HOUSTON — At one point this past week, Julio Jones was asked what brotherhood means to him.
The Falcons wide receiver dutifully spoke about the catchphrase that the members of the team have used to describe their close bond, about the strengths that they have derived from each other and the ways in which the players — and even the coaches — have worked to come together as a cohesive unit.
Too bad the question was about his actual brother, Philip Jones, who has been at his side throughout his career.
“Oh,” Jones said when the correction was made, and then he went on to talk about that relationship.
He certainly can be excused for the mistake. At this point, ready to face the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons are so closely knit that they are a family. Blood may be thicker than water, but the Falcons are thicker than blood. It’s by design.
Coach Dan Quinn said last year he saw the team as more of a neighborhood than a family, a group with vague familiarity in which folks give polite nods when passing by instead of deep hugs. It was best illustrated, he has said, when the Falcons cut one of their players late in 2015. On the way out of the building, he exchanged phone numbers with one of his now-former teammates.
Why didn’t they already have each other’s number? Quinn wondered about that.
This season he set out to change that. Through a series of activities and decisions that included everything from training with Navy SEALs to putting the players in matching T-shirts, Quinn wanted his group to become one.
The result: One win away from a title, which would be the first for the Falcons.
The thing that really brought them all together, though, was not football. It was ping pong.
Quinn put a table in the locker room at the start of the season and pretty soon it became the center point of the team, where new friendships were made and the players’ competitive spirits could be brought out.
“The lines to get on that table were strong, so it grew to two. Then it grew to three,” Quinn said of the addition of more tables. “It’s just been a fun thing for the guys to connect. It goes on all sides of the ball, all different groups competing against one another. We have a lot of fun with it.”
It also gave the players an opportunity to put their phones down in their spare time, even if just for a few minutes, and create a human bond.
“We’re not as connected as we could be, so that was just one more avenue for our team to see how close we could get,” Quinn said. “Is this a collegiate environment? I think it’s way deeper than that. This is a brotherhood that’s connected not just personally, but they’re also connected professionally.”
If it sounds pretty hokey, well, that’s because it is. And not everyone buys into the power of that little white plastic ball.
“I don’t think ping pong is the answer to it, but guys really do care about each other,” fullback Patrick DiMarco said. “That’s why we’re playing so well, playing so hard. It’s just the culture around here.”
Still, the Falcons took no chances. When they arrived in Houston last Sunday to get ready for the biggest game of their lives, they checked into their team hotel and found, in the hallway, a row of ping pong tables waiting for them.
“I don’t think we brought the actual ones [from the locker room], but we have three of them there,” Jones said. “We ain’t making anything up now. We’re just staying true to what we do.”