't public because it was a very private matter.
Now Stephen, Irene and the Falcons are ready to tell the story that everyone else helped keep quiet last year.
Stephen and Irene were going through hell, but they had 52 other Falcons, a coaching staff, an owner and an entire building of employees quietly helping them along.
After all the craziness (the Michael Vick saga, Jim Mora melting down and Bobby Petrino walking out on his team) that had surrounded the Falcons in recent years, this story -- even more than the playoff run -- demonstrates a franchise with sanity, compassion and priorities that are very much in order.
It all started soon after Jan. 6, 2008, when Stephen Jr. was born. He was the first child for Stephen and Irene, but the new parents quickly could tell something wasn't right.
"He was sleeping all the time and he barely would eat,'' Irene said.
|Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI|
|Mike Smith told Nicholas not to worry about his job security while he dealt with his son's health issues.|
There was a flurry of visits to pediatricians and the root of the problem wasn't clear at first. A doctor in Gainesville, Ga. decided something was badly wrong with Stephen Jr.'s heart.
More tests only enhanced that idea and, with help from Stephanie Blank, wife of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Stephen Jr. was airlifted to Atlanta. Stephanie Blank is a board member at Children's Hospital of Atlanta. There, doctors determined the baby had cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart isn't able to properly pump blood throughout the body.
At first, Stephen Jr. was given medication and sent home. There was some mild improvement, but it didn't last long.
"I can't even begin to tell you how many trips we made back to the emergency room,'' Irene said.
A few weeks before Stephen, 26, and the Falcons were scheduled to begin training camp last July, doctors sat him and Irene down.
"They basically said it wasn't getting any better and that just treating it with medication wasn't going to work,'' Stephen said. "He had to have a heart transplant and it would have to come soon. There was no other choice at that point.''
Irene and the baby went to Boston. Stephen went to training camp, where he went through the motions, but his heart was in Boston. For the next four months, Stephen Jr., wired with tubes of medication to help keep his heart functioning, waited for a donor they weren't sure would come in time.
As all this was going on, there was a development that makes you realize the NFL isn't always the cold, hard business we always hear about. First-year coach Mike Smith, a gentle man with a family of his own, sat down Nicholas and told him not to worry about his job security.
"We were very cognizant of what was going on and wanted to make sure he was able to get to Boston as often as possible,'' Smith said. "We wanted him to be with his wife and baby because that was a very trying situation.''
Smith offered a deal. Each Sunday night during the season, Nicholas could fly to Boston from wherever the Falcons were playing. He could take Monday and Tuesday off and fly back to Atlanta in time for Wednesday's practice.
The show of support went even deeper than that. As a second-year backup, Nicholas wasn't making a lot of money. Two veteran teammates, who don't want to be named, helped take care of his travel expenses.
Then there was Kevin Winston. Officially, he's the Falcons' director of player programs. Unofficially, he's the team's social worker and a big brother to the players. Winston looks like he could play linebacker, but has a soft spot for anyone who's going through a tough time.
"Kevin was on the phone with me all the time,'' Irene
said. "He was always checking to see if there was anything I needed or anything the Falcons could do.''
Back in Atlanta, Stephen was able to focus on football for a few hours each day. He was a fixture on special teams and a backup at outside linebacker.
"It says a lot about Stephen's character that he was able to still play football while he was going through all that,'' Smith said. "It also says a lot about our football team and how the guys rallied around him.''
The situation also revealed an awful lot about Irene. She might have been the strongest of all. She was on the front line, sitting with Stephen Jr. every day, not knowing how long his heart would last or if a new one was coming.
"She's a rock,'' Stephen said. "She held down the fort and told me to keep plugging with football because we had to keep going on. I thank God for giving her to me. Every day when I go home now, I kiss my wife and I kiss my baby. I've been blessed with both of them.''
As Father's Day approaches this weekend, things are back to normal around the Nicholas' house -- as normal as can be expected when you're the proud parents of a rambunctious 18-month-old.
"He's more than normal now and really has been since just a few days after the surgery,'' Irene said. "He's into everything and he never really stops, but that's fine with us.''
Without knowing what was going on behind the scenes last season, some Falcons fans were wondering why Stephen was having a quiet year, after a promising rookie season, and not getting on the field much even though starting linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking weren't having great seasons.
Now, fans know. The Falcons learned plenty about Nicholas last season and that's part of the reason they let Boley and Brooking go.
Nicholas has been working as the starter on the strong side throughout the offseason. Part of that is because the Falcons believe his physical skills are ready to blossom. And part of it may be because Nicholas already has shown he's the strongest player on the roster as a person.
"Stephen and his wife are incredibly strong,'' Smith said. "And they've gotten even stronger because of what they've been through.''
This year, Nicholas is looking forward to training camp and a shot at a starting job. Irene and Stephen Jr. won't be so far away this time. In fact, Nicholas already is looking forward to taking some glances at the bleachers between plays to see his son, safe, sound and healthy.
"It's going to be nice to be out there with a clear mind,'' Nicholas said.
|Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire|
|Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan helped the Falcons improve greatly this season but came up short against the Cardinals.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The moment lasted perhaps 15 seconds. Its implications went a year into the past and years into the future.
"We're glad you're with us,'' Stephanie Blank said to Smith.
"We're going to get better,'' Smith said.
Yes, the season is over for the Falcons, but "the process'' isn't. This might have been only the start.
Recording an 11-5 regular season and their first playoff berth since 2004, the Falcons showed just how far they have come from the dark days of last season. Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick brought the franchise to its deepest point.
A 30-24 wild-card playoff loss to the host Arizona Cardinals showed just how far the Falcons have to go to complete the process Smith is always talking about. This team is good, but it's not yet perfect.
"I'm disappointed but not discouraged,'' Smith said.
There's really no reason Smith should be discouraged. If he can accomplish half as much in his second season as he did in his first, the Falcons won't be losing playoff games.
All season, Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would never talk about any specific goal for winning a certain amount of games. They'd talk only in the most general terms about "the process'' and make it sound like they weren't all that surprised by the team's success.
Deep down, though, does anybody really believe Smith and Dimitroff ever thought they'd be 11-5 and in the playoffs until maybe a week or so ago when they were 11-5 and in the playoffs? Did anybody really expect anything like this?
What the Falcons did this season was accelerate "the process." Let's be real honest. When Smith and Dimitroff looked at their roster coming out of training camp, they had to know they had some holes. Smith and his staff did a masterful job of hiding them for 16 games.
That was good enough to bring life back to a franchise and its fan base. The Falcons got more out of quarterback Matt Ryan than anyone could have imagined. The NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year never really played like a rookie -- until Saturday. The Cardinals intercepted Ryan twice and sacked him three times. He completed 26 of 40 passes for 199 yards.
"In games like this -- and, hopefully, we'll be in games like this in the future -- you can't make mistakes,'' Ryan said.
But don't put all the blame on Ryan. The Falcons weren't able to do the basics they'd done all season. They couldn't run the ball as Michael Turner finished with 42 yards on 18 carries. The Falcons' defense couldn't match up with Arizona's passing game.
Ryan and Turner are the reasons the Falcons even reached the playoffs. The flaws around them were exposed by the Cardinals and that clears the way for the next step of the process.
It's now obvious what Smith and Dimitroff need to work on in the offseason. In no particular order, they need a pass rusher besides John Abraham, another quality defensive tackle, more speed at linebacker and some more talent in the secondary. On offense, they need to give their $73 million investment (Ryan) an upgrade or two on the offensive line and a pass-catching tight end.
Funny thing is, Dimitroff and Smith probably knew all those needs were there at the start of this season. You can change the direction of a team in one offseason by drawing out every bit of its talent. But it takes two or three offseasons to assemble the roster you want.
The Falcons have the major chunks in place with Ryan, Turner, offensive tackle Sam Baker, receiver Roddy White, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and linebacker Curtis Lofton. That's a great start. Throw in role players such as receiver Michael Jenkins, cornerback Chris Houston and a fruitful draft class beyond Ryan, Baker and Lofton that included contributors such as receiver/return man Harry Douglas and defensive back Chevis Jackson. The Falcons have the nucleus for a very good team.
Now, it's time for Smith and Dimitroff to add some more pieces and try to make this a great team.
"We're going to remember how we feel as a team because we plan on being back in this situation and we want to remember how this feels,'' Smith said.
The loss might sting a bit right now. But, someday, the Falcons might look back on this game and view it as just one more step in "the process'' of winning a Super Bowl.