ATLANTA -- Jerick McKinnon had been planning this moment for a while.
With a host of family and friends from nearby Marietta, Georgia, in attendance to watch the Minnesota Vikings running back play against the team he grew up watching, McKinnon relished the opportunity to pay homage to his roots.
The Vikings opened up the second quarter with eight straight plays using their running backs. On the eighth, Case Keenum connected with McKinnon on a 2-yard pass and crossed into the corner of the end zone.
The running back broke out the Dirty Bird, the touchdown dance made popular during the Atlanta Falcons' 1998 Super Bowl season by running back Jamal Anderson. McKinnon had wanted to do it the last time Minnesota played in Atlanta but never reached the end zone.
“Dream come true,” McKinnon said. “It’s just the best thing to be back home, see a lot of friends and family. A lot of people [came] up to the game and supported me. I saw my high school coach before we went out onto the field.”
McKinnon remembers watching Anderson spark a movement with his end zone celebration. He was 6 years old the year Atlanta went to Super Bowl XXXIII and did his own version of the Dirty Bird “probably every Sunday” during his early years of backyard football.
McKinnon starred at Sprayberry High School in Marietta before going on to run Georgia Southern’s triple-option attack for the majority of his time as an Eagle. Having everything come full circle, complete with a touchdown for his family and friends, was a moment he’ll cherish.
“It was really special,” McKinnon said. “Just a blessing. It’s good to be back. It’s good to get the W. It was probably one of the biggest wins for me of the season.”
Between McKinnon and Latavius Murray, the Vikings' run game broke open against the Falcons for a combined 105 yards. McKinnon had nine rushes for 24 yards, while Murray totaled 76 yards on 16 carries, including a 30-yard rush to set up his teammate’s touchdown from the goal line.
On second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, McKinnon lined up in the slot and flew out to his right while tight end Kyle Rudolph ran inside, bringing his defender with him up the middle before he ran into linebacker LaRoy Reynolds. The result was McKinnon left wide open for a touchdown catch.
“Just a flat route, pick play,” he said. “We practiced it a thousand times. Case threw me a good ball, [I] was able to score, so it worked.”
Atlanta’s defenders looked puzzled upon seeing McKinnon score. Murray was confused at first about what his teammate was doing in the end zone.
“I didn’t know what he did until he came off to the sideline,” Murray said. “I asked him what he did. He said he did the Dirty Bird. I thought it was pretty funny.”
The Vikings averaged 3.4 yards per rush against an Atlanta defense that had given up 112.3 yards in the ground game in Weeks 10-12. McKinnon predicted a challenge against the speed of this unit and had his expectations met.
“It was definitely a grind,” he said. “We knew that coming into the game. That defense is top notch. They’ve got everybody back from last year, and you’ve seen what they did last year and this year. They run really well, fit really well. I think the game speaks for itself how much of a grind it was.”