Al Strada is a Falcons fan.
He's been around a while, so he's seen nearly everything the Falcons have done in their history. He remembers the good as clearly as the bad and can discuss it in vivid detail, words and instances flowing from him like they were captured with a photographic Falcons memory.
Recently, Strada got to take the trip of a lifetime, and after so many years of loyalty to the football franchise, it only seems right.
In 1973, after being transferred to Atlanta from New York, he decided to root for a team he'd admired, notably their helmet and uniform (the team's current throwback uniform). Once in Atlanta, he quickly wanted to adopt his new hometown teams since he knew he'd be laying roots in the community. He got on board pretty quickly.
"I got my Falcons season tickets before I got my mortgage," Strada said. "I paid $7.50 for those seats in 1973."
Strada was the recipient of this year's Early Bird Season Ticket renewal offer. As the winner, he and a guest were flown to Tampa with the team and were guests during the weekend's business trip down south. This season was the first time the Falcons selected two season ticket accounts and a Verizon Wireless Club account to attend the trip.
Strada and his guest, Rick Goldstein, and two other winners were treated to seating on the flight to Tampa and were hosted at a dinner by the Falcons in Tampa on Saturday night before the Week 12 game against the Bucs.
"The best 32-hour trip I ever took," he said.
From the police escort out of the airport to arriving at the team hotel 11 minutes later, every detail of the trip, according to Mr. Strada, was first class. It's what he'd come to expect from the Falcons and he was happy to participate.
Over dinner, Strada joked with Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay about the gift he'd finally gotten from the Falcons after all those, sometimes long, years.
"Thank you for my $100,000 Hanukah present," he told McKay. "It was all worth it. ...Since 1973, I have paid the Falcons over $100,000 in season tickets."
But he wouldn't have it any other way. Strada speaks about the Falcons with a reverence and his trip with excitement, still at times unable to fathom that he actually got to take it. His memory bank is full of times when he was proud to be a Falcons fan and other times when the team broke his heart, but everything has been worth it. With or without the trip, his time in the Falcons family has been unforgettable. The recent trip is just icing on the cake.
"The joy of being a season ticket holder, other than the trip, which was the trip of a lifetime, is the joy of being with an organization that cares about its fans," Strada said.
Ultimately, he believes in getting what you pay for and from the Falcons he's gotten just that.
One of his best memories of the trip was an experience few will know. Shortly after arriving at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, the winners of the trip were allowed to roam the sidelines as the players warmed up. Strada had the opportunity to meet with Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez for a few moments and walked away struck by how large they were. It was an up-close view unlike any other.
"They were like mountains next to me," he said. "It's like being in a Roman gallery, seeing gladiators. You realize that these guys are going to put their bodies on the line and knock heads with the competition. It gave me a better perspective."
This season, Strada is obviously having more fun than he's had in a long time. Although he sees similarities in this year's Falcons team to the 1998 version that went all the way to the Super Bowl, he feels a new direction under the hand of head coach Mike Smith. No matter where the Falcons end up this year, it's safe to say Strada will be along with them, just as he has been for the last 39 years.
He's always felt like a guest of the Falcons on gameday, but his recent trip made him feel like an exclusive member of a Falcons organization that helped him feel even closer to the franchise he's rooted for over decades.
"It's been an amazing ride," he said, "and I was just thrilled when I got the email saying the Falcons would like me to be a guest of theirs."