For a guy who’s probably taken countless knocks to the head, Jamal Anderson’s memory is nothing short of photographic. Well, at least when it comes to football, specifically the Atlanta Falcons 1998 season. The team finished 14-2 and won the NFC Championship, a run spearheaded by Anderson, who at 410 carries (still good for second all-time) and 1,846 yards had one the single-greatest statistical outputs for a running back in league history.
What Anderson recalls most about the team and his performance doesn’t have to do with the gaudy numbers. OK, sure, he gets extra chatty when he’s reeling off stats about the team’s defensive line aka the “Bomb Squad” leading the league in sacks, Jesse Tuggle earning his nickname as the “Hammer” or the Eugene Robinson and Ray Buchanan-led secondary helping the Falcons dominate in the forced turnover category. Heck, ESPN called dubbed them, “The Best Falcons Team Ever.”
However, any story from Anderson about the Falcons post-1998 typically starts and ends with his famous end zone dance, the “Dirty Bird.”
“When I got here it was Georgia this, Georgia that,” he says referencing the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team, the unofficial kings of the sport in the state. “I was like how do we turn this into something where everybody’s proud of the Falcons like that?”
Granted the team was 7-9 the season before, and had only two winnings campaigns in the decade leading up the ’98 squad, but Anderson and the boys felt there was something different about this group. “We just had a bunch of dudes who could play and had personality,” he says.
Soon the personality got a name.
It was after a Week 4 thrashing of the Carolina Panthers at home in the Georgia Dome. As the players headed out to their cars, just below a bridge with fans passing by, a man called down to Anderson and a few of his teammates.
“There was a guy at the top, screaming down, ‘That’s them Dirty Birds! That’s them Dirty Birds,” he says of the name’s inception. “We get back Monday for watching film and everybody was like, ‘Yo, did you hear that guy?!’ It was the first time we had really heard it. We took to it. It was an attitude and in the way he was saying it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s how you play.”
What followed was the dance; an idea Anderson says initially came to him during his college years at the University of Utah. It was there that he and some other players who often wore Ralph Lauren Polo shirts decided to call themselves, the “‘Lo Crew.” As part of the ‘Lo Crew, Anderson would often do a motion spreading both arms out, leading with his elbows and mimicking a bird flapping its wings. His goal was to bring a similar treatment to this Dirty Bird the team created, and he’d do it every time he scored.
The next game, a primetime Sunday Night Football matchup against the New York Giants in Week 6, Anderson didn’t score. A week later, in a win at home against the New Orleans Saints Anderson broke free of a few tackles, busted down the side of the field, a Saints’ safety tried to push him out of bounds and he dove and put the ball on the inside pile-on. He immediately jumped up, and started flapping his wings, thus the first public instance of the Dirty Bird was born. By Week 11, a winning effort against Steve Young’s San Francisco 49ers, Anderson had perfected the dance.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The onset of Atlanta’s future hip-hop dominance was taking shape. OutKast had released their classic third album, Aquemini. Super producer Jermaine Dupri, who had dropped his Life in 1472 album that summer, was constant presence around the team. Anderson even recalls booking Ludacris, then a local radio DJ named Chris Lova Lova, for a gig performing at the Madden Bowl. As far as the Falcons were concerned, the nickname and corresponding dance fit in perfectly with Atlanta’s musical zeitgeist.
“It was so Atlanta,” he remembers. “For people who had access to football it just took off.”
In fact the dance’s viral nature had spread to New England in a road matchup with the Patriots at Foxboro Stadium weeks later. Anderson, who grew up a fan of Jim Brown and Marcus Allen, shared their ideology of not celebrating on opposing fields, so he told himself the Dirty Bird was off-limits. The Falcons obliterated the Patriots 41-10, and Anderson even had two touchdowns. However, he left his dancing shoes at home, and it was the opposing crowd’s response to its absence that floored him.
“The crowd in Foxboro was like, ‘Booooo, do the Dirty Bird,'” and I was like, ‘What?!’ Then [tight end] O.J. Santiago scored and he started doing it and he started squawking like a bird and that’s the one that made it everywhere.”
Like the team that bore its name the Dirty Bird dance was a surprise hit. The team’s dream run ended with John Elway winning his second consecutive Super Bowl and riding off into the sunset to retirement. The Dirty Bird gave way to headlines of Robinson trying to solicit a prostitute who turned out to be undercover cop the night before the game in Miami. Reports that the team morale was down over their concern for the dynamic free safety led some to believe it was the hype and distractions of the Super Bowl weeklong buildup that doomed the Falcons.
“Eugene’s deal was such a weird, isolated deal. We lost to the team,” Anderson says. “What happened with Eugene, did it affect him or cause something to happen with the game? I don’t know. We as a team didn’t do enough. It wasn’t like we could point to Eugene as the sole reason we lost.”
The next year, the Falcons went 5-11. They wouldn’t have another winning season again until 2002, a year after Anderson retired. Anderson remembers his final year in 2001 being Michael Vick’s rookie season. A career-ending MCL injury would see to it that the two never played a full season together, but Anderson says he’ll never forget what he saw as the single-greatest individual talent in NFL history. “Before Vick, I didn’t seriously think we could have a player who could have a Jordan-esque effect on football,” he says.
Fast-forward through the high and lows of the Vick era, and you arrive at the current Matt Ryan campaign. There are a lot of similarities to Coach Dan Quinn’s bunch and the original Dirty Birds led by Dan Reeves. Neither team was thought to be a Super Bowl contender at the start of the season. The ’98 squad beat mighty Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame quarterback Randal Cunningham and a young Randy Moss to reach the Super Bowl. The current Falcons made easy work of future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers to land their spot in the Big Game. Anderson’s team went up against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Ryan’s team is up against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.
Anderson says it’s “frustrating” being a Falcons fan after so much promise, disappointment and scandal over the years but he feels as though things have changed for the better. He sees his ’98 team and the current roster as success stories that could’ve only come from Atlanta. Even in 2017, the Dirty Bird both offers a sense of nostalgia while embracing a future that includes a new stadium, franchise quarterback hitting his stride and a football-loving city finally having a team that wins.
It’s like Anderson has seen it all before, every single detail.
“When all the stuff happened and we started turning the corner, we started rolling and the Dirty Bird took off – it was all meant to be here,” he says of Atlanta. “What happened couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”