Did you know I committed to going to UGA without visiting campus? The sad part is that it’s mostly because I was a dumb kid with very little direction or drive. I knew I could go to college, and that everyone said I should, so I shrugged, and did. As a West Georgian, the most natural options were West Georgia and Auburn. My parents vetoed UWG - rightfully so, in hindsight - because they wanted me to live on my own. My only criteria were A) a football school that had B) a good band, so Auburn seemed as good as anywhere. That option only lasted up until I took a campus visit to the loveliest village near Opelika. Carrollton, Georgia has a lot of strengths as a city, but teenage culture isn’t at the top of that particular list. I floated through high school, never fully engaging with my parent’s divorce, and thought the sadness I never dealt with was probably just because of the small town I lived in. In my 48 hours there, Auburn felt like more of the same. It's a Small Town in almost any sense of the title you can think of, and I wanted - when I wanted anything - to be somewhere where Things Happened.
Having eliminated the warteagleplainsmen from consideration, I - by process of elimination - set my sights on UGA. It was in-state, I qualified for Hope, and they had what seemed to be, from my cursory searches of YouTube, a pretty good marching band. I took the SAT for the first time shockingly late in the winter of my Senior year, scored well enough to apply, and was accepted that March. (I know this is appalling to pretty much every current educator, and any parent of a prospective student, and I apologize.) I stepped foot on the UGA campus for the first time as an “adult” in April of my senior year for Redcoat Band auditions. A month later, being accepted into the RCB was one of the few things that sparked me up out of the fugue state that was my final year of high school.
I remember the morning I left Carrollton for UGA very clearly. My girlfriend and I numbly murmured about calling as soon as I got to Creswell that afternoon, my dad gave me one of his crushing bear hugs, and I got in my 1997 Explorer, parked in our side yard under the old magnolia tree, and drove away. I cried all the way down the interstate, and only stopped sniffling when I got lost in a state park somewhere between I-20 and Athens. Sometimes, life is like that, I think. The miles roll by and you have it set to cruise, and you cry and listen to sad songs, and you don’t come back to yourself until, with a start, you realize you’ve gotten yourself hopelessly lost.
I showed up to uniform fitting at the band room the next day, and was, from the start, thoroughly intimidated by the Sousaphone section I was to join. They were loud, they cursed like sailors, and they generally projected a strong I-don’t-give-a-s*** energy at all times. In hindsight, I realize that some of this was fueled by college insecurities, but it’s hard for me to be more then gently critical because for all their bluster, the only thing the UGA Sousaphones ever did to me was love me. Sure, that love was filtered through their particular love language of obscenity and authority-aversion, and sure some of those guys and gals convinced me in the next 5 years to some spectacularly stupid things. But never, in all my time around them, has a single Sousaphone done anything but accept me for who I am.
This weekend, the Georgia Bulldogs lost a game in a fashion so farcical that it passes out one side of parody and lands back in the realm of tragically predictable. Many people have said far more cogent things about this game than I am capable of articulating right now. So let me tell you another story.
In my last semester of grad school at UGA, I slipped back into the comfortable, unfeeling numbness of my high school years like it was a pair of well broken in jeans. My fiance, also on the verge of graduating, told me late that spring semester that she would need to move to go to doctoral school. I didn’t want to leave Athens, but I felt like a child saying it. I couldn’t imagine life without her in it anyway, so I agreed. We moved that July to Knoxville, Tennessee.
From the start, it wasn’t a comfortable fit for either of us. There are two years of stories there, locked up in the sweet air of Eastern Tennessee, but they aren’t mine alone to tell, and this isn’t the place to tell them. I gained weight, I never left the house, and my mind, like a limb that has fallen asleep, put it on cruise control. So I found myself, on MLK weekend 2015, sitting in a friend’s guest bedroom in Athens. My wife was curled around me, a little bit tipsy, and bawling. “I want to come back,” is all I remember her saying.
So we moved back. I eventually found a great gig teaching up in Jackson County, and she got a job at UGA. Athens -- in all it’s flawed, eccentric majesty -- welcomed us back. And here I am, writing this in my classroom before I have to run to Redcoat practice.
This weekend, the Georgia Bulldogs lost a game. And that girl I kissed 13 years ago among the magnolia leaves followed me to UGA. And those foul-mouthed Sousaphone players that yelled at me the first morning of band camp stood as my groomsmen when I married her. And the Redcoats I lived with for the next half-decade made our reception the kind of bacchanalia that would do any of the Georgia people up in St. Simons proud.
I walked out of Sanford last Saturday afternoon and breathed in deep the late-coming fall. I slipped into the stream of people, pulled toward my car down River Road inexorably onward by a current of red and black. Some of them grumbled, and some of them were upset, but there were smiles in the crowd too. Grandparents and their children, and those children’s children.Old lovers and new ones, families, townies, fratties, and t-shirt warriors. And the breeze ran up off the Oconee River and ruffled through the sweat in our hair and the oak leaves above us without judgement for who we were. I thought about legacies, destinies, curses, and dynasties. And then I remembered what the Redcoats say at the end of each game. “Once a Dawg, always a Dawg, how sweet it is.” And I breathed in the deep sweetness of one of those rare, golden October Saturdays.
So, what do Advanced Stats tell us about being a UGA fan?
Not a damn thing that matters.