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Reckoning with Georgia-Florida

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More often than not, things go wrong in Jacksonville.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The University of Georgia football team has only beat the University of Florida football team once. At least by my count.

Five times I’ve been in the stadium when the teams have played. I’ve watched Georgia win once.

I’m not alone here. There are others with more ticket stubs and lesser winning percentages. Trips to Jacksonville are rarely joyful for the Red and Black.

My first experience with the game came in 2002. I don’t remember it well. I was seven and my family had moved to Brunswick that summer. Close enough to Jacksonville and far enough away from Athens for Georgia-Florida to be the only game we could reach. I remember being told I wasn’t going to go. I was too young, or maybe there weren’t enough tickets, or maybe my family was just sick of me. I don’t know. I knew I didn’t appreciate being left behind. Despite my protests, my Mom and I stayed and watched from home.

The box score fills in what I don’t remember . UGA lost 20-13 and let Rex Grossman of all people throw for 339 yards. Rex’s big day meant that Georgia team’s worst. It was their only loss that season. The only person having a worse Saturday than David Greene and company was my Dad.

A combination of swaying with the ill-stabilized temporary bleachers installed for the game and the relentless smell of coffee grounds from the nearby Maxwell House factory brought my Dad to intense nausea. He exited the stadium early to go heave on the sidewalk. An officer from Jacksonville P.D. looked on, shaking his head, my Dad in his mind just one more of both the young and old who would choose to test the limits of their liver that weekend. My Dad blamed a combination of coffee and swaying for the exit. The cop assumed a combination of something stronger. They were both wrong. Weeks later my Dad would have his gallbladder removed.

The next year I had finally shown the kind of infallible maturity that develops between age 7 and age 8 and I earned permission to go the game. Either that or my parents just felt bad about not taking me the year before . My Dad and I drove the hour straight down I-95 to Jacksonville. We didn’t have tickets to the game. Not yet anyway. My Dad felt confident in the friendly folks holding signs that read ‘I need tickets.’. There was no doubt in his mind that we would find seats that were good. Not just good, but cheap. I backed him 100 percent. My Mom thought we were idiots.

We found tickets. The seats must have been good. Cheap too. My dad wasted no time exchanging cash with a scalper. The plan was going perfectly. We walked in on the Georgia side and began our way toward the reward for our cunning. Our perseverance. Our brilliance in the resale market. The search began for our section.

We waded through a sea of red, into a haze of purple as red mixed with blue, and suddenly we found ourselves enveloped by blue and orange. We stopped. I watched my father glance from the ticket, to the section number hanging above the aisle, back to the ticket, back to the section number. His face showing a raging internal war, with idea after idea becoming nothing but a casualty. He sighed. He took me by the hand. We walked through the entryway and down the steps. To our right: The Florida band. To our left: two open seats in the center of the Florida student section.

My Dad says that to their credit, the students of the Sunshine State’s flagship university were mostly accommodating. He also says that without the presence of an eight-year-old close by that his earthly time may have run out somewhere around midway through the third quarter. My lasting memories of the game itself are the Florida band incessantly playing the theme from “Jaws” (Alligators! Sharks! What’s the difference?), a late field goal that, once again, broke Georgia’s heart, and my Dad and I, two red dots with a great view of the field and the worst seats in the stadium.

The loss didn’t sit well with me. On the way out of the stadium, a Florida fan stumbled as I passed by. I may have stuck my leg out. It’s possible my maturity wasn’t quite as infallible as I said.

The night didn’t improve from there. The catharsis was canceled out by a trip home that took twice as long as necessary thanks to a few wrong turns that led us to the less scenic parts of anti-scenic Jacksonville. By the time we were home, my Dad swore that we were never going back to that game again.

Naturally, we were in our seats an hour before kickoff next October. This time,we made sure we were on on the Georgia side of the stadium.

We were in the nosebleeds, a necessary sacrifice to be surrounded by red, but even from the highest point in the stadium we could tell something was different on the field. Not only was Georgia the better team, but the demons that had plagued the Dawgs each visit to Jacksonville missed their alarms. They never showed up. Either that or Leonard Pope just outran all of them. The big tight end from Americus found the end zone twice in the first quarter on two long pass plays and the Gators never caught up.

At the end of the game, we watched David Pollack and Thomas Brown jump into the student section where we had sat the year before, now full of red shirts and shakers, and we celebrated a suddenly half-empty stadium and a 31-24 win. And God, did we need to celebrate.

As Georgia fans, we needed to celebrate the first win over Florida since 1997. It had been far too long and far too frustrating. As ourselves, we needed to celebrate anything we could.

Almost a year before Leonard Pope had the game of his career, my Mom had been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. It was rare. It was fast. It was efficient. We left our home in Brunswick that morning at her insistence. She laid in her adjustable bed provided by the Golden Isles Hospice and made sure we didn’t stay inside that Saturday. My grandparents were there to take care of her for the evening and she knew how much the game meant to us. To me.

When we got home that night she had somehow stayed awake. Or maybe I woke her up. I’m not entirely sure. I do know that I ran in and gave her about as big a hug as you could give someone lying in a bed at a 30-degree angle. Even if I did wake her up, I know the hug was welcome. She didn’t look much like herself by this point. It didn’t matter much to me. I was nine and she was my Mom. Still, More than once I had overheard her remark that she thought her appearance had made me afraid of her.

None of that crossed my mind that night.

“Mom! We won!” I half-squeaked, half-yelled as I ran into her room.

She smiled and told me how happy that made her. Our whole family went to bed that night smiling. The next day was Halloween. The day after, she was gone.

I always liked the idea that she waited for my family to have one more truly happy moment before she died. We got that with some help from Leonard Pope.

Mom’s death meant our time in Brunswick had come to an end. My Dad and I moved to Gainesville, Georgia, just a short drive from Athens. The trips to the Cocktail Party were over — but now we could get to every Georgia home game we wanted.

Nine years later, my Dad found himself back in Coastal Georgia and I found myself in college. Against our better judgment, we returned to Jacksonville that fall to watch -- from the red side of the stadium, of course -- 11th-ranked UGA fail to defend the same off-tackle run play over and over again for 60 miserable minutes.A Gator team quarterbacked by Treon freaking Harris only needed to throw six times en route to a 38-20 win for unranked Florida.

The next year we dragged ourselves to Jacksonville once again to watch newly instituted Georgia quarterback Faton Bauta make an unanticipated first career start for the Dawgs. Bauta entered the starting role with a reputation for excelling as a running quarterback, a dynamic option that Georgia offenses had lacked since D.J. Shockley. In true “Georgia comes to Jacksonville and loses their damn minds for whatever ungodly reason” fashion, Bauta ran one read option the whole game before throwing 33 times, completing 15 to his own team and four to the other. Georgia lost 27-3. Everyone involved was fired.

That was enough to keep my Dad away the next year. UGA had finally broken him.

I went anyway. We lost. I made plans to avoid Jacksonville the next year.

We all know what happened the following year with my jinx and I hundreds of miles away. My Dad stayed home too. He recorded the game though. I caught him rewatching it a couple of times. To be honest, I did the same.

We planned to make our return to Jacksonville this year. We weren’t going to miss Georgia jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first seven minutes again. Like most things involving this damned game, our plan hit a bump in the road a couple of weeks ago.

I got two calls from my Dad on a Saturday as I watched Florida beat a talented LSU team in The Swamp. The first call was to tell me that he had a stroke. A mini one. One that doesn’t have nearly the same effect as a full-blown incident, but a stroke nonetheless. The second call was to talk about how LSU choking had just made Georgia-Florida ticket prices go up.

You’d be crazy to think something as little as a stroke would keep him from this game. His record at this game is worse than mine. He even watched Steve Spurrier hang “half a hundred” on UGA in Sanford Stadium back in 1995. He’s still going back.

We’re both nervous as hell that this Georgia team will fall flat on its face in the biggest Cocktail Party in years. But we’re still going back. Neither of us is sure how many more chances we’ll get to go this game. We have to go back.

I hate this game. It’s always ugly. It’s never exciting. It’s 60 prolonged minutes of misery hiding behind fight songs and clashing colors. But I’m going back this year. And I’ll probably go back as many times as I can. Each year in Jacksonville there’s a tangible connection to my Mom. And to my Dad. And to so many parts of my past. And to so many woebegone, negative, plain no good moments. But expectations of heartbreak make the joyful moments stand out that much more.

Each year I expect Georgia to lose. For something to go awry. But each year there’s the hope that you’ll get to hug someone as hard as you can to celebrate a win that’s been a long time coming. Each year there’s a chance that someone like Leonard Pope has the game of their life. Each year there’s a chance that the Dawgs outrun the demons.