Staff Photo: John Bohn Henry Grant, center, of Atlanta, gets an autograph from Atlanta Falcons starting quarterback Matt Ryan during a Friday Night Lights practice at Peachtree Ridge High School.
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SUWANEE -- An amorphous line -- sometimes four, five, six people wide -- stretched around half of Peachtree Ridge High School on Friday, a living, breathing mass of Atlanta Falcon fandom.
Departing from the rear of the queue in a brisk walk, it would've taken anyone willing a sweaty five minutes to find the front. But that's where, just outside of the Suwanee high school's football stadium, they would have found the second man in line for the local NFL's team's public scrimmage. And he deserved to be there as much as anybody.
The man, Petty Officer Second Class Raymond Hillard, is on a week's leave from the United States Navy. He made the drive from Pensacola, Fla., just to see his Falcons' "Friday Night Lights" exhibition.
"We've been following the team for a very long time," said Hillard, who arrived about three hours early for the 6:45 p.m. practice. "I'm on leave for about a week so this is a good way to start my break. This is actually my first day off."
Hillard, who actually attended Peachtree Ridge briefly before his family moved to Conyers, was accompanied by his brother. He's a fan "of everybody," he said, but especially quarterback Matt Ryan and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
Friday's event marked the fifth straight year the Falcons have practiced under the lights at a Gwinnett County high school, and the second time Hillard had attended.
"Of course it's the autographs we got for my son," he said. "That's probably my favorite part."
Hillard wasn't the only one arriving early.
Steve Jones, one of the owners of Johns Creek Driving School, took the rare opportunity to have a company outing. Some 40 people joined him in and around a tent for barbecue, mac 'n cheese and green beans. They started setting up at about 3:30 p.m., he said.
"I'm a huge Falcons fan," Jones said. "This is just a really cool event they do."
Once inside the gates, fans got an up-close look at their favorite team as they went through drills on the Peachtree Ridge football field, freshly painted with a Falcons logo at midfield and the mantra "Rise Up" in the end zones.
At the end of practice, the team went full-bore and full-tackle (quarterbacks excluded).
James Henderson, accompanied by sons Jeremy and Justin, was the only one to beat Hillard to the front of the line as the crowd waited to be ushered in.
A die-hard Falcons fan from Lithonia, he only had one qualm with the evening.
"Let's take it to DeKalb County next year," he said. "Let's spread the wealth."