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The Pain & The Why: Loving Georgia Football Regardless of the Scoreboard

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 08 CFP National Championship Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

The Pain

December 1, 2012 - Why do I invest emotion in this? That’s the question that popped in my head as I sat 9 rows up on the 10-yard line of the Georgia Dome. Chris Conley had just caught a tipped pass right in front of me on the last play of the SEC Championship Game. I remember that painful, searing realization and how it hit all of us in our section at once. This was, indeed, the end of the game. My body felt like a deflated balloon- a jarring and nauseating kind of emptiness. It wasn’t Conley’s fault. Receivers catch balls. They spend hours in the summer, when Athens is a sauna, in front of a JUGS machine. The point of all that time in the humidity is to have thought replaced by reflex and instinct. See ball, catch ball. It becomes innate.

I can still hear my Dad, standing on my right, “Oh no! The clock’s gonna run out!” It was as childish and pure and innocent as a 58 year-old man can sound. I couldn’t speak. Ironically, the first thing I saw was now UGA Head Coach Kirby Smart running onto the field and jumping up and down, slapping C.J. Mosley’s helmet over and over. Mosley had elevated to a height that a man his size has no business reaching. Just high enough to get a fingertip on Aaron Murray’s pass. That fingertip ended a million dreams. Many of us stood there staring- lingering awkwardly in wait for a moment that wasn’t coming. Thousands of those crimson and white shakers and the sounds of Ramma Jamma twisted the knife. The only sound I remember hearing above the band’s playing and the chanting of Alabama fans on the other side of the stadium was the sobs of a little boy. He couldn’t have been older than ten or twelve, and I envied his ability to so authentically show what he was feeling to the world as he gasped between his sobs.

After standing there in silence for long enough, we turned and left. Nobody had to say it was time to go. An unspoken understanding that viewing any more of the ongoing celebration would border on masochism registered in unison. No amount of any substance was capable of numbing that loss. Mark Richt deserved better. Aaron Murray deserved better. We all deserved better.

January 8, 2018 - When Tua Tagovailoa walked out to start the second half I informed the section that, yes, Tua playing could be bad news for us, and no, Nick Saban probably hasn’t lost his mind. The bizarre thing writing this now is that all I have to type into my screen is “T-u-a” and you know exactly who I’m talking about. At the time, I knew he was a heralded recruit, but who on Alabama’s team isn’t? Most of the fans around me in Mercedes-Benz Stadium that night were perplexed, attempting to pronounce Tagovailoa with thick Southern accents in inquisitive ways, as if his name ended in a question mark. “How could Saban be dumb enough to pull a starter who’s 26-2?” I knew better. I knew that Nick Saban might be the only man in college football so utterly focused on winning that, feelings be damned, he’d ruthlessly pull Jalen Hurts from a championship game after one bad half.

You know what happened next; the pushes and pulls of the game, the phantom offsides on Tyler Simmons’ blocked punt, the lucky 4th-down touchdown Bama pulled out of their asses, the missed Crimson Tide field-goal at the end of regulation, the beautiful overtime kick that made Nick Saban look at Rodrigo Blankenship like my dog looks at a steak, and the 16-yard sack that made it look like the Tide would be hard-pressed to force a second overtime... We were still celebrating the sack when it happened. De’vonta Smith went streaking to the corner of the end-zone and nobody followed him.

I muttered something dumb and obvious along the lines of “shit he’s open” a split-second before everyone else around me saw the play materializing. The sound of brief shrieks, the involuntary kind that get a little way out and are quickly muted when the sound’s producer remembers they’re in public, came next. This time we didn’t wait in shock. The eyes saw the pass being caught, the occipital lobe sent the information through the cerebral cortex, and the hippocampus informed the rest of my nervous system that this episode was indeed a familiar one. No need to linger in stupor, body. This moment won’t require any additional time to process. These feelings are all familiar, and you may go up the stairs and out into the cold Atlanta night now. Why do I invest emotion in this?

December 1, 2018 - I wasn’t there for last year’s heartbreak against Alabama. I watched from my house in Colorado, and was pleasantly, no that’s too tame of a word, ecstatically surprised with how that game was going from the moment J.R. Reed intercepted Tua with 10:43 to go in the first quarter. That moment was a glitch in the system. All season long Alabama had felt like an inevitability. Your team and the hopes you have for it are a skier who has wandered onto dangerous terrain. Alabama’s first effortless looking touchdown of a game was the loud crack in the snow that signals an avalanche has been triggered and is coming towards you with a path too wide and a pace too fast to do anything but bury you. But that crack never came. Georgia was outhitting, out executing, and out playing Alabama.

When Tua limped off with 11 minutes to go the system corrected itself, and Alabama started flying down the field with their usual efficiency. The rest of the game played out like a comically unrealistic Disney movie starring Jalen Hurts as a plot device to teach children about being a good teammate. The type of movie that any real sports fan would watch the ending of and find to be too unrealistic. But it did happen, and the moment that Jalen Hurts came on the field I knew defeat was imminent. You quickly tell yourself it isn’t and everything will be fine and Georgia is going to hold onto this lead, but deep down you know what’s coming.

How would it feel to win a game like this? I had that thought when Georgia led by 14 in the third quarter. I feared that indulging in that emotion prior to it becoming a reality would lead to some sort of punishment from the football Gods. Then Georgia lost, so I still don’t know. Instead I was left once again with the familiar emptiness of disappointment when I could have, and probably should have, been celebrating a win. The potential joy we had all briefly dreamed of tasting was replaced with an old familiar thought... Why do I invest emotion in this?

The Why

Transcend (v) - To go beyond the range or limits of

Sorry fellow Dawg Fans, I know this article has been hard to read to this point. I promise I’m not here to traumatize you, but I am here to ask why. Why do we fill ourselves with hope and dreams every year when experience has shown us that we’re likely to be heart broken when the end of the season comes. I’ve thought about it a lot this offseason. You see, I have these moments around conference media days every summer where my mind starts to wander to football. Those thoughts are usually accompanied by a surge of energy and an anticipatory feeling that’s so strong I feel certain I won’t possibly be able to make it all the way to Labor Day weekend without football. The seven-plus months worth of days already lived since last football season should serve as evidence that I can certainly wait, but something in me says it’s time over and over again. As that preseason excitement bounced through me over the last couple of months, I began to wonder what type of fool is excited to possibly go through another day like the three I outlined above.

Right after college there came a period in my life where I tried my damndest to avoid any semblance of a connection with other people. That time was preceded by a couple of years that were filled with deaths and losses. I no longer felt safe loving things in the world. I bounced around the country mostly rudderless, working odd jobs and taking up residency for short stints in more places than I can list. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back now I can see a clear pattern in those years. Every August, as football season approached, I would at least hold onto enough stability to have a dwelling with cable.

You see there is a certain magic that happens when the Georgia Bulldogs are playing football. Even in times of purposeful detachment, when those beautiful red helmets with the black power G came on my screen, I couldn’t help but open my arms to our community. I would fire off strings of text messages to family and friends I hadn’t talked to in months. I would scroll through posts on Twitter or blogs like this one and nod at the shared thoughts and feelings. I would use the word “we” instead of “I.” Whether I was in Dallas, Texas, or Dana Point, California, for those few hours a person who was desperately searching for a home, that place with feelings of familiarity and warmth, knew right where home was.

I didn’t make the trip to any UGA home games from 2012-2015. Being too broke to fly across the country was part of it, but more than anything I was afraid visiting Athens would conjure up ghosts and memories from the past that I preferred to leave buried. I returned to Athens for the Tennessee game in 2016. Yes, that was the Dobbs-to-Jennings Hail Mary game, but I have no interest in recounting to you how that felt. My parents have had the same season tickets since I was a teenager, but they sit with my Dad’s college roommate every time they come to a game. Because of this arrangement, I sat in their seats for every game played in Sanford Stadium from the age of 13 or 14 through college. When I walked down the aisle to that seat for the first time in 5 long years, smiles appeared and people started to say hello. The gentleman who’s sat in front of me for years jumped up in excitement. He gave me a hug, and said it was good to see me. It hit me that I’d shared hugs and high-fives with all those in arms length of those seats. I thought back to yelling with those same people when the team ran out in black against Auburn in 2007, hugging them as we all laughed in awe when we blew out LSU in 2004, and jumping up and down in the rain when AJ Green blocked a field-goal to save our you-know-whats against Arizona St in 2008. Then the band played The Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation and my eyes brimmed with tears. The game kicked off, and I stopped thinking about myself.

Everyone remembers the end of that game, but there was a play that afternoon that I remember better than any other. With a little over seven minutes left in the first-half, a wide open Jalen Hurd caught a pass around the five yard line and started to strut. He didn’t see Deandre Baker, but we did. Those few seconds felt like an eternity. There was the sound of 92,746 people gasping as we noticed that Hurd, mid-celebratory strut, didn’t see Baker coming from his left. Then came a brief moment of pure anticipatory silence and angst as we waited to see if Baker would reach Hurd before Hurd reached the end-zone. A huge sound- BOOOOM!!!!! Baker delivered such a vicious hit that the ball popped out of Hurd’s arms, producing an even louder noise from all of us. When Aaron Davis scooped it up in the end-zone, the noise reached its peak.

As that play unfolded in Sanford Stadium all 92,746 of us who were there, and millions more at home, functioned as one sound with one emotion. Countless of other plays have created the same dynamic over the years. There is no thought in those moments. There is only a reaction to the movements of 22 men and the ball they play with. We levitate in joy or sink in agony, but either way we exist for that time in a way that’s outside of the one we experience in our everyday lives.

So why do I invest emotion in this thing called Georgia Football?

Georgia might lose to Alabama again this year. They also might not play Alabama. There’s a larger than small chance the University of Georgia will win a national title this year. If they do, our hearts will flutter and we’ll levitate in a way that we never knew possible. Because of the pain we’ve shared we’ll appreciate that feeling in a deeper way than any Alabama fan possibly could. Regardless of the result, it will be worth the risk of heartbreak. A lesson I learned the hard way will undoubtedly come into play. If the Dawgs do win a national title, our joy will be doubled because it is shared between us. If the 2019 campaign ends in heartbreak our pains will be halved, because they too are shared between us.

At some point this fall I’ll get on a plane and fly east for four and a half hours. I’ll leave the town where I live with the woman that I love and our dog that we love. I call that place home. I won’t fly far enough east to get to the town I grew up in where parents I love live down the street from the sister and nephew that I love. I call that place home too. I’ll land in a big city and drive about a hour, traffic permitting. I’ll see family, and I’ll see friends that have become family through so many shared experiences over the years. These are the people who double the joy of a win and halve the pain of a loss. I will tailgate in their company and we’ll meet new friends. Some of them may become family too one day. We will eat pimento cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, deviled eggs and many more Southern things. I will not feel alone.

I will walk into Sanford Stadium and head towards those same seats. People I haven’t seen for a year will nod in familiarity and smile. With some I’ll exchange a hug before the game. With the rest I’ll exchange hugs after touchdowns and sacks. They won’t ask where I’ve been because we don’t do that here. They’ll see the right color on my shirt and that will be all they need to know. 92,746 people will gather together in the year 2019 and agree completely on something, a substantial miracle. A single trumpeter will stand in the southwest corner of the upper deck, and belt out the first 14 notes of The Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation. I will swallow hard and tears will start to form in the corners of my eyes. A video will come on narrated by Larry Munson, and when I hear his voice I’ll think of the parents I love and how their own life choices gave me the gift of Georgia Football. I’ll cry a little harder. I will be in Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. I call that place home. There will be twenty-two men on 120 yards of perfect grass laid out below me. Eleven in that beautiful shade of bulldog red, and eleven more in a shade that no decent God-fearing person would ever wear, at least not on this day. These men will have a brown oblong sphere, a rubber bladder covered in cowhide and stitches. How and where they move it will control the sounds we make. In-between the snaps of the ball that start the movements of those twenty-two men, and the whistles of the officials that end each play, the normal limiting patterns of our minds will not exist. We will transcend.

Wherever you are when the University of Georgia takes the field in Nashville’s West End tomorrow night, I hope you will too.

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