My grandfather was the youngest of six kids. His father died when he was just five years old. His Mom was left to fend for all of them, leaving the family destitute. His high-school football coach in tiny Greenwood, South Carolina, took a liking to him, and in many ways filled the role left empty when his father passed away. He wasn’t big or especially fast, but Joe Coffey played the game of football with enough grit and determination that Western Carolina University came calling and he got to go to college. He played football there of course, but he also became the first member of his family to get a college degree. He took that degree and his new wife and headed to Elberton, Georgia, to work as a high-school football coach. As coaches do, they soon moved and landed in Manchester. There he would slip across the state line to Auburn and work on his master’s degree. He gained access to the football facilities at Auburn and eventually became good friends with Shug Jordan. A few years later he was hired as the head coach at Cartersville High where he would coach until retiring from the profession. With their two sons in tow, skipping from one small Georgia town to another, my grandparents lived their own version of the American Dream. Education gave them access to steady jobs with steady paychecks. Football changed my family’s plot in life.
The game of football gave my grandfather the ability to do something that nobody could do for him- pay for his sons to go to college. Being a believer in education, he sent my Dad down the road to Athens and told him he’d pay for him to be there for as long as he could manage to stay. Four years turned into nearly a decade, and my father was in Athens for most of the 1970’s. Before my Dad left Georgia with his third and final degree, a guy named Herschel Walker showed up on campus in 1980. My parents were already dating at the time. A couple months later they stood In the stands of the old Gator Bowl as Lindsay Scott streaked down the sideline below them, and Larry Munson came right through a metal, steel chair somewhere in the press box above. On January, 1, 1981, they kissed on the floor of the Louisiana Superdome after Herschel Walker and the Junkyard Dawg Defense carried Georgia to a national title.
My first Georgia game was in 1996 against Texas Tech. It happened on a rainy night in front of a less than full, mostly unenthusiastic stadium. It was a mostly forgettable affair, and for 57 minutes it appeared Jim Donnan was going to start his Georgia tenure with a third consecutive loss. The Dawgs got the ball on their own three-yard-line with 2:57 left, down 12-7. The stadium finally woke up as Mike Bobo began to drive the team down the field. Things got loud when he hit Juan Daniels for a touchdown to go ahead 13-7. Georgia lined up to go for two, and then came the moment this whole football thing clicked in my 7 year-old mind. Bobo lined up in the Shotgun with Torin Kirtsey on his right, snapped the ball, and ran right on what looked like a normal speed option as 4 defenders converged on him. He pitched the ball and out of nowhere, running in the opposite direction, came Hines Ward, striding like a threatened gazelle on an end-around. Ward grabbed the ball out of the air and streaked towards the left pylon. I remember my gut dropping as a Texas Tech defender charging towards him around the 3-yard line appeared to have him snuffed out. Suddenly, Hines leapt into the air and flipped into the end zone, kicking one of his offensive lineman in the head and knocking him to the ground as he came screaming across the goal line. I screamed loudly. The noise came out involuntarily and was produced as much out of shock that a human being could fly in a way I’d never known to be possible as out of happiness for the converted two-point play. Texas Tech would get in range for a long field-goal, but it sailed wide as the clock hit triple zeros.
Since that night I’ve been hooked. My Dad’s best-friend and college roommate was raised in Athens and he and his wife never left. When I became old enough to go to football games every fall became filled with trips to their house. My older sister and I grew closer to them and their children than a lot of our real aunts, uncles, and cousins. Dad and his friend would sit by the fire and hold court, regaling us with tales from the glory days, and occasionally imparting such wisdom as, “Patsy Cline is God’s Music. If you listen to this you’re going to heaven.” They would speak of things like the 1965 flea-flicker to beat Alabama, Appleby-to-Washington, being together in Knoxville when Herschel ran over Bill Bates, Lindsay’s Run, going to three straight Sugar Bowls, and so much more. They talked about Georgia Football being great and I longed desperately to see that type of greatness with my own eyes. But this was the nineties, and I would settle with seeing us beat Tennessee and Florida in my lifetime.
Dad and I were on a Cub Scout camping trip somewhere in the middle of Eastern North Carolina when the Dawgs finally broke the streak against Florida in 1997. We listened to it on an old boom box tuned to AM 750 WSB (you could get a signal from 350 miles away in those days) and ran around the campsite in joy as Larry lit his victory cigar. Since I grew up in Wilmington, NC, most of the other kids and dads were naturally confused with our exuberance. After all, basketball season was still a few weeks away. That 1997 season, with Robert Edwards, Hines Ward, Mike Bobo, Champ Bailey, and an undersized safety named Kirby Smart leading the Dawgs to a 10-2 record, was the first one that gave me hope. Maybe someday I’d see a title like all the ones I’d heard stories about. While the Dawgs did finally beat the Vols in 2000, fans toppling the goalposts in the process, Donnan never lead us to the promise land.
I was supposed to spend the weekend of the 2001 Tennessee game on a Boy Scout camping trip. I had tried to argue my way out of it, but Dad, being the son of a football coach, wasn’t going to let me back out on a commitment. My friends and I were playing around on Friday at recess when I jumped to catch a football and suffered my first ankle sprain. Backpacking with the Boy Scouts wasn’t going to happen, but I was going to get to watch the game.
My best friend growing up in Wilmington also happened to be the only other Georgia fan I knew in town. We talked on the phone at halftime and figured Tennessee would come out focused and blow us out in the second half, but we hoped against logic that the Dawgs might pull off the upset. I spent most of the second half in a state of pure nervous tension as the teams traded punts. When Billy Bennett hit a field-goal with six minutes left to give the Dawgs a lead I hopped up and down on one foot in anxious glee, but knew better than to think the game was won. Tennessee drove back down to our end and Jermaine Phillips grabbed an interception and I thought we had it. Then Travis Stephens broke my heart with a long TD on a screen. Another heartbreak.
You all know how it ends. Randy McMichael turned into a man-child and with time to run two plays at best Mark Richt made the most competent play call any Georgia coach had up to that point in my life. He sent David Greene in to run P-44 Haynes. As that sequence unfolded I was in my parents mudroom closet with the door cracked, barely able to muster the nerve to keep an eye on the TV. In one hand I had a phone, my buddy Taylor on the line. I balanced on one foot as a scream came through the earpiece and I turned to look at the TV as Verron Haynes caught the ball alone in the end-zone. The emotional roller coaster of it all finally overwhelmed me and some strange mixture of tears and laughter poured out. I finally understood what my parents and their friends had felt during some of those great moments from the past.
Since then plenty has obviously happened. I could probably write numerous posts on the journey that was the 2002 season. The Michael Johnson catch in Auburn brought my Dad to tears while my Mom watched from the kitchen. She spent the last quarter of that game wiping the countertops over and over, a honorable but ineffective attempt to soothe her nerves.
I got to be in the Georgia Dome for the SEC titles in 2002 and 2005. My freshman year of 2007 featured the beat down of Tebow and Florida, the blackout game against Auburn, and me finally getting to go to my first Sugar Bowl. I was also in Atlanta for the near misses of capturing the big one in 2012 and 2017 (Like anyone with a brain who watched Notre Dame play football that year, I consider the 2012 SEC Championship that year’s national title game).
Scientists have discovered that the effects of certain events can be stored in an individual’s DNA and passed down to future generations. I don’t know if some sort of reptilian survival instinct crept into the coding when my grandad was fighting to get out of poverty all those years ago, or maybe it’s a love for the game that was embedded into the family when Lindsay ran, but it seems like football might be in my DNA. Perhaps my brain just liked the giant hits of dopamine it got when Hines flipped over the goal line and Verron caught that ball in Knoxville. Whatever the cause, a flip switches somewhere deep inside of me around this time every year and I wake up one day excited for football season to kickoff. Once classic games start being rerun on TV I’m so starved for the sport that I will joyfully consume game after game that I already know the outcome of. It’s not all about the wins and losses. The season brings phone calls and visits with old friends, reunions with family members, and the camaraderie of a shared experience that isn’t attainable on such a grand scale in the rest of my day-to-day life. In a word- connection. The game gave my granddad a way out of his predicament, and for a few hours every Saturday in the fall it gives all of us a way out of ours. While my problems are far less severe than his once were, football provides an escape from the issues we deal with as individuals and a society.
That’s why I’m here to spend the season with all of you on Dawg Sports. I hope to share the thrill of victory, split the burdens of a loss, and be connected to you by all the wonderful things this game has to offer. Now let’s enjoy the journey, trade some laughs, and hope our boys are standing under the confetti in New Orleans at the end.