FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. Perhaps Falcons long snapper Joe Zelenka put it best when asked about how the team felt when coach Mike Smith had to get off the teams charter plane in Charlotte and head to the hospital after falling ill following Sunday's win over Carolina.
You never want to leave a man behind, Zelenka said, citing the military credo, especially your general.
Zelenka played for all five of the seasons in Jacksonville this weeks opponent when Smith coached there prior to becoming the Falcons coach in 2008. Zelenka is now in his third season in Atlanta, giving him eight in total playing with Smith on staff.
I dont know how anybody else felt, but when I found out, I offered him up a prayer and just started thinking about him and his daughter and his wife back here not really knowing, Zelenka said. And I know thats hard when youre in a different city and you have to have things done. Its hard on the family, so I know (Smiths wife) Julie was probably going through a lot back here and that was tough.
On Tuesday, players had their first chance to react to the news of their coachs hospitalization. While Smith has said he does not want to divulge details of the matter, media reports say that doctors ruled out that Smith had a heart attack.
The coach returned to the teams practice facility on Monday and conducted meetings and Monday nights walk-through. On Tuesday, the routine was pretty much back to normal for a short week with a game at the Georgia Dome on Thursday.
After practice, Smith said he felt great.
Its out on the practice field, coaching football, he said.
Quarterback Matt Ryan said the incident was scary.
Obviously, before anything were all people, Ryan said. You develop relationships and you get to know somebody and you really care about them and, so, obviously, in that situation youre nervous. You just are. You dont like for those kinds of things to happen, but it was reassuring when we finally got back and they let us know they had spoken to Smitty and he was in good spirits and was resting and feeling pretty good and was going to be able to come back.
That kind of took the edge off for everybody.
Like Zelenka, linebacker Mike Peterson played five seasons in Jacksonville under Smith and now three in Atlanta. Peterson called it a shocker.
Smitty, he kind of wants us to stay away from that, so I dont really want to comment too much, Peterson said. Send your prayers up for him and hope everythings for the best. He kind of wants us to stay away from it, so you gotta respect that.
Smith talked about being embarrassed to talk about the subject on Monday. At that point, he said, he was feeling better and confirmed that tests were negative.
Peterson said he understood how Smith, a private man who avoids the spotlight, felt.
Oh, yeah, and I knew he was a little embarrassed because I know the type of guy he is, Peterson said. I know hes embarrassed. You gotta respect. He doesnt want to talk on it too much, he dont want us to talk on it too much. So thats exactly what Im going to do.
Ryan said that seeing Smith back in the practice facility on Monday put the team at ease. Smith is no softie with his players, but he is popular with them for his professionalism, his success and the respect with which he treats them.
Seeing him yesterday, he looked good yesterday, Ryan said. Hes back to work. He wants us not to talk about it and thats just kind of the way he is. Thats why we love him.
Zelenka said seeing Smith at the facility removed uncertainty from the players minds. He also said he doesnt think the situation would affect the teams preparation for Thursday.
Hes The Silver Fox, Zelenka said, a reference to Smiths hair. Hes going to keep rolling no matter what. So, yeah, I think we were all like, Oh, my gosh.
Hes back. Hes feeling good.