When the teams come out on the field for Sunday’s Super Bowl, on the sidelines supporting his team will be Jacob Tamme, the Atlanta Falcons’ starting tight end for the past two seasons who has been sidelined since Week 8 with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Tamme has been to the Super Bowl twice before, with the Indianapolis Colts, who lost to the New Orleans Saints, and the Denver Broncos, who lost to the Seattle Seahawks. Both times, his quarterback was the great Peyton Manning.
He appears to have found a home in Atlanta, catching 81 passes and four touchdowns in a season and a half.
But Tamme is not your average NFL veteran. The native of Danville, Kentucky who was a star at the University of Kentucky, is a diehard racing fan and his passion in addition to football is owning Thoroughbreds in partnership and eventually building a broodmare band and breeding his own horses.
Fate directed Tamme to horse racing at an early age, even if he didn’t know it at the time. After all, how can you not become a racing fan growing up on Count Fleet Circle?
Right now Tamme is having a ball as a partner, along with fellow NFL star Wes Welker, in the Hat Creek Racing partnership run by Gatewood Bell. One filly who has given him a big thrill is Con Te Partiro, who won the Bolton Landing Stakes at Saratoga last August and was second in the Juvenile Turf Sprint at Santa Anita on the Breeders’ Cup undercard.
“To be at Keeneland for her maiden win last year and see her smoke the field was an unbelievable experience for me and my family,” Tamme said. “When she walked into that winner’s circle, I saw a look in her eye that was something really special. It basically was saying, ‘Bring on eight more and let’s do it again.’ She was a competitor, and you could see it. Just to see that look in her eye was so cool. I just have a great deal of respect for the animals and for their talent. It makes it so much fun to be around them.
“Race day is so magical, just watching the horses run. They are so amazing to me. The breeding end is more the business end.”
Tamme remembers the day he was on a plane flying from Chicago to Lexington and found himself sitting next to someone who was wearing some sort of horse apparel. He told him how much he loved Thoroughbreds and racing, and asked him if he was involved in the industry. It turned out he was Mark Toothaker from Spendthrift Farm and they struck up a great friendship and are now partners on a few mares. Tamme also does a little bit of business with Spendthrift and he and his wife Allison are partners on a few broodmares with Carrie and Craig Brogden’s Machmer Hall.
“We’re starting our operation small in a way where I can continue to learn and develop my own expertise and knowledge of the industry and do it with people who have had a good deal of success and are just good people,” Tamme said.
With his injury giving him plenty of free time, Tamme has been able to spend a great deal of it reading up on breeding.
But racing and breeding will have to be put on hold until after Sunday.
“It is a little weird watching from the sidelines,” Tamme said. “As a player you always want to play, but I’ve mentally and emotionally known for quite a while now that I can’t, so I’m in a good place with all of that. I have a great group of guys and teammates who have packed me on their backs for the past several weeks and brought me this far, so it’s exciting.
“Usually, a couple of days a week I’m down there, doing part of my rehab in Kentucky and part at the Falcons’ facility. I work with our tight ends, showing them a few little things that I see. The great thing about our organization and coach (Dan) Quinn is it’s easy to stay connected because we have such a tight-knit group. Everybody’s really in it together and it stinks not to be able to be out there. But we have an atmosphere where it’s easy to know you’re still a part of it.”
Players like wide receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan can boost anyone’s confidence, and Tamme is convinced both will have great games on Sunday.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been around a lot of really great receivers, but Julio is amazing,” he said. “He is something special and is right there at the top of the list. And Matt has been awesome for me because I played my whole career with Peyton before going to Atlanta and it was hard not to feel like you were falling off a cliff at the quarterback position. But Matt is probably one of a handful of guys who can make you avoid that feeling, the way he prepares and the way he leads, and the talent he has. He brings the whole package to the quarterback position.”
After his injury, Tamme tweeted, “Unfortunately I had to have season-ending surgery this morning. Thank you to everyone who has been praying and sending support.”
A second tweet read, “I love our team so this situation brings great disappointment. But this is my first surgery in 9 years. I feel very blessed. #RiseUp
There is no doubt that Tamme has been missed. Julio Jones said that Tamme gives defenses fits because he’s like a wide receiver. He has great hands and runs great routes.
Falcons’ coach Dan Quinn said, “We’re bummed for him. “It’s a significant (loss). He’s been trying like hell to rehab and just not coming through like he wanted.”
It is always a boost for Thoroughbred racing when it crosses over into the world of major sports and entertainment, and it’s even more special when there is a connection to the Super Bowl, especially when the player has such a passion for the Sport of Kings and has made it an integral part of his life.
Tamme has two conference championship rings, but what he wants now is the big one; the coveted Super Bowl ring, which he twice was unable to obtain with the great Peyton Manning at the helm. If the Falcons go on and defeat the Patriots, no one will deserve to wear the ring more than Tamme, who has personified the image of the All-American athlete since his high school days, when he was a star in football, baseball, and basketball, winning four consecutive state championships in football, while compiling a 58-2 record. He was a first-team all-state selection by the Associated Press and the Louisville Courier-Journal, catching 46 passes for 797 yards, for a whopping 17.3 yard average per reception. He also was a finalist for the Kentucky “Mr. Football” Award given to the top player in high school football. Oh, yes, he also wound up marrying his high school sweetheart.
His accomplishments at the University of Kentucky and all the accolades and awards he has received are way too numerous to mention here, but it must be said that he did earn first-team All-SEC honors from both the Associated Press (unanimous decision) and coaches polls two years in a row and finished his career as Kentucky’s all-time top pass-catching tight end and second in the history of all SEC tight ends with 133 catches for 1,417 yards. On top of that, he was one of the top scholar-athletes in the country, completing his degree in integrated strategic communications in only three years and earned his MBA just before entering the NFL. Did anyone mention the quintessential All-American?
Last October 30 is a day Tamme won’t soon forget. That was the day he had to come to terms with the fact that he had played his last game of the year for the Falcons. Although the Falcons beat the Green Bay Packers that day 33-32 Tamme suffered a shoulder injury that at first was not believed to be all that serious. But when he was told he needed year-ending surgery he sought a second opinion, only to have the original diagnosis confirmed. Tamme’s year as the Falcons’ starting tight end was over.
The Falcons’ victory over the Packers upped their record to 5-3 and they were off and running, going 6-2 the rest of the year, winning their last four games to clinch the AFC South division. By then romping over the Seattle Seahawks and the Packers in the AFC Championship game, the Falcons are headed to the Super Bowl against one of the great dynasties in sports history, the New England Patriots, whose dynasty was born from horse racing, so to speak.
It was during the 2001 season when the team was floundering that coach Bill Belichick showed the team a replay of Tiznow winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic to instill in them the courage and determination of a champion and what it takes to win at the highest level. The Patriots went on a roll, eventually upsetting the powerful St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl, and they haven’t looked back since, playing in their seventh Super Bowl under Belichick.
Tamme would love nothing more than to go up against this juggernaut. He had firmly planted himself as one of quarterback Matt Ryan’s go-to receivers and a sturdy and dependable blocker on a team loaded with exceptional receivers. Earlier in the year, against the Oakland Raiders, he caught five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, and the week before his injury he caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ryan. His year was over, but he’ll be there cheering with his teammates from the sidelines.
Whatever happens, when the Super Bowl is over, Tamme can take comfort knowing he has racing and breeding to fall back on as he rehabs for next year.
Tamme’s family has owned a farm in Danville since 1910, but on the farm was every kind of animal except horses.
“I would go there in the summers during my childhood and we would eat at my grandfather’s house every Sunday all year long,” Tamme said. “We had different kinds of cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats at one time or another. But we never had horses. I was always intrigued by horses and the racing industry and remember going to Keeneland as a kid, and the place had this mystique about it. It was just a special experience to me going there as a child. It wasn’t something we did much, so it was special whenever we did get to go.
“As I grew older I started following the game more and more, especially being at college in Lexington. A funny story that happened a few years ago, I was getting therapy in the hallway at the Broncos training facility in Denver, and some people walked by me and I heard them say the word Kentucky. That kind of piqued my interest and I said, “What do you know about Kentucky?” It was Jimmy and Gatewood Bell, who had a connection with (star slot receiver) Wes Welker, and I believe with (general manager and former Hall of Fame quarterback) John Elway as well. Wes and I were and still are close friends and we got to talking about the horses. I also got to know Gatewood and learned about his Hat Creek Racing partnership. I joined in, and, man, this has been such a fantastic experience for me to learn more and more about the racing end and do it with someone who is so good at picking out fillies, as Gatewood is.
“I just love the sport, and really have an interest in breeding as well. That’s what I sit around and read all day. My wife and I are fortunate enough now to own part of that family farm, and it’s called Tamme Valley Farm. We have cattle on it now and we’re working on a few partnerships on broodmares, just trying to get with the right people.”
With his wife Allison’s interest in racing growing (Tamme said she would probably call him obsessed) and with a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter at the perfect age to be exposed to horses, he says he’s “having a blast.”
“If I had had this injury a few years ago it would have been exponentially tougher on me because you always want to play,” he said, “but with the kids I get to spend more time with them, and they already love being around the horses. It’s a great thing to be a small partner on the racing end and let them go watch them at the racetrack and have some broodmares as part of our farm operation. It really is special.”
Tamme remembers the day he became hooked on thoroughbred ownership for good. After he had met Gatewood Bell and spoke with Welker and decided to sign on with Hat Creek Racing, he was in the middle of off-season workouts in Denver when he and Welker packed into the tight end meeting room that fits no more than six or seven people comfortably to watch one of Hat Creek’s horses, Spanish Pipedream, run in a maiden race at Keeneland. They streamed the race and some 15 teammates jammed into the room to watch. And when Spanish Pipedream won impressively with everyone in the room cheering her on, Tamme knew he was in for good, even being a small part of it. Spanish Pipedream would go on to win two stakes at Turfway Park.
“I don’t even know that I have a desire to be a big owner one day, but I do have the desire to enjoy the game and enjoy the animals, and to have a breeding operation that’s part of our farm, even a small part.”
When Carrie Brogden of Machmer Hall heard from her husband Craig that Tamme had gotten hurt she texted him, saying, “Oh no!! so sorry, I hope you feel better.” She and Tamme had partnered up on an Unbridled’s Song mare he had bought. Carrie has always been crazy about Unbridled’s Song mares and wanted in.
“Carrie recalled, “Not five seconds after I texted him Jacob texted me back saying, ‘Yes, it (stinks) and have surgery tomorrow. HOW IS MY MARE?’ I was like, Ok, you have crossed over to the dark side. You are a horse addict.”
They now have three mares together. Two are pregnant and one was barren.
Toothaker recalled their first meeting. “Jacob is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” he said. “It was very much by chance that we wound up sitting by each other. As we got to talking he said one of his best Christmas gifts he had been given was his subscription to The Blood Horse. He is interested in having horses at his place once he retires so we talk a lot about that. We partnered up on some mares and we’re hoping to have some luck as well as some fun and hopefully make some money. Jacob is a great person to have in the game and I’m very lucky to be able to call him my friend.”
Tamme, who is thrilled to have a share in the young stallion Danza, is excited having one of the broodmares in foal to Into Mischief and two others that are being bred to the stallion this year, so he’ll be cheering for Into Mischief’s Kentucky Derby contender, dual grade I winner Practical Joke.
But he’s got other cheering to do first on Sunday. After that, he’d love nothing more than to return to Keeneland, where it all began, and show off his Super Bowl ring.