TIFTON -- Before Michael Vick, the best known Atlanta Falcons quarterback was Steve Bartkowski.
The No. 1 overall draft pick in the 1975 NFL Draft, Bartkowski became an All-Pro in 1980 and 1981. He also led the Falcons to the franchise's first-ever playoff appearance in 1978, as well as the club's first-ever division title in 1980.
Currently a businessman in the Atlanta area, as well as a member of the Atlanta Falcons Board of Directors, Bartkowski was the special guest speaker Thursday night at the Tiftarea Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) spring banquet held at the First Baptist Church.
After the audience heard a testimony from Abraham Baldwin College pitcher Tim Harris, Bartkowski was introduced by Patti Veazey.
"I appreciate FCA, because it allows me an opportunity to brag on my best friend, the Lord Jesus Christ," Bartkowski said after being introduced. "I can't say enough good things about the FCA."
With the messy weather, the attendance was down at the event, a fact noticed by the former Falcon.
"I am somewhat glad that some people couldn't come out tonight, because of the weather. I am not good in front of big crowds, remember I played for the Atlanta Falcons," Bartkowski joked.
But, with the Falcons having been one game from the Super Bowl this past season, low attendance is not in the immediate future for the Atlanta squad.
"It is amazing. I don't know if you know this or not, but there are over 20,000 people on the waiting list for season tickets," Bartkowski said.
He added, "With the organization that owner Arthur Blank has assembled, I can safely assure you that the Atlanta Falcons will be on top for a good long while. I have never seen a business organization run so smoothly."
After praising the Falcons, Bartkowski went into his life's story.
As he grew up in Santa Clara, Calif., Bartkowski noted that his father was a great influence on him and talked of how his father would help him with his dreams of becoming a professional athlete.
"It is never too late or too early to buy into your child's dreams," stated Bartkowski.
Having over 100 scholarship offers out of high school, Bartkowski chose the University of California, "for one reason, it was close to home."
After a successful athletic career with the Cal Bears that saw him become an All-American in football, as well as baseball, Bartkowski had chances at pro careers in both sports.
However, he went on to note that his baseball career would have been meant beginning in Rookie League baseball with the Baltimore Orioles, which drafted him in the 19th round. That was compared to a $600,000 per year contract with the Falcons.
"I really wanted to be a baseball player, but the economics were not there for me," Bartkowski said.
After suffering injuries throughout his first three years with the Falcons, Bartkowski was not sure if he would have a job in the 1978 preseason.
A late exhibition game with Philadelphia where he lost his starting job, because of his performance, was the low point of Bartkowski's career.
However, that night after the Philadelphia game he remembered a conversation he had in 1975 with a man that had asked him, "did I know God's plan for my life?"
Remembering that conversation, Bartkowski began to feel better about himself. As he put it in his Tifton talk, "at the lowest point of my life, God picked me off of the floor."
"I have lived an incredibly charmed life ever since I got saved," Bartkowski said. "I played nine years after night (against Philadelphia) on basically one leg."
As he concluded his talk, Bartkowski said that he hoped organizations like FCA could continue to flourish.
"Get in line behind the men and women working with the FCA. They need folks to line up behind them and help anyway they can, either financially or physically," Bartkowski said.
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