It was the summer of 1971 in Athens, and the University of Georgia Football team was in the midst of preparations for the upcoming season. One afternoon the upperclassmen told the freshman to line up in front of McWhorter Hall. Among them were Clarence Pope, Richard Appleby, Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew and Larry West, the first Black football players to ever play for the University of Georgia.
The Freshman were told to turn around and look up at the stairway landing behind them. What they saw when they did was one of their older teammates in a chair. He wore a white hood, and was dressed like a knight of the Ku Klux Klan. There were two other players with him, one on each shoulder. They held shotguns, bandoliers and a confederate battle flag.
What Are We Doing Here?
“This is the least emotionally invested I’ve ever been for a football season.”
“I’m just not into it this year.”
“It feels impossible to get excited for this season with all of the things going on in the World this year.”
If you have talked to a football fan in the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard someone say something like this. I have heard these sentiments from numerous friends and family members this offseason, and I’ve read similar statements all over the internet.
It has been a strange and awful year. We’ve seen things that most of us never imagined we would. Our society has never felt more separated. Much like everything in 2020, the buildup to this football season isn’t the same as in years past. We have spent more time analyzing what teams have positive tests and contact tracing than we have quarterbacks and receivers.
I love college football, but that love is not blind. College football is an economy, and that economy is based on the roots of unpaid labor. Most of those laborers are young Black men. That is true for teams all over the country, but in a region where the roots of slavery, Jim Crow and white supremacy run deeper than anywhere else, it’s a problematic dynamic in even the best of times.
I have struggled with my feelings about college football over the last few months. I have wondered if it is wrong to put thoughts and energy into a game when our World seems to be falling apart. It feels like there are other places we are supposed to be right now.
Black people have made it clear how far race relations in this country still have to go. We have all been challenged to be better listeners. When you couple that with the fact that the young Black laborers playing this game are at risk of being exposed to Covid-19, it’s hard to know how to feel good about football. Even if those dynamics were different it would still be hard to get fired up for the contests to come. 2020 has just left us numb.
I totally understand why anyone would feel like taking a break from football this year, but after much internal dialogue I have come to a conclusion.
We need football now more than ever.
I’ve always felt Sanford Stadium is haunted. I suspect the rest of the South’s football cathedrals are too.
I feel it when I walk through the gates and step out into the bowl. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I am sure there are ghosts present. I look at the field- Herschel broke into the open on that sideline. Gurley took it all the way to the end zone after breaking a tackle on that hash. Chubb ran over an Auburn Tiger at the pylon down there.
The memories of the feats of players past surely live there, but those aren’t the ghosts that I’m referring to.
It is all of the energy that the fans have expelled over the years that really haunt the place. For generations, Southerners have gone to college football stadiums and screamed instead of rioting. It is our people’s great release.
The human brain is a powerful organ, but it can’t do too many things at once. One of the leading theories about pain and vocalization holds that the parts of the brain we use for experiencing pain and the parts we use for mouth sounds overlap- we can’t do both simultaneously.
There is a beautiful thing that happens between snap and whistle. There are just physics and motion in that moment. The brain simply can’t keep up with the movements of 22 bodies and all of the World’s problems at the same time.
Authors have waxed poetically for years about all of the ritualistic and communal needs football fills in Southern society, but above all it is where we go to scream. The regional norm is to make sure everything looks good on the outside, even when there is turmoil underneath.
In the moments between the whistles Southerners have the opportunity to let it all out. Those screams are how many of our ancestors dealt with the poverty and emasculation that the Civil War left in its wake. It is part of how we cope with the pain of all the senseless and horrific things our people have done to one another.
Few if any who have entered a football stadium in our region have ever been aware that they are letting go of the residue of so much generational trauma, but through those screams we have coped with the pain of our past and present. We have gotten back a touch of our sanity.
We are going to get 150 or so of those moments on Saturday. I will never be more grateful for the limitations of my brain.
The only thing more important to our healing than the moments between the whistles is the thing that occurs right before the ball is snapped.
The players will huddle. Depending on how they are coached, they may hold hands. They will learn what their job is on the upcoming play. Each man’s survival in the next moment will be dependent upon the other ten men doing the job they are assigned.
In 1971 the five Black men who integrated Georgia’s football team sat in a different huddle. This one was on the floor of a dorm room. The men were suitemates, and they held what they called “rat court” on a regular basis. When one of the five behaved in a way unbecoming of a gentleman, the others would hold him accountable.
They were only on the freshman team that first season, but as the first Black players at the University of Georgia, the five men knew they were under a microscope. They kept themselves straight internally to avoid opening themselves up to criticism from the outside. For that first year they took care of one other.
Horace King became the first African-American to score a touchdown for the Bulldogs in 1972. It was during that season that the five men realized they had found a home on the Georgia Football team. The daily ritual of relying on their teammates had formed a bond between the five Black players and the rest of the team.
On November 1st, 1975 the Bulldogs were in trouble. They trailed the Florida Gators by four points late in the fourth quarter. The clock was ticking down towards the three minute mark, and the outlook was bleak. Georgia was on its own twenty, and despite the Red and Black’s best efforts, they had only mustered a field-goal all day. The players huddled up, and the team knew it needed a big play.
Nobody but the men in the huddle knew it yet, but in that moment the hopes and dreams of an entire state relied on Richard Appleby and Gene Washington. What followed was one of the greatest plays in Georgia Football history.
Gene Washington was the sixth African-American football player at Georgia. Throughout his recruitment, and even well after his arrival on campus, Washington had no idea that was the case. He was treated just like any other player on the team, and all that was important to Washington and his teammates was his ability to contribute to the team.
The five men who integrated Georgia’s football team have described the incident that occurred in the preseason of 1971 as a bad prank. At the very least it was a horribly insensitive and racist prank, at the very worst it was an attempt to scare the five Black players away from the football team. It was a hostile act intended to make them uncomfortable.
But racism cannot survive the huddle.
When a receiver breaks open a quarterback throws. He doesn’t take a moment to see what race he is. When a running back sees a hole he doesn’t check to see the skin color of his blockers.
In many ways college football has failed to evolve, but in one beautiful way it has achieved an ideal that our society is still working towards. All that matters is one’s ability to contribute to the achievement of a common goal.
When the team scores the players grab whoever is closest to them and hug. They don’t wait to see the color of their skin.
For many of us, there will be no trip to the stadium this year. There will be no Dawg Walks or tailgates. There will be none of those walks through North Campus that I savor so deeply, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot. There will be no saunter to the stadium as the collective momentum of the human mass of red and black determines my motion more so than my own legs. There will be no hugging strangers after touchdowns and interceptions.
But all is not lost.
On Saturday morning I will feel like a boy. I will wake up and jolt straight out of bed. I will flip on College Gameday and the show’s theme music will make butterflies flutter in my stomach. They’ll move up to my chest, and a grin will form on my face. That grin will stay there for the next 14 hours.
Sometime that morning my phone will start buzzing. It will buzz more frequently if a rival or some highly ranked team is on the ropes in the fourth quarter. It will pulsate nonstop when Georgia finally kicks off against Arkansas. We will talk about the quarterbacks and the line and the new offense. We will read entirely too much into everything that happens.
We may disagree on a play call or a personnel decision, but we will all agree on one important thing- the Georgia Bulldogs are the good guys. In that we will be united, and there could be no better feeling after the last nine months than unity.
Between the shared lamenting and cheering there will be plays. No matter where you may be watching them, I encourage you to scream during them.
After each play the referee will spot the ball.
The players will huddle.