FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Thomas Dimitroff looked out the window of his office at the Falcons practice facility and saw something real unusual for these parts: a steep hill covered in several inches of pristine powder.
Ohhhh, if only he had brought his snowboard to work.
"I was daydreaming about jamming down the slopes in Colorado," Dimitroff said. "But here I am, sitting in my office, with no snowboard in hand. It was surreal. I've never seen that hill with snow on it."
If he doesn't sound like the typical NFL general manager, well, he's not.
With his spiky hairdo and a beatnik-style wisp of hair on his chin, Dimitroff looks like he should answer to "dude" rather than "GM." He's been a vegetarian for two decades. He loves to bicycle and rock climb. He'll chat you up musically about everyone from the Grateful Dead to Eminem. On non-football weekends, he'll head to Atlanta's biggest park to kick around a hacky sack with his wife and young son.
Dimitroff is only 44 years old, but he could pass for at least a decade younger. And he's brought a lot of new ideas and swagger to a franchise that had been short on success, resulting in three straight winning seasons (the Falcons had never even had two in a row before he arrived in 2008) and the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
"I've always believed that everyone in this league gets pigeonholed one way or the other," Dimitroff told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "But my father taught me that a pigeon hole doesn't mean anything if it's full of crap."
He rebuilt the Falcons largely through the draft, the biggest pick of all his very first: quarterback Matt Ryan, taken No. 3 overall as a seeming successor to Michael Vick. Dimitroff filled out the roster with free agents and trades, signing Michael Turner to bulk up the ground attack and acquiring tight end Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs to give Ryan another target in the passing game.
While Dimitroff's football roots were forged by his old-school father, Thomas Sr., a longtime scout and coach, he definitely has a new-age take on player evaluation.
"I've always been fascinated with athleticism and movement," Dimitroff said. "We're looking for what I call 'urgent athleticism.' Not just a smooth, gliding, flowing athlete. I'm not evaluating ballet dancers. I'm evaluating football players. I want urgent athleticism. That's explosiveness. That's stopping and starting, the ability to redirect."
He's always tried to stay true to himself, though there have been a few concessions along the way to make sure he didn't get passed over for those who fit a more traditional mold.
Early in his career as an NFL scout, he turned up at the combine in Indianapolis with hair much longer than he wears it now. Former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, a longtime family friend, pretended he didn't recognize Dimitroff.
"I'm sitting in the stands and he comes up to me and says, 'Hi, Mr. Accorsi?' I said, 'Who are you?'" Accorsi recalled, chuckling at the memory. "I knew who he was, but I made him say, 'I'm Thomas Dimitroff Jr.' I told him, 'Cut your hair. Your dad wouldn't be too crazy about this.' So the next year, when he came up to me at the combine, he had cut his hair. Not a lot, but I told him that he looked OK."
Accorsi was actually the one who recommended Dimitroff when Atlanta owner Arthur Blank went looking for a new GM after the miserable 2007 season.
The Falcons were in dire straights. Vick, the franchise quarterback, had gone to prison for running a dogfighting ring. Bobby Petrino abandoned the team after coaching only 13 games. Those left behind went 4-12, looking very much like a franchise that would need years to rebuild.
Dimitroff was New England's director of college scouting at the time, though he lived in the liberal enclave of Boulder, Colo. With the Patriots in the midst of the playoffs, he was granted permission to interview with the Falcons, but only by a video link.
He didn't want to take any chances, so he spruced up what Blank would see on his end.
"Listen, man, I was fighting the stigma of being a Boulder, Colorado, guy," Dimitroff said. "I definitely staged my background. I put up this really nice map behind me. I made it look like I had this very established office. But I would like to say that I was wearing a full suit and shoes. I didn't just wear the shirt and jacket."
Imagine Dimitroff's surprise when Blank turned up on the screen wearing a sweat suit.
The co-founder of Home Depot wasn't looking for an image. He was looking for someone he trusted to hand the keys to his team.
"I remember when we were going over the list of candidates," Blank said, referring to his discussions with Accorsi. "Ernie said to me, 'There's this guy in New England. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and he's a typical Boulder guy. He's got long hair and he rides a bike and he eats a lot of weird food, all that kind of stuff.
"I said to Ernie, 'Those things have never mattered to me.' We built a company at Home Depot with folks that other people didn't want to hire because they were, quote, different."
Blank and Dimitroff hit it off. The Falcons had their new GM.
"Arthur looked at all the candidates and liked Thomas right away," Accorsi said. "It didn't take him long. He told me right away, 'This is the guy I want.'"
Dimitroff's father coached in the Canadian Football League and spent a decade scouting for the Cleveland Browns. He was an old-fashioned football man, and he tried to instill those values in his son.
"My dad was very, very regimented in his own way," Dimitroff said. "He was all about hard-nosed, tough football, never complaining, never being bigger than the team. That's how he expected me to carry myself in the home. There was very little rolling of the eyes or questioning authority in our house. I definitely have a much more liberal approach to life than my dad had."
Still, they had a lot more in common than people might think. And, when Thomas Sr. was battling the cancer that would eventually take his life in 1996, he encouraged his son to follow the path that felt most comfortable to him, whether it was spending a few months in Japan (where Thomas Jr. coached a company team for a few months) or working on the Browns ground crew (he did that, too, during a critical time when he was considering a career outside of football).
"Toward the end of my father's life, we had some very, very pointed and in-depth conversations about life and my career," Dimitroff said. "I remember him sharing how much he respected my stance on life. He told me to continue doing those things I believed in, stay true to my values and my approach."
It's sure working in Atlanta, even if he doesn't exactly fit the mold.
"He's got that swag. It was much different than anything I had ever seen, especially in a general manager," said cornerback Dunta Robinson, who signed with the Falcons before the season. "I was like, 'Man, this dude is cool.'"