SUWANEE, GA —For Falcons players, the bus ride to the North Gwinnett High School's stadium stirred memories of high school football games, metal bleachers and old scoreboards, a far cry from where they play on Sundays as professionals.
But being on the field Friday night allowed them to relive those memories — for some players more distant than others — of what it meant to play football when it was just a game. From Falcons legend Jessie Tuggle to this year's first-round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon, just four years removed from high school, everyone had a story to tell under the lights.
Jessie Tuggle, Ring of Fame member:"The thing that stands out my mind more than anything is the night I caught my first touchdown because Coach put me in as an ineligible tight end that he rolled out and I caught a TD for a touchdown. It's the only touchdown I ever scored in high school." (Tuggle also stressed that his high school in Griffin, Georgia has produced more NFL players than any other high school in Georgia.)
Jerious Norwood, running back:"It was my junior year and we were in the playoffs playing Gulfport. Before the game I ate a cheeseburger and I had an allergic reaction to cheese so I couldn't come out until halftime. The locker room was above stands so when I walked down, the crowd just got off their feet and started cheering, the whole stadium. That night I rushed for like 235 yards and six touchdowns and we of course won the game."
Ovie Mughelli, fullback:"It was probably the state championship I won in high school. Back in those days I was Michael Turner, I was Roddy White, the main man, the reason everyone came to watch high school football. That was fun. I love my role now, but it was nice getting all the attention and being able to control the game. The first championship game, I scored like two or three touchdowns in the first half. Unfortunately I tore my ACL right at the half. I remember every one of my teammates came to me and said 'Ovie, we will win this game for you,' because all season I helped carry the team and we were so close to our first championship in decades for our high school. So we ended up winning, the state championship. I have a picture of me on crutches, holding up a big trophy. I'll never forget that."
Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker:"It was 2005 and the playoffs. I caught a one-handed touchdown pass in the right side of the end zone. It was a fade route and I caught it one-handed. I had like 600 yards my senior on 30-something catches. When I went to Missouri they didn't know where they were going to play me. I was about 200 pounds and 6 foot. The whole time I wanted to play linebacker because I played both ways in high school. It seemed like the crowd was just quiet and all of a sudden everybody just erupted. It was the playoffs so it was a big deal. We won that game. It was actually one of my best games from my senior year."
Todd McClure, center:"I played tight end and defensive end in high school. I think my biggest memory I had an 89-yard touchdown run at tight end. People might not believe that. I was a little bit lighter, little bit smaller, and could probably run a little faster."
Thomas DeCoud, safety:"My senior year and the homecoming game against El Cerrito. I was playing in the game and doing pretty well. I didn't win, but it was fun to go through the whole high school homecoming pageantry. We won the game, so at least I got away with that W."
Kerry Meier, wide receiver:"My senior year we were playing on the road back in Kansas, up at a school called St. Thomas Aquinas and we found ourselves in a pretty big hole in the fourth quarter. There wasn't much left in the tank. Somehow we dug deep and made a big fourth-quarter comeback and went on into the playoffs. Guys were just sacrificing, we were so banged up. Everybody was laying it on the line and we came through in the end and pulled it out. It was one of the best games I've ever played in. I brought the team back late in the fourth quarter, some big fourth-quarter drives, and some crucial plays. A lot of people stepped up and made a lot of sacrifices laying it on the line."
Matt Ryan, quarterback:"The last home game in high school. Just the memories of going out with those guys and playing four years of high school football with them. The last time we were able to do it together was a pretty special experience."
Mike Smith, head coach: "My favorite memory? Probably my first carry as a high school player. I can remember we ran the wishbone and I probably gained about two yards and an inch, but I do remember it."