Bob Whitlow, a member of the inaugural Atlanta Falcons team in 1966 and a Forsyth County resident, died on Friday, Oct. 23, at age 84, according to his daughter-in-law Kelly Knue Whitlow.
Whitlow spoke with Forsyth County News in January 2017 ahead of the Falcons playing Super Bowl LI, which was fitting as Whitlow, a center, wore No. 51 for the Falcons and it was the team’s 51st year of operation.
“When we first started, we played at (Atlanta-Fulton) County Stadium, and we sold out almost every game,” Whitlow said at the time. “So, there was a great interest. Football is really big down here, the whole South, it’s the number one sport, I think.”
As is almost always the case, the team struggled in its first year, though Whitlow said there were some bright spots.
“Although we had an expansion team, we knocked the St. Louis Cardinals out of the playoffs in the next to last game,” he said. “We only won three games, but that was more than any expansion team had won and we knocked them out of the playoffs.
“That’s got to be embarrassing for them.”
Whitlow, and Indiana native, was already an NFL veteran by the time he was with the Falcons, having played with Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions in the early-60s, and also spent a season for the Cleveland Browns before surgery forced him to retire. He played at the University of Arizona in college.
In his career, he was able to play at some of the most well-known stadiums in the country.
“I liked to play in Memorial Coliseum out in L.A.,” Whitlow said. “It seated about 95,000 and they’d draw a good crowd. The Rams weren’t a great team back then, but they had some good players and it was fun. We played in New York at Yankee Stadium; that was nice.”
He played in the league at the same time as Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas and played alongside the likes of Dick “Night Train” Lane, Joe Schmidt and Alex Karras.
One of the league’s most prolific head coaches was also a common foe.
“I was almost even with [NFL Hall of Fame Coach Vince] Lombardi, as far as when I was with the Lions,” Whitlow said. “We beat them as much as they beat us. We usually split every year.”
His competitive days did not end with football.
“I’m the only player that I know of that ever drove a race car,” he said. “I did it full-time for four years. Once you wreck it, you didn’t have a sponsor, so once you tear it up you say bye.
“I ran with Ron and Bob Keselowski. Bob Keselowski is the father of [former NASCAR champion] Brad Keselowski.”
Whitlow also has a background in track and field and had qualified for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome as a shot putter, but decided to attend football camp instead.
He was an assistant coach with nearby Northview High School over the last three years, and also previously coached college basketball.