Those of you who have followed my writing at past stops may know a little bit more about my background than some of you who have not. With that in mind, I wanted to use Father’s Day as an opportunity to reflect on both why I am passionate about college football and why I believe in what we do here at Dawgs Central.
On the eve of the 2019 season I tried to make sense of why UGA fans get excited for football season year after year. After all, the prior seasons had brought the following results…
- Terrence Edwards dropped pass versus Florida in 2002 to give UGA its only loss of the season and cost it a title shot
- A 2003 team full of talent lost 16-13 to a bad Florida team and 17-10 to eventual national champions LSU on a last minute pass, erasing the jubilation of a miracle 91-yard TD pass on a screen to Tyson Browning
- The 2004 Dawgs got revenge on the defending champs by putting a 45-16 woodshed job on Nick Saban’s #4 LSU Tigers in Athens (still maybe the loudest day I remember in Sanford Stadium). The Dawgs were up 24-0 before 20 minutes of game time had elapsed. This coronation lead to a 19-14 collapse the next week against a Tennessee team quarterbacked by true freshman Erick Ainge... Tennessee 19 - Georgia 14
- UGA’s 2005 team started off 7-0 behind Heisman Trophy candidate DJ Shockley. Against a bad Arkansas team, Shockley injures his knee and is forced to sit out for the Florida game… UF 14 - UGA 10 (Bonus points here for losing to Auburn 31-30 the next week on a 63-yard pass from Brandon Cox to Devon Aromoshadu on 4th-and-10)
- Georgia was the hottest team in the country the last month of the 2007 season. They didn’t play for a national championship for four reasons: 1) A 16-12 loss to South Carolina at home where Tony Wilson dropped a go-ahead TD pass on the goal line late. 2) UGA lost to Lane Kiffin’s only Tennessee team 35-14 in a game where they simply never got off of the bust. 3) Kentucky blew multiple chances to seal a win versus Tennessee that would have put Georgia in the SEC Championship over UT. The Wildcats had FG’s blocked and blew a late lead over the Vols, leading to a triple-overtime loss. 4) Kirk Herbstreit openly lobbied against Georgia playing for a national championship because he didn’t believe a team that didn’t win their division should be allowed to play for a title. He changed his tune by the time LSU and Alabama faced each other twice in 2011.
- The pre-season #1 Georgia Bulldogs started off 2008 looking like they deserved their rankings. Then they decided to breakout their black jerseys for a Top 5 primetime matchup versus Alabama, but their world was torn asunder in one half. The Tide went up 31-0 late in the second quarter. Georgia’s national title dreams were over.
- The 2012 SEC Championship loss at the buzzer on Murray’s tipped pass that was caught by Chris Conley. I saw grown men cry. It felt like Georgia would never be back in that position again.
- “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare”
- “The Treon Harris Game” ends in Florida winning 38-20 while rushing for 418 yards on 7 yards per carry. Florida attempted 6 passes in a blowout, and the loss kept a talented UGA team from having a chance at playing in the first CFP.
- 2016 UGA wasn’t winning any big prizes, but against undefeated Tennessee the Dawgs went up on a Jacob Eason bomb to Riley Ridley with 5 seconds left. An ill advised celebration penalty was followed by a poorly executed squib kick and Tennessee was left at midfield with one play left. Josh Dobbs hits Dejuan Jennings, and Georgia fans everywhere got nauseous
- 2nd & 26
- UGA is handling an Alabama offense that was one of the most explosive in SEC history during the 2018 SEC Championship. Georgia was getting so much pressure on Heisman candidate Tua Tagovailoa that he gets knocked out of the game and Jalen Hurts rolls in for a chance at redemption. Hurts gets his Disney movie ending, and Georgia gets another blown 4th quarter lead to the Tide.
Those are the major disappointments, but mixed in were so many what-ifs. By the time we were heading into the 2019 campaign, it was fair to ask if Georgia was cursed or doomed. You only get so many chances to win it all in college football. Georgia had wasted so many that it felt fair to wonder if they would ever get over that hump. If not, then it seemed worthwhile to examine what we were all doing here year after year.
Here’s part of what I wrote at that time…
“At some point this fall I’ll get on a plane and fly east for four and a half hours. I’ll leave the town where I live with the woman that I love and our dog that we love. I call that place home. I won’t fly far enough east to get to the town I grew up in where parents I love live down the street from the sister and nephew that I love. I call that place home too. I’ll land in a big city and drive about a hour, traffic permitting. I’ll see family, and I’ll see friends that have become family through so many shared experiences over the years. These are the people who double the joy of a win and halve the pain of a loss. I will tailgate in their company and we’ll meet new friends. Some of them may become family too one day. We will eat pimento cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, deviled eggs and many more Southern things. I will not feel alone.
I will walk into Sanford Stadium and head towards those same seats. People I haven’t seen for a year will nod in familiarity and smile. With some I’ll exchange a hug before the game. With the rest I’ll exchange hugs after touchdowns and sacks. They won’t ask where I’ve been because we don’t do that here. They’ll see the right color on my shirt and that will be all they need to know. 92,746 people will gather together in the year 2019 and agree completely on something, a substantial miracle. A single trumpeter will stand in the southwest corner of the upper deck, and belt out the first 14 notes of The Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation. I will swallow hard and tears will start to form in the corners of my eyes. A video will come on narrated by Larry Munson, and when I hear his voice I’ll think of the parents I love and how their own life choices gave me the gift of Georgia Football. I’ll cry a little harder. I will be in Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. I call that place home. There will be twenty-two men on 120 yards of perfect grass laid out below me. Eleven in that beautiful shade of bulldog red, and eleven more in a shade that no decent God-fearing person would ever wear, at least not on this day. These men will have a brown oblong sphere, a rubber bladder covered in cowhide and stitches. How and where they move it will control the sounds we make. In-between the snaps of the ball that start the movements of those twenty-two men, and the whistles of the officials that end each play, the normal limiting patterns of our minds will not exist. We will transcend.“
I went to my first college football game on a rainy night in September of 1996. Jim Donnan was in his first season as the head coach at Georgia, and the Dawgs were staring down their first 0-3 start since 1979 when Texas Tech came calling in a torrential downpour. The Red Raiders were lead by Heisman Trophy candidate Byron Hanspard, who churned out 214 yards on the ground that night. Georgia played lost on offense the entire game. Quarterback Mike Bobo had a fumble and an interception on UGA’s first two trips to the red-zone, and was booed much of the night. UGA started the 4th quarter down 6-0. It was a boring game until it wasn’t.
Early in the final period, a Bobo sneak gave UGA a 7-6 lead. Hanspard ripped off a 47-yard TD run less than a minute later, but UGA snuffed him out short of the goal line on the two-point conversion.
Down 12-7 with 3 minutes remaining, Georgia got the ball back 97 yards from the Red Raiders end zone. Bobo hit Hines Ward for a 28-yard gain to get UGA out of the shadow of its own goalpost, and all of a sudden the Dawgs had moved the ball to midfield. A half-full stadium started to gasp and groan and get loud. Some of the adults around me who had been casually chatting all game stood up and focused on the field, but the drive started to stall. A few quick incompletions later, and it was 4th-and-10. Georgia was all but done. One more play, and they’d be gone. Then it happened…
Juan Daniels broke open and Bobo hit him for a 30-yard gain and suddenly people were hugging and jumping and it was louder in Sanford Stadium than any half-empty coliseum has the right to be. Just a moment later, Bobo targeted Daniels in the back of the end-zone. Despite having a defensive back hanging all over him, Daniels went up and grabbed the ball for a TD. Miraculously, the Dawgs were up 13-7.
The next play is the one I remember. Donnan called a fake option end-around on the two-point conversion try. Hines Ward took the pitch while racing from his WR position, and headed to the far pylon. Ward had one defender to beat, and took off into the air at about the 3 yard-line. He did a flip into the end-zone and my Dad grabbed me and lifted me into the air. If I close my eyes, I can still see Ward being “flipped upside down” on that rainy September night.
Everyone was hugging, and they would hug again when Texas Tech’s tying FG attempt sailed wide at the buzzer. I was just seven years old on that night, but I fell in love with college football then and there. The Georgia teams of my youth weren’t that good, but I loved how the game brought all of my extended family together. My Dad and I had a ton of great times together traveling to football games. I was fascinated at that age by how time stops between snap and whistle, and I still am today.
My early-twenties didn’t go according to plan. A lot of bad things happened in my life, and I didn’t respond well to it. I withdrew from friends and family, and I struggled to find ways to relate to other people. I was in emotional pain and I didn’t know how to tell anyone that or what to do to fix it. I felt like I lived in one reality and everyone else in my life lived in a different one. That wasn’t true of course, but grief and depression play tricks on the mind and make many of us feel like our challenges in life are terminally unique.
For a few months of the year, I would participate in a group activity called college football. I would have contact with friends I hadn’t talked to in awhile. I found a sense of connection in the rituals of football season and the shared joy/misery of Saturday afternoons.
As I got older I learned how to ask for and accept help. I started to heal from the events that caused my life to take an unplanned detour. I sought to rebuild my relationship with my parents. I should mention here that my folks are great, and never did anything but love their children. I just didn’t know how to relate to them at that point in my life.
It was suggested to me that I try calling them every Sunday to say hello. Those early conversations were hard, and they were sometimes filled with awkward silence. When that silence would hit, my Dad and I almost always turned to college football. There lied a neutral ground where neither of us were short on opinions or words to say. We’d share the latest news from practice or talk about the latest commitments. Soon we were making plans to attend future games. Not long after that my Dad became a best friend.
Time moved on and I fell in love with my now wife. When I got married last August, my Dad stood beside me as my best man. Our Sunday evening phone calls have gone from an awkward 10-15 minutes of surface level chatter to hours long conversations about everything happening in our lives. I still live thousands of miles away from my parents, but we are closer than ever before.
College football is magical to me for this reason. It has the power to tear down barriers and bring people together. In one of the most divisive times in human history, this sport is a great unifier and a wonderful distraction. Fathers and sons are likely to disagree on a long list of issues. On a fall Saturday, they’re going to agree that the referee is blind and the good guys are on offense.
Of the 12 games listed above, I personally witnessed 9 of them. Some of you may have been in the stands for all of those gut wrenching losses. The demons were exorcised last January in Indianapolis, but that was never a given.
What brings us back to this sport year after year are all of the ways it brings old friends back into our lives and introduces new ones. We gather around the tailgates every fall for informal family reunions. Those who have passed feel a little bit closer when the band plays the fight song in the dying light of a September evening. It gives us a reason to gather with generations of our own family.
I wear the analyst hat much more than the fan hat these days. The internet, NIL and the transfer portal have drastically changed college football since Hines Ward “flipped upside down” on that rainy night in September of 1996. Still, the most important thing remains true…
22 men are on a field with a brown leather ball. What they do with that ball creates emotions that are strong and simple enough to bring us together in spite of ourselves. Those emotions can be enough to remind us there is a place where we belong. They can be enough to build a relationship on.
There’s something magical about that.