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This is the second installment of an ongoing "Homegrown" feature series focused on Falcons players from Georgia who have thrived representing their home state in high school, college and the pros.

Embedded in the stands with Dee Alford's friends and family, Tori McElhaney tells Alford's game day story through the eyes of the people who love him most as they watched him play the game he loves most.

Dee Alford's 26th birthday fell on a game day in 2023. It was the Falcons Week 9 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. That's why his family and close friends took up nearly an entire row of a section in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They were ready to celebrate one way or another, in a win or loss.

Friends made their way to their seats as kickoff loomed. A handful of them were former teammates of Alford's from his days at Tusculum University. Some of those guys woke up at three o'clock in the morning to make the hours-long drive to Atlanta. A party for Alford's birthday was set to begin once the Falcons game ended.

Felton Jackson, Alford's father, said the plan was already in place. The group would travel the 45 minutes to an hour ("depending on traffic") south of Atlanta to Griffin, Ga., to Jackson's house. The party would include wings, of course, maybe a cake, definitely good vibes. Whether or not said party was to be a surprise for Alford was up for some debate.

"Does he know we're here?" one friend asked.

"He had to know to get the tickets, right?" another answered.

Pregame festivities halted the conversation. Alford was taking the field with the Falcons and the group used the next few minutes to seek him out in the sea of red and black.

As the friends cheered when they spotted him running out of the tunnel, Alford's father sat quietly with a small smile on his face. You see, Jackson has been a Falcons fan for a long time.

"Like, since the Michael Vick era? Or, are we talking about the '98 Dirty Birds?"

Jackson laughed.

"Oh, since the Williams Andrews days."

Though Alford was born in Mississippi, he was raised in Griffin. He considers himself a Georgia boy through and through. His father does, too. So, for Jackson to see his son suit up for his favorite professional team, it's surreal to say the least.

As the defense took the field to begin the game, Jackson couldn't help himself. He was proud. You could see it on his face even as dark sunglasses shielded his eyes. If he's honest, he's been proud for a long time.

"What does it feel like, seeing Dee out there?"

"We're just so proud of him. We really are."

Sitting with the family of an NFL player as said player races around the gridiron provides the opportunity to feel the true ebbs and flows of a game in a way very few have ever experienced. Every tackle or pass broken up could be felt. The breath of every friend or family member in the stands was stolen in anticipation or a shout of triumph based on everything Alford did.

When he ran out to field his first punt return, they whipped out their phones. Clicking photos and capturing videos, their gasps were audible and filled with excitement.

"There he is!"

"Let's go! Let's go!"

"Boy, I want him to run it back."

When he missed out on a sack, their collective breath hitched.

"I wanted that for him so bad."

"He nearly got there."

"Didn't wrap up. He sometimes just gets going too fast."

When Alford made a tackle for a loss alongside Bud Dupree, they released that collectively held breath with a cheer.

Between it all - the highs and the lows, the quiet moments and the loud - Jackson told stories about his son.

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During a TV timeout, Jackson proudly explained that he is in possession of not one, not two, but three game balls, all gifted to him by Alford. 

He proudly ticked them off one by one: There was a game ball from Alford's days playing with the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2021. There was his first intercepted ball, too, a game-sealing pick in the Falcons' 23-20 win over the Browns in 2022. Oh, and he couldn't forget the ball Alford returned for a touchdown on a punt return in the Falcons' 2023 preseason game against Miami. 

During an offensive series, Jackson switched the tale, sharing the story of how Alford finally settled on playing football in the first place, having spent the majority of his childhood and young adult years honing his basketball skills. It wasn't until his final year of high school that Alford really leaned into football. The reason being? 

"I'm just too short, Dad," Jackson remembers a teenage Alford saying to him. 

He laughed at the memory as adult Alford roamed the Falcons sideline, awaiting his next chance for a defensive stand. 

His son was speedy, though, Jackson was quick to point out. 

He was speedy enough to catch the attention of the Falcons and several other NFL teams after that year in Winnipeg, when he won a Grey Cup championship. 

Alford hit the road soon after that, traveling from Chicago to Detroit to Atlanta to work out with NFL teams. There were a lot more teams left on the list, but once Atlanta called Alford and presented him with an offer following the workout, there was no turning back. 

That's because playing for the Falcons was a dream realized for Alford and his family. 

Alford's path to the NFL wasn't easy. It's actually a story quite unlike many others. 

A kid from Griffin went to play college ball in northeast Tennessee, and he had to work for a scholarship. 

Alford didn't have many draft prospects when he graduated, despite breaking school records, so he decided to take his talents northward to Canada. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, though, that first professional season was put on hold; Alford went a full year without playing football. To keep busy and money flowing, he worked the night shift at a local FedEx, stacking boxes and unloading trucks. He'd get off work at six or seven o'clock in the morning and go straight to a workout. 

Alford never stopped moving or working, and when football finally returned to his life, he kept at it. 

A year later, he was winning a championship in Canada as one of the league's best and most productive defensive backs, a CFL All-Star in his first season no less. 

A year after that, he became the Falcons starting slot cornerback. 

At every step, his father was there, watching and cataloging the moments of his son's football career just as he cataloged his movements in the first half of the Falcons game against the Vikings that Sunday afternoon in November. 

During the game, Jackson wasn't boisterous. He wasn't loud. He was locked in. More than anything, though, he wasn't shocked that he was there in the stands, nor that his son was there on the field. 

"People come to me and say they're amazed by what he does," Jackson said, "but I've seen it his whole life."

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The game reached a bitter end. 

The Falcons lost and Alford injured his ankle in the fourth quarter. In the locker room, he was somber while answering the media's questions about the game. 

With his head low, he pulled his black Amiri bomber jacket on. He packed up his backpack at his locker. He slid on his sunglasses, and shuffled out of the Falcons locker room. 

Once he exited, the scene that played out before him was anything but somber. It was joyous. Hugs that could almost be described as tackles enveloped Alford. Echoes of, "Happy birthday, man!" and "There he is!" could be heard down the tunnels of the stadium.

With arms slung around one another, the group of friends traveled out to the field where Alford had just played. They handed off phones, one by one snapping photos of each other with Alford. Group photos were taken, too. Backs were turned to show off their "Alford" Falcons jerseys. At one point, the group broke off, one friend running routes in the end zone against another in imaginary coverage. Alford looked on with a smile, quite similar to the fond smile worn by his father not two hours earlier. 

The loss still stung and bitterness clung to the stadium air, hanging around like a morning fog. But, as Alford walked back out the tunnel, another year older and with his favorite people surrounding him, there was happiness, too. The pressure of the game was melting away, the page already turning. 

As the fog of a loss dissipated, all that was left was pride… and a party that may or may not have been a surprise.

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