Falcons savor chance to play under Friday lights

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

For some of the Atlanta Falcons, it's been more than a decade since they played on Friday nights. It's a little more recent for others, but that doesn't diminish the nostalgia.

For the third straight year, the Falcons are holding their Friday Night Lights team scrimmage in Gwinnett County. After stops at Mill Creek and Brookwood, it's North Gwinnett's turn today at 7:30 p.m.

Veterans to rookies are looking forward to the event, which is highlighted by a live scrimmage and standing-room-only crowds. Last year, more than 12,000 people packed Brookwood's Community Stadium.

"It takes you back, man," said linebacker Mike Peterson, who played for Florida's Santa Fe High School in the early '90s. "I remember those Friday nights like it was yesterday. So it's a good chance for some of the older guys to reminisce a little bit, to get out there on Friday night.

"It's a high school setting, you mingle with the fans, you go in the end zone, you celebrate. I mean, I'm looking forward to it -- as I do every year."

Peterson broke out in a wide grin when he talked about the chance to do more than remember the old days.

"Hopefully I'll get a chance to play a little quarterback," the 11-year NFL veteran said, pulling his arm back in a set motion. "I played back in high school so I kind of reminisce on Friday nights.

"If not in the game, in warm-ups. Do my little thing."

The atmosphere is more intimate with the stands close to the field and a number of the Falcons -- including head coach Mike Smith -- fitted with microphones that broadcast through the stadium's speakers.

"It's going to be fun," cornerback Christopher Owens said. "Last year as a rookie, I was overwhelmed by how many fans came out. It's like a high school football game with all the lights. It's just a lot of fun."

But it's still an official training camp event, so there's pressure to perform well.

"We're out there doing a job so it's real serious," the 23-year-old out of San Jose State said. "It's like one of our first scrimmages, everything's on tape and it's really imperative to do well despite all the fans being there. They call it Friday Night Lights, but it's real practice."

Admission is free and the event includes a fan fest with sponsor offers and giveaways, a postgame autograph session and fireworks.

The Falcons handle nearly all of the operations of the event, so the North Gwinnett community can enjoy the festivities along with other local NFL fans.

"We're expecting 10,000 people here," North head football coach Bob Sphire said. "I'm looking forward to it. It will be exciting for our community, for our kids, to see the demeanor of the players up close. Mike Smith, (general manager) Thomas Dimitroff and those guys are true professionals. I'm excited our kids will get to see how true professionals work up close."