Like many die-hard college football fans, I began the countdown to this season the instant the clock ticked off its final seconds to end my team’s last game. My beloved Georgia Bulldogs finished the season strong, and they were receiving a lot of post-bowl love and mentions of “pre-season #1.” Over the ensuing months, I’ve driven pretty much everyone I know crazy with my boundless excitement and constant stream of chatter about off-season minutiae. I’m 35 years old, and I’ve been a Dawg fan since Herschel was running between the hedges, but I’ve never been as excited about an upcoming season as this year.
But over the last few weeks, when I haven’t been around anyone whose ear I can bend about the Bulldogs’ chances to win a national championship this year, or when I’m not surfing the seemingly endless list of sports websites and UGA blogs I read daily, I’ve had a feeling of emptiness and absence inside of me that is only made more stark by my excitement for the commencement of the season.
I watched Georgia demolish Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day this year from a broken easy-chair in my dad’s hospital room. He lay in his bed beside me, his breathing short and sharp from the COPD that had plagued him for the last ten years. After suffering two heart attacks, he had had open-heart surgery the previous month. He had already been sent home, but his recovery had not been what it should have, and so he was back in the hospital for the holidays.
My dad had been in and out of the hospital many times for problems related to his lung disease, and like many others with relatives who suffer from chronic illnesses, we had become used to the routine of ambulance trips and hospital stays. After all, even if he didn’t get better, he always got well enough to come home. Now, though, the heart attacks and the surgery that followed had frightened us just as much as his first breathing attacks had years before. His breathing problems, along with dementia which had recently worsened, made the rehabilitation that was necessary after surgery more difficult, indeed, almost impossible. Thus, the Sugar Bowl in a hospital room.
It wasn’t a terribly exciting game, and after making the requisite remarks about how Hawaii had no business playing in the game, my dad drifted off to sleep. I stayed and watched every minute, dampening my enthusiasm at the one-sided victory so as not to disturb him. After the game was over, I found a western or military movie or some other program that I don’t remember now but that I knew he could watch if he woke up, kissed him on the forehead, and left to return home to my family.
It was the last football game I ever watched with him.
I’ve always enjoyed watching football, but I didn’t really become passionate about it until Mark Richt was hired by the University of Georgia in 2001. To be completely honest, most of what I know about the rules of football I learned from five years of playing NCAA video games on an old X-box. But what I knew before then, I learned from my dad. When, as a kid, I would complain that a running back had only gotten a few yards on a carry, he would explain to me that if the back got four yards every time, the chains would keep moving, and that’s how games were won. He explained scoring and as much about positions and penalties as he knew.
I think he was just glad that I had an interest in it. I had shown some ability in sports early on, but I was one of those kids that the moment it was no longer fun, I didn’t want any part of it. By middle school, I had dropped out of the baseball and basketball programs in which I played. My interests turned more toward reading and writing, drawing comic books, and playing computer and role-playing games. I can imagine now how horrified my dad was, but he never discouraged me, never made me feel like what I enjoyed was worthless, even though I’m pretty sure that’s how he felt. I remember when I was very young, before elementary school, we used to sit side-by-side in his easy chair and watch Star Trek, then follow it up with Hee Haw. I loved both shows, but one evening while watching Star Trek, my dad asked me if I understood what was going on. I said yes, and nothing more was mentioned about it. Years later, I found out that he hated watching Star Trek, but he did it because he knew I liked it, and he wanted to spend time with me. Not everyone’s dad would do that.
As I got older, we grew further apart, as most kids and their parents do. I became convinced that half the time he didn’t really know what he was talking about, and now of course, I understand that I was the one who didn’t really know what I was talking about. We had almost nothing in common, and our conversations eventually almost always centered around my job as a teacher and, when he arrived, my own son.
With my renewed interest in football, however, we had found common ground once again. I watched as many Georgia games as I could with him each year, and always made sure to be with him for the annual match against Tennessee (he was from Tennessee, but never professed any love for the Vols). I got much more worked up than he did, but he would still show his excitement or disgust in low-key ways. He enjoyed my exhilaration after a victory, and he was the first one to give me the “you can’t win ‘em all” speech after a loss (my response was always, “I know. I just wanted to win this one.”).
The feeling of emptiness that I mentioned before hit me the first time that I realized that I wouldn’t be able to watch football with my dad this year. It’s been more than four months since he died, and I had been able to get through it pretty well just by living, by going about my everyday business. But even though this season promises to be, for good or ill, one for the ages for the Bulldogs, I know that no game I watch will feel right just because he won’t be there.
I have two sons now, a two-year-old, and a two-month-old whom my dad never met. My oldest’s first word was “kitty,” but his second word, I’m proud to say, was “Georgia.” My dad’s eyes would light up every time he heard him say it. I anticipate the coming years of little league and Pop Warner with them; I dread the almost certain separation that will come between us when they get into their teens. I dream, naturally, of one or both of them someday wearing the red and black, whether on the football team or another sports team, or even in the band. But one of the things I most look forward to is sharing my love for this sport and my team with them as they get older. I see a bright future ahead for the Dawgs, but bright or dim, I know that I’ll always enjoy watching them play, especially with my sons at my side.
But, damn, I’m sure going to miss my daddy this season.