(Author’s Note I: Originally, I had intended to publish this posting on Sunday, but, because I inadvertently touched off a small controversy in the meantime, I decided to delay this posting, out of fear that it would not be well received. I hope that series of minor misunderstandings will not detract from what follows, or from the spirit in which it was intended when it was written, prior to the recent tempest in a teapot.)
(Author’s Note II: Despite my general indifference toward the sport he was covering, Spencer Hall’s moving personal account of his journey with the U.S. World Cup team made a meaningful impression on me; for that reason, among many others, I noted at the time that Spencer’s piece was just plain great sportswriting. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I shortly thereafter attempted unsuccessfully to emulate his approach. With football season fast upon us, with Dawgographies on the way, and in obedience to the maxim "try, try again," I now take a second stab at it with a look back at my Georgia football fandom as it has developed over the decades. It is predictably lengthy, and it almost certainly does a disservice both to its subject and to its inspiration, but it is heartfelt, for whatever that might happen to be worth.)
"Man, is there going to be some property destroyed tonight!"
For my money, you can have your Stanford band, your down-going Frazier, and your Giants winning the pennant. They’re all playing second fiddle to Larry Munson. There never was a play-by-play man like Larry Munson, and, with all due respect to all the "hobnailed boot" aficionados among you, there never was a Munson call like the one from the 1980 World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
It wasn’t just the ecstatic wildness of the play call. (For crying out loud, the guy went into real detail about his broken chair, prompting a ceremonial presentation of a new chair to Larry some 15 years later, when the hated Gators came to Sanford Stadium to give new meaning to the word "beatdown.") It wasn’t just the absurd improbability of the play that inspired it. (A 93-yard touchdown pass on third and long from your own seven yard line with a minute to go? Seriously?) It was what that play meant.
The hobnailed boot play marked the moment at which the Bulldogs bought into Mark Richt’s system, setting the stage for the 2002 SEC championship, but that was for the future; at the time, all it did was keep an 8-4 season from becoming a 7-5 campaign. Kevin Butler’s historic field goal against Clemson in 1984 gave the Red and Black the win over the second-ranked team in the land, but the Athenians stumbled to a 7-4-1 finish down the stretch. Much of the luster was taken off of the 1985 upset of No. 1 Florida in Jacksonville by Georgia’s failure to win a game the rest of the way.
Buck Belue’s immortal throw to Lindsay Scott did more than win a game, though; it vaulted the Bulldogs into the thick of the national championship chase, earning them the top spot in the polls which they would not relinquish. The pass was so perfect that little else was required of Belue for the rest of the Athenians’ march to the final No. 1 ranking; the Georgia quarterback connected on one of his twelve passes for seven yards in the 1981 Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame, with his lone completion coming with two minutes left to play. Amp Arnold’s catch allowed the Red and Black to run out the clock.
I was twelve years old when the Bulldogs won the national championship, and, while I was not as fiercely devoted a fan then as I am today, mine is, and always was, a family full of Georgia fans. This was our win, by our team. At that age, I lacked all sense of historical perspective; I knew nothing of Wally Butts or Frank Sinkwich or Charley Trippi, much less of Alex Cunningham or Bob McWhorter or Herman Stegeman. Heck, I didn’t even fully appreciate everything that it had taken to make that season so special, as Georgia went 12-0 in an autumn in which the Red and Black won six games by a touchdown or less.
I knew all that I needed to know, though. I knew that, thanks to the fact that my mother was a co-worker of Christy Woerner’s, I had a genuine Scott Woerner Sugar Bowl practice jersey. (I still do.) I knew that Vince Dooley turned down Auburn’s overtures, that Herschel Walker had three years of eligibility remaining, and that Georgia was the undisputed No. 1 team in the nation. Life was good, and would remain so. Why wouldn’t it?
The next few seasons did little to disabuse me of such naive notions. Four losses in the next three years---two of them to the eventual national champion, all of them to teams that would finish in the final AP top four---made it plain that the Bulldogs were an elite team playing at the highest level. It had always been thus, and always thus would be. 1979, when Georgia went 6-5, might as well have been the Pleistocene Epoch for all the relevance it had in the early 1980s.
Slowly, though, the cracks appeared. Erk Russell left for Statesboro. The recruiting emphasis shifted, sometimes for the better in terms of the caliber of individual athletes but most often for the worse in terms of the quality of team play. Some losses could be explained away as aberrational; sure, the Bulldogs fell to South Carolina and Florida in 1984, and to Alabama in 1985, but those Gamecocks won ten games, and those Gators were stripped of their SEC championship for cheating, and Mike Shula led the Crimson Tide on the drive of his life on Labor Day night.
But what was up with those losses to Georgia Tech in 1984 and ‘85? How did David Treadwell lead Clemson to victories over us in 1986 and ‘87? When Vince turned down his alma mater, they went and hired Pat Dye; how was the former Bulldog player able to guide Auburn past Georgia and into position as the premiere team in the post-Bear Bryant SEC? Who was this Jan Kemp person? Who was this Charles Knapp fellow? Was Ray Goff really the best coach willing to take the job when Coach Dooley retired?
As the ‘80s began, though, you never could have told me how the ‘80s would end. We were on top of the world. At a time when a VCR was the size of a suitcase and cable television was a novel development that spared me from having to get up off the couch to adjust the rabbit-ear antenna to improve the reception of the UHF channels, my father recorded the 1981 Sugar Bowl on a VHS videocassette. Although I haven’t looked lately, I suspect it is still there on the shelf, ready at any moment to give us crude graphics, tearaway jerseys, and the image of a young Keith Jackson chuckling over the fact that "How ‘bout them ‘Dawgs!" is just fun to say.
It was fun to say then. It is fun to say now. Like the judge at the end of Blood Meridian, we fiddled and danced and swore that we would never die, somehow stupidly forgetting that all glory is fleeting and that there is a reason why the subtitle of Cormac McCarthy’s violent Western epic is The Evening Redness in the West. We know this, and we never had any excuse for our failure to know it, even then, even at twelve years old, but, when even the Gator fans acknowledge that "thirty years feels like sixteen, or even yesterday," we Bulldog fans may be forgiven, if only momentarily, for the way that "How ‘bout them ‘Dawgs!" has gotten caught in our collective throats for these last three decades. Moments like that, after all, are among those few passing instants that, years later, will not read better than they lived.
"It was a W."
We were in "The Pit," the recessed lounge area in the Joseph Henry Lumpkin School of Law. Although it has been refurbished since then, it was, at that time, an accidental museum of decaying detritus from the ‘70s containing ratty couches, shag carpet, and a console television. The good news was that the Bulldogs had been victorious the previous Saturday; the bad news was that Georgia had to come from behind to claim a one-point win over a Southern Miss club that saw its would-be game-winning field goal bounce off of the right upright in the final minute of play.
1990 was a wacky year of college football; we would not see its like again for another 17 seasons, until the LSU Tigers capped off a crazy campaign by becoming the first two-loss national champion crowned after the bowl games in Division I-A history. Preseason No. 1 Miami lost its opener to BYU, setting into motion a bizarre series of shakeups at the top that saw Virginia improbably ensconced as the nation’s top team for three weeks in October.
1990 also was, and yet remains, the worst season in the modern era of Georgia football. The Bulldogs’ 4-7 finish that fall marked their worst record since Vince Dooley was the quarterbacks coach of the Auburn Tigers; the Red and Black have not lost as many as seven games in any of the years since that debacle.
Ray Goff was in his second season at the helm of his alma mater’s football program, and already he appeared doomed. He took over in 1989 a team that had been to nine straight bowl games (a more impressive feat then than it is now) and had won at least seven games in every season since 1979. A 6-6 record cemented by a last-minute loss to Syracuse in a Peach Bowl that state champion Georgia Tech probably ought to have attended in the Bulldogs’ stead marked a bitter end to Coach Goff’s first campaign, but the Classic City Canines’ first non-winning season since 1977 was a mere prelude to the complete collapse of the ensuing year, when grades, injuries, and off-the-field antics would cost the ‘Dawgs 13 players (including half a dozen starters) and force them to field a young club that could not compete with the many tough teams on its schedule.
While "Operation Turnaround" in 1991 would see an Eric Zeier-led passing offense guide the Bulldogs to wins over six of the seven teams to have bested them the year before, the early departures of Andre Hastings and Garrison Hearst following a 1992 season in which Georgia went 10-2 yet still underachieved sent the Red and Black spiraling back down into mediocrity. The Athenians would win as many as ten games just once in the nine years beginning with 1993.
For now, though, even 8-4 appeared to be a pipe dream, but there was no telling that to the eternal optimists in the crowd. Although the early returns (featuring one-point triumphs over Southern Miss and winless Alabama, followed by a four-point victory over East Carolina) proved to be a chimera, the Bulldogs’ 3-1 start fueled the hopes of some among the faithful. Tony Waller, who currently serves as an assistant dean at the University of Illinois College of Law, took the upbeat view. "It was a W," he stated matter-of-factly for the benefit of all us naysayers in the Pit.
If I replied at all, it was with a sarcastic grunt. I wasn’t buying it. Yeah, it was a W, but it was the sort of W that serves as a harbinger of many, many L’s yet to come. A virtually uninterrupted decade of downcycle had begun in the Classic City. "It was a W" was the best even the most positive among us could muster, and the opportunity to utter even that tepid endorsement of a fortuitous outcome to an ugly game would present itself with increasing infrequency in the years to come. The magical national championship season of ten years before was a distant memory, wholly disconnected from a present to which it bore not the slightest resemblance. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I already would have believed it was a mirage, but it, unlike the dreams yet to come, at least had been reality once.
"What does this mean?"
Where technology is concerned, I have never been what is known as an "early adopter," and we were barely one presidential election cycle removed from the day that David Foster Wallace reviewed "Lost Highway" for Premiere and noted that the prevalence of cellular telephones was one of the film’s exquisite L.A. touches.
In short, I didn’t carry a cell phone in those days, so I had to borrow one. I forget from whom; much of that day is now---was then---a blur. I had come to Columbia with what I thought was a well-defined sense of expectations and I now know was an ill-advised sense of entitlement encouraged by a head coach who either overestimated the talent he had on hand or overestimated his ability to make the most of his opportunities, and probably both. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the sensation of watching your team, a division favorite and putative national title contender, beaten by a team that only the week before had snapped a 21-game losing streak.
I had remained calm and confident throughout the game, patiently awaiting the inevitable comeback that never came. We were in the topmost reaches of the upper deck---in retrospect, we were distressingly close to the edge of the stadium, over which we might have considered hurling ourselves, had the realization sunk in more quickly---and we were on our feet virtually the whole game. There was a fellow Georgia fan standing a couple of rows in front of my friends and me, one of the perpetually angry and unfailingly arrogant Bulldog fans who make us all look bad. Every smart remark he made to his companions incensed me as he put on display his lack of faith in our team’s greatness.
Beginning with Quincy Carter’s second interception, that guy turned to the fellow beside him and held up the number of fingers corresponding to the number of picks our signal caller had thrown. His message was clear; he wanted Carter benched. I thought the guy was an idiot. I looked forward to the second-half heroics that would erase the Bulldogs’ 14-10 deficit and allow Georgia to escape the Palmetto State with an epic and inspiring victory.
I hope one day to meet that guy face to face, because I owe that guy an apology. As the number of extended fingers climbed to three, then four, then, finally, five, I clung to my faith, never really accepting the certainty of our defeat until Derek Watson scored his third rushing touchdown of the day inside the final five minutes. I exited Williams-Brice Stadium in a daze, unable to process the reality of the loss and the consequences it carried.
At the time, I thought the Gamecock fans were obnoxious and classless in their taunts and jeers; looking back, though, they were entitled to their revelry, at least in the moment. While the rest of the season would prove that the result was no fluke---South Carolina was the better team that day and that year---the Garnet and Black faithful had real reason to believe at the time that they had scored a monumental upset. In truth, an underrated team had beaten an overrated one.
It remains the worst sports experience of my life. One of the friends with whom I attended that game was Jeff Rogers, who (in spite of the fact that he is today a college professor with two advanced degrees) has become so superstitious about the bad luck we seem to bring to the Bulldogs whenever they cross paths with the Gamecocks that he and I essentially have a tacit agreement to avoid one another entirely the week before the Georgia-South Carolina game. I have not been back to Williams-Brice Stadium since, and I will never darken the door of that arena again.
We left the stadium and made the sullen trek back to our car. I was in the passenger seat as we pulled out into a traffic jam that the local fans had transformed into a parade---for the second week in a row, the South Carolina faithful had torn down the goalposts---and I called my wife on someone else’s cell phone. She had watched the game on television, and she was having as much trouble as I was grasping a reality that had diverged so utterly from the fantasy we had mistaken for a prophecy.
She asked me, "What does this mean?"
All I knew to say was, "The season’s over."
It was. The Bulldogs finished their scheduled slate with a 7-4 record. The would-be national champions ended the autumn in the O’ahu Bowl after Jim Donnan already had been fired. The season’s formal finale occurred on Christmas Eve. Two days later, Mark Richt was hired as the new Georgia head football coach.
To top it all off, I have messed up my dadgum rotator cuff.
Don’t get me wrong; my family and I had a great vacation this summer. We swam, we shot off fireworks on Independence Day, we went out to eat at a hibachi steakhouse, my son Thomas and I went to a Rays game, we spent time at Wild Adventures, we saw a number of relatives on both sides of the family; all in all, we had a terrific time.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t entirely the getaway I had hoped it would be. I had computer problems at the beach for the second straight year (my A/C adapter stopped adapting on the night before we left), and I ended up needing on-line access more than usual on account of Damon Evans’s career-derailing escapades. Finally, upon our return home, I wrenched my shoulder while unloading our luggage, and, after waiting for a week and a half for the ache to go away, I finally saw my family doctor last Tuesday night and learned that my shoulder is swollen because I have aggravated my rotator cuff.
So, yeah, I got to watch my team win a national championship when I was twelve, but the world has turned a few times since then. The head coach under whom we won that national title will be rooting against the Bulldogs when they take on a division rival between the hedges this fall. The defensive coordinator under whom we won that national title is deceased, our efforts to get him into the College Football Hall of Fame have failed, and one of his coaching disciples is building a successful program for our in-state rival.
Our current head coach has to fend off questions about his job security. Our current president has managed the University in a manner that has been the subject of professional audits, full-length books, and national columns, all of them unflattering. Our best player has had his name come up in a far-ranging NCAA investigation. Our athletic director recently resigned in disgrace following an arrest under the most embarrassing circumstances imaginable.
In short, I am a 41-year-old with an inflamed rotator cuff who’s lived through two and a half years of having his fandom batter him about the head and neck. I allow for the possibility that all this may have affected my attitude and my outlook with respect to intercollegiate athletics. Uga VII is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself.
At the end of the movie "Stand by Me," the narrator types: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve." He then asks, rhetorically, whether anyone does. It seemed like a good line at the time, but it has not aged well since the mid-1980s. As a matter of fact, yeah, I had plenty of friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve; the friends I had in college and the friends I have now---the Venn diagram depicting those two categories contains a great deal of overlap, including but not limited to the likes of Jeff Rogers and Tony Waller, by the way---are very much like the friends I had when I was twelve in every positive particular.
Whether it is possible to experience as blissfully the joy of seeing your team succeed at the highest level later in life as one did when one was twelve, though, is an answer lying outside the ambit of my experience; in that respect, the last line of "Stand by Me" is not all that has not aged well since the mid-1980s. There have been successful seasons for the Bulldogs, to be sure, including a comparable glory run between 2002 and 2005, but what I enjoyed as a twelve-year-old in 1980 has not been replicated in the interim.
Far from feeling like yesterday, those memories increasingly are relegated to the realm of sepia-toned daguerreotypes imprinted upon heavy card stock, their images grown fuzzy about the edges as though filmed through a softening gauze like a Doris Day movie or a Barbara Walters special. They seem like something experienced by some other twelve-year-old, but not me. Events of 30 years ago are not, strictly speaking, ancient history, yet, in a realm populated by college students and defined by the impatience of a 24-hour news cycle and Twitter-driven instantaneous reactions, they might as well be.
Consider this: Herschel Walker is 48 years old, making him the same age now that Zeke Bratkowski was the day Walker made his Georgia debut. The Goal Line Stalker is as much an historical figure today as the Pitching Pole was three decades ago. The Bulldogs’ undefeated season in 1980 is only marginally more relevant to being a Georgia fan in 2010 than the Bulldogs’ undefeated season in 1946 was to being a Georgia fan when Herschel was in high school. We are where we are; where we were 30 years ago is interesting yet inconsequential, and where we were ten or even 20 years ago may be more pertinent than we would care to acknowledge.
So where are we today? Is it a W? What does this mean? Man, is there going to be some property destroyed tonight, or am I just going to take some painkillers and some anti-inflammatories in the hope of getting my shoulder to stop hurting?
To tell you the truth, I have no idea.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate; I have some idea. I know that Georgia is going to go through some growing pains on defense, that we are "trying to ward off ever-encroaching ‘hot seat’ chatter after back-to-back disappointments," that the "Pythagorean wins" statistic says the Bulldogs aren’t very good, and that the program in Athens is under fire.
Here’s something else I know, though: I will be in Sanford Stadium shortly before kickoff on September 4, standing in front of one of my season ticket seats with my seven-year-old son by my side, applauding, awaiting the arrival of the team as the players mill about in the tunnel, ready to burst forth from the run-through to the thunderous barking of 90,000 otherwise rational people, and, as we stand there in impatient anticipation, all the months of dourness and doubting will vanish briefly from my memory. The dark clouds whose silver linings I steadfastly refuse to see will part temporarily, allowing a shaft of sunlight to glint off of the red helmets and shine on the sheen of the silver britches, and, for an instant, I will revel in the fact that Georgia is undefeated and embrace fleetingly the hope that Georgia will remain so.
Despite the knowledge that all the Bulldogs’ flaws will become clear soon enough, I will look over at Thomas, and I will fervently hope that, 30 years from now, he will be writing about how the national championship Georgia won when he was seven compared to all the others he has seen our team win in the years since.
Orel Hershiser, to whom Tommy Lasorda affixed the nickname "Bulldog," used to say: "I deal with perfection to the point that it’s logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect." That is romantic nonsense, and the cynic in me knows so; if the past is any indication (and it is), the future will be as flawed as everything else that has come before it. The future will feature as many failures as the past, and those failures, too, will be history soon enough.
As the energy builds and the Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation is played by the soloist in the southwest corner of the upper deck and the scoreboard montage begins, though, I will forget all that I know about the disappointments of the past and the inevitable shortcomings of the future, and I will focus instead on the perfect present.
When the team runs onto the field and Sanford Stadium explodes in a cacophonous ovation, my son and I will yell, "How ‘bout them ‘Dawgs!" He will find it fun to say, and so will I. Thomas is knowledgeable enough not to need to ask such things, but, if he asks me, "What does this mean?", as his mother did a decade before, I will tell him: "The season’s beginning." I won’t have to tell him that boundless hope and limitless potential accompany the start of every autumn; he’ll know it already, so all we will have to do is cheer and take heart that maybe, just maybe, it will be a W.