The following is an excerpt from a book I’ve been writing about Georgia football from a fan’s perspective. I’ve been working on this project off and on for several years, and I hope to finish it in the near future. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the biggest Georgia fan I know:
Everyone who knows me is aware of how much I love Georgia football. I am something of a freak among friends and acquaintances because of my instant recall of hundreds of games and players. Name a year (in my lifetime) and I’ll tell you Georgia’s win-loss record, starting quarterback, bowl result, and memorable wins from that particular season. I’ve missed every event you can think of to watch games, and planned my entire life around football season. People call me "Bulldog Nation," and come to me with all sorts of questions and comments about UGA. My fandom is legendary, and if I keep it up for another forty years, I might be as big a Georgia fan as my grandfather.
Joel Benton, my mother’s father, has been following Georgia football for more than sixty-five years. As UGA’s head coach changed from Butts to Dooley to Richt, my grandfather lived and died with every game. He perused the box score in the morning newspaper the day after Fran Tarkenton’s touchdown pass beat Auburn to win an SEC title in 1959. He was listening when Richard Appleby turned an end-around into an eighty yard touchdown pass to Gene Washington against Florida in 1975. He bounced up and down in his chair right along with Larry Munson as Lindsay Scott streaked down the Gator Bowl sideline and into immortality in 1980. And he celebrated right along with me when the 2002 team broke a twenty year SEC title drought.
My grandfather loves to talk about Herschel Walker, though he maintains to this day that Herschel’s freshman season was his best. He recalls legends, like Jake Scott and Bill Stanfill. He has been following the Dawgs for so long, he listened to games called by the guy who came before Larry Munson (Ed Thelenius). He remembers each monumental win, and every humiliating loss. The losses stick with him longer, like the popcorn seed that you can’t seem to get out of your teeth, or the scab that just won’t completely heal. He remembers each upset loss to Vanderbilt, or Kentucky. He laments every disappointing performance versus Georgia Tech.
Many of my earliest memories of Georgia football involve games that I watched with my grandfather. He always watches, or listens to the games at his home in Commerce, which is about twenty miles from Athens. To this day I often watch games with him at the house he and my grandmother share. I always arrive early to sample the snacks that are waiting for me, and to listen to my grandfather’s review of the previous night’s high school football game.
He keeps to a strict sports schedule - Friday: Commerce High School football; Saturday: University of Georgia football; Sunday: Atlanta Falcons football. All football, all the time. He doesn’t follow other sports with any real passion. Basketball means nothing to him. He has often mentioned that he would rather watch paint dry than watch baseball. Hockey? Please! Even stock car racing, which most Southern men put above all else, holds little interest. In my grandfather’s sports hierarchy football is not only king, but also the entire royal family.
I’ve watched some of the greatest, and strangest, Bulldog victories of the last two decades with my grandfather: the 14-10 win over Auburn in 1992, when the Tigers ran out of time inside the Georgia one yard line; the miracle win over Georgia Tech in 1997; the glorious SEC Championship Game win over Arkansas in 2002. Even when I witness a big win elsewhere, and everyone around me is chugging beers, jumping up and down and cranking the music to ear-bleeding levels, the first thing I want to do is find a quiet place and give him a call to get his thoughts on the game.
I’ve sometimes been accused of taking a pessimistic view during Georgia games. If that is in fact the case, I come by it honestly. While I need a quarter or two to form my viewpoints, my grandfather is prepared with his right out of the gate. Say Georgia is playing Ole Miss, and the Rebels win the coin toss and elect to receive. On the first play from scrimmage, the Ole Miss quarterback completes an eleven yard pass for a first down. My grandfather will shake his head, sigh, and repeat his favorite mantra: "I don’t know; I just don’t know." Another example: Georgia is leading Vanderbilt 21-3 and the Commodores cross the fifty yard line. He will cross his arms, lean back in his chair and state: "they’re going in for a score" in a tone of voice usually reserved for reporting the death of a close relative.
There is a reason for his negative feelings. After so many years of pulling so hard for a team, you realize that more often than not, you will be disappointed in the end. Consider that during the nearly eighty years since my grandfather was born, only twelve Georgia football seasons have ended in SEC championships (1942, 1946, 1948, 1959, 1966, 1968, 1976, 1980-82, 2002, and 2005). While twelve SEC championships is definitely an impressive record, and many schools would be thrilled with half as many, it also means that all of the other seasons did not turn out as successfully as hoped. In addition, only two seasons (1942 and 1980) have culminated in officially recognized national titles. Since winning it all is always the ultimate goal, the end result is there have only been two seasons that didn’t leave fans saying "just wait until next year." While there have been many good seasons along the way (1941, 1971, 1983, 1992, 1997, 2003, 2007, and 2012 immediately come to mind) only a championship season can be remembered as a truly great one.
These days, I don’t make it to my grandparents’ house for as many games as I would like. Living in Athens makes getting out of town difficult on home gamedays. I also try to attend as many games as possible, and my grandfather has always shown little enthusiasm for a trip to the stadium. But he will be watching from home, no matter what kind of season the Dawgs are having. Even though he frequently threatens to skip the next game following a poor performance by the home team, I know better than to believe it. More often than not I’ll be there to watch too.
After all these years I’m still learning from him, and I want to absorb all I can. While I’ve always had tons of Georgia fans around me, no one has fanned the flames of my love for the Dawgs like him. Hopefully the day will come when we will have the opportunity to celebrate a national title together. I’ve been waiting my whole life for that chance.