I have neglected this space for a while now. Graduating from law school and preparation for the Georgia Bar Exam has taken up much of my time. I really enjoyed my last summer in Athens, and as the summer went on I began to reflect on my time in Athens. So I decided to write a post about one of my favorite Athens moments.
If you’ve never been to Athens, Georgia, it is in my humble opinion, the most perfect little college town in the world. It’s not too big, and it’s not too small. We have an amazing food scene for a town of this size with favorites like The Last Resort, The National, and Five and Ten (and of course Little Italy after 1:30am). The music scene is also pretty awesome: R.E.M., The B-52’s, and the Drive-By Truckers hail from here, just to name a few. Athens is of course home to The University of Georgia, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Oak trees, magnolias, and perfectly manicured lawns abound. But the main attraction for me, and for thousands of other fans all over the country, is SEC football. More specifically the Georgia Bulldogs.
I could write about many different experiences I’ve had at UGA games, but this post is dedicated to just one game. It was my favorite as a fan. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a live sporting event. The date was September 28, 2013, the game was UGA vs. LSU. (I’ve used my friends’ last names or nicknames to protect the innocent)
Now this was more than just any old football game. I say this was more than just any football game because the hype leading up to the game was unbelievable. Coming into the season we’d had hopes of a 3rd-straight SEC championship game appearance, and maybe a shot at a BCS title. We’d started off the season ranked No. 5, but dropped a heartbreaker at No. 8 Clemson in the opener. The boys quickly righted the ship by beating No. 6 South Carolina between the storied hedges of Sanford Stadium. After a 2-week break we got a tune-up against North Texas before the sixth-ranked Bayou Bengals came to Athens. UGA came in ranked No. 9.
ESPN’s College Gameday was in town for the first time since the Alabama game in 2008. College Gameday was seen as being bad luck for the Dawgs. Going into the game Georgia had a 3-12 record when Gameday was present. Despite the perception of the bad luck it brought, it was still exciting to have Gameday in Athens. The whole College Football world would be focused on our town and our school for an entire Saturday. But Gameday wasn’t the only thing that made this game special.
Zach Mettenberger was the quarterback for LSU. The 6’5” NFL prototype was from Watkinsville Georgia, 10-minutes from Athens. His mother worked for Georgia Coach Mark Richt. Mettenberger had once been a Bulldog, but had been forced to move on from the team. Despite all that, he would finally get the chance to fulfill his dream of playing in Sanford stadium, albeit for the visitors. Thickening the plot even further was that the quarterback for the Bulldogs was Aaron Murray, the player Mettenberger had competed with to win the starting quarterback job at Georgia.
A Top 10 SEC match-up, College Gameday, possible SEC Championship/National Title chances on the line, and a hometown boy come back to Athens. This game had it all. By Thursday night Athens was packed with LSU fans, who travel very well. By Saturday morning Athens was bursting at the seams.
As Saturday dawned my friends and I went about our Gameday traditions. We had breakfast and booze. Beer, Bloody Mary’s, and Bourbon flowed freely. A few guys went down to Gameday and got on TV. I would have enjoyed a visit to the Gameday set, but my heart and soul were just too focused on the game. Late in the morning, after getting a good base of bourbon working in our stomachs, we rolled up to North Campus to go to the Law School tailgate. Fitz and I had to pass out beer for the first hour. This duty consisted of ensuring that the individuals to whom we handed beers had wristbands denoting their being at least 21 years of age. That, and ensuring that we drank our fill.
The afternoon was wonderful; it was a perfect Athens day. It was 80 degrees, no humidity, and not a cloud in the sky. Thousands of fans, alumni, and students were scattered all over Athens, but North Campus is where I spent most of my game days. North Campus on that fall Saturday afternoon was a sight to behold. All the sweet Georgia Belles wore their finest red and black dresses. Each lady adorned with a selection of Jackie-O sunglasses, hats, sorority pins, stickers, jewelry, and an ever-present gorgeous smile. They stood in small groups chatting, laughing, and “how-do-you-doing” with those irresistible lilting southern accents. The men were dressed in polos and khaki’s, names like Onward Reserve and Southern Proper abounded, croakies were safely ensconced on every neck, and Sperry top-siders or similar footwear completed each ensemble. Everyone had a koozie in hand. After passing out beers, we rejoined our friends and mingled, chatted, played a little cornhole, drank more, ate a little BBQ, drank some more, ate a little cornbread, drank a bit more, smoked a cigar or two, drank a wee bit more, and then rounded up the entire crew and headed down to Sanford.
Normally, I would leave the tailgate and head to the stadium about an hour before a game. The student section doesn’t have assigned seats, its first come first served, so you need to get there early if you don’t want to sit in the upper deck. On this day we headed to the stadium around 1. The game didn’t start until 3:30, but I would be damned if I wasn’t going to sit where I wanted for this hootenanny.
When we arrived at Reed Plaza it was packed with the Bulldog faithful. Students can only enter Sanford at specific gates so the effect that Saturday was to create a massive chokepoint, because everyone wanted to get good seats for this one. We called the Dawgs until we were hoarse. We laughed, we cheered; some of the more unfortunate began to sober up. The gates finally opened at 1:30. We got inside and raced to get our wristbands and then into the student section. It was pretty packed for 2 hours before game time. But I had not time for other people, only had eyes for my seats.
While there may not be assigned seats in the student section, we always sat in the same place. Section 113, it was directly to the right of the Redcoats if you’re looking at them from the south side of Sanford (or watching on TV). We always sat near the trombones. In fact, on one occasion we borrowed a trombonist and brought her across the aisle to our section. You know, just for kicks. We also always tried to correct the drum-majors when they told the band to play while the offense was on the field. If you go to UGA games, you know that we failed at this. Not everyone likes to sit right next to the band, but I love it. First, those seats give you a high diagonal view of the field, so you can see the game reasonably well. Furthermore, nothing pumps me up more than sitting next to the band when they play Glory-Glory to Old Georgia so loud that that I suffer permanent hearing loss. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, they play a Dixieland version of Glory-Glory after touchdowns, and that is hands down my favorite. If when you hear it you’re not immediately overcome by the urge to dance, you must not have a soul.
On that particular Saturday as we started working our way to our seats we could see there were a lot of people in the section, but still plenty seats to be had. My buddy Dove (future governor of Georgia) got to our seats first. He discovered that two gentlemen had commandeered 5 rows of seats for friends that had not yet arrived. He kindly explained that while saving a few seats for friends was cool, this was UGA/LSU and saving a few rows at this particular game was not. Needless to say there was a bit of a disagreement about the propriety of their attempted seat reservation. Now I won’t say everyone stayed calm, but I can assure you any unkind words that were exchanged were a result of the bourbon and not any personal animus between the various individuals involved in the discourse.
At some point during the ensuing ‘discussion’ one of the adverse possessors of the rows in question let us know he was more deserving of these seats because he was from South Georgia. For those of you from less refined areas of the country (by that I mean everywhere else) there is sometimes a bit of tension between those who hail from the southern end of the greatest state in our union and those who hail from the northern. Luckily this tension was swiftly relieved when my friend Wilmot politely inquired as to just where in South Georgia this fellow was from. To which he proudly replied “Sylvester!”
Wilmot smiled and said “Hell man, I’m from Tifton!” These words had an immediate calming effect; it was as if peace from the heavens descended on all of us. Immediately all tension disappeared, hands were shaken, seats were shared, backs were slapped, the Dawgs were called, and Copenhagen was presented as a peace offering. Tifton, Georgia, reading capital of the world and quieter of men’s souls.
With the seats duly sorted we waited for the game to begin. The stadium had a fair amount of LSU fans, not too many, but a respectable showing and enough to make it interesting. Now that our seats were secured it was time to get mentally prepared. We stood for warm-ups, and we played air drums during the appropriate portion of “In the Air Tonight.” After the warm-ups, we got ready to get down to business. As one, the fans of Sanford stood and raised their fingers to point to the battle-hymn soloist at the southwest corner of the upper deck. Not a single arm dropped during the entire solo, there was no weakness in that crowd, no lack of commitment. No one was going to half-ass anything that day, we couldn’t afford to, it wasn’t like we were playing Tech. As Larry Munson’s voice narrated the pre-game video on the big screen we smiled and doffed our caps to the 12th man. Some of us took a moment to wonder if he could break the chair he sits on while he calls games in heaven. We got a little crazy when they played “Saturday Night’s Alright,” and then finally the wait was over, we got ready to tee it up between those glorious hedges.
The game had begun. This game was a thing of beauty, back and forth, up and down the field. The teams couldn’t stop scoring. The Dawgs got it started right when they shot up the field like the Third Army sprinted across France. We went 75 yards in 8 plays capped off by a 5-yard pass from Aaron Murray to Michael Bennett. The place went nuts, and not a few fans in purple and gold got a little less loud. But they weren’t quiet for long, as LSU responded with a 6-play 66-yard drive for a Mettenberger to Boone touchdown, and we were all square at 7-7. At this point I should note that it’s a tradition that the student section doesn’t sit down during games. I can personally attest that at no point during the game did my cheeks ever grace a seat, nor did any other students rear-end. We were in it to win it.
Our next drive ended with LSU picking off Aaron Murray. LSU quickly got another score, Mettenberger to Boone again, to make it 14-7. Did the Dawgs falter? Did they doubt? No, those titans of the peach state marched 79 yards in under two minutes to tie it at 14. It was at that point I realized we were in for a classic. My conclusion was only partially based on the quality of the play on the field. A good rule of thumb in the SEC: if you’re stone-cold sober and in need of water before the end of the 1st quarter, you’re in for a doozy. And a doozy it was.
The Dawgs drew blood next as the indomitable Marshall Morgan kicked a 24-yard field goal to put us up 17-14. But LSU wasn’t lying down, not today, not ever. The old Mad Hatter Les Miles wasn’t going to let the Dawgs steal one at home. He rolled the dice and tried a 49-yard field goal. Old Les rolled a natural because Les has the devils own luck, the field goal was good.
Coach Mark Richt’s team chose to eschew the fickle whims of luck and instead relied on grit, skill, and determination. They responded by charging 82-yards down the field without breaking a sweat. Murray finished off the drive with a daring quarterback keeper and we were up 24-17 headed into the half.
Now normally fair reader, I would run to the john during the half. But I had screamed myself hoarse and every little bit of moisture in my body had been utilized to keep my throat and lungs in working condition. In the student section we were taking this game very seriously. We didn’t move, we didn’t sit. If the Dawgs weren’t giving an inch neither would we. As the teams came out for the second half we girded up our loins and prepared to fight to the bitter end.
The half began inconspicuously with an LSU 39-yard field goal to cut the lead to 24-20 Dawgs. On our next possession Morgan rocketed a 55-yard field goal through the uprights to put the lead back up to 7. Once again LSU refused to buckle, they drove 80-yards in reply. They scored again when our hometown boy Zach Mettenberger rifled a pass to Jarvis Landry who played like Jerry Rice on that fall afternoon. The game was 27-27. LSU looked good, they had momentum. They forced a three-an-out on our next possession, and we had to punt. We stayed on our feet, we kept screaming, but there was an uneasiness underlying our enthusiasm. LSU was No. 6 and they were starting to get on a roll. But on that afternoon luck abandoned the gambler Les Miles, and turned her capricious graces to us.
The punt was bobbled and Connor Norman, former Presbyterian legend, Bulldog walk-on, and all around football MacGyver recovered at the LSU 20. We went crazy, we screamed, we cried, we laughed! Surely, surely this was our day. The incomparable Murray didn’t disappoint as he connected with Bennett once again to put us up 34-27. But our enthusiasm was soon tempered as Les’s boys marched 70-yards and scored to tie it up at 34-34. There was no quit in either team that day.
During that drive the 3rd quarter ended, and the Bulldog faithful put their hands in the air. Four fingers pointed towards the field. The Redcoats let loose with a blast from the brass and we all yelled in unison. A shriek of joy, of passion, of defiance. Like Whitman urged long ago, we sounded our barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world. We were ready for the 4th quarter.
The Dawgs responded and just kept on fighting. Marshall Morgan hit another field goal, and we were up 37-34. But LSU wasn’t done. The Mad Hatter had a few more tricks up his sleeve, and we watched those Tigers geaux 75-yards to score a touchdown and go up 41-37 with four minutes to go.
I remember that moment distinctly. The sun was setting behind the open end of Sanford, the breeze was cool on my face, we were down, at home, to a great team, with only 4 minutes to play, and the season hung in the balance. This is what college football is all about. As we used to say during my years in the Army, it was helmet time.
As the drive began Murray completed an 11-yard pass to Scott-Wesley, then a 9-yarder to Lynch. Slowly we all began to believe, we began to see a light at the end of the tunnel. We were going to do this. Murray sent another one to Lynch for 10 more yards, and the student section started to shake. J.J. Green ran for 18 yards to the LSU 25 and we knew it was our day. The student section roared its approval, urging the boys on. On the next play Murray floated a 25-yard touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Wesley. The place went insane, if you were anywhere within 100 miles of Sanford you might have thought that Georgia herself was rumbling with joy. Who knows? Maybe she did. In the student section the joy was overflowing. I hugged, kissed, high-fived, chest-bumped, fist-pounded, and head-butted what seemed like every member of the Bulldog nation within a 100-yard radius. I have no idea how I stayed standing on those aluminum benches, but it doesn’t matter. We were up 44-41!
But our outpouring of joy was short-lived. There were still 2 minutes left on the clock, and the downright deadly Mettenberger wouldn’t fold without having his say. The drive started with a sack, but Mettenberger coolly replied with a first down pass to Beckham. Surely we thought, surely there’s enough time for him to drive the field. We should have burned more clock, we thought. Like the Apostle Thomas we began to doubt, and just like Thomas we doubted that which deserved our faith. Mettenberger threw an incompletion on first down. But he still had 3 more downs. Then again on second down. That was promising, but he had two more. Then another incompletion again on third down. This could be it. The student section gave everything it had at that moment. As he took the snap on fourth down we screamed at the top of our lungs. We were one, connected with the Bulldog faithful who watched Vernon “Catfish” Smith, and Charlie Trippi, with the fans who screamed as Lindsay ran, and who stood in awe as Herschel lay waste to all before him. The Bulldog nation past and present urged their team, needed their team, and finally begged their team to “HUNKER DOWN YOU HAIRY DAWGS!” Let Clarke County hear, let all Georgia hear, let the SEC hear, let them hear the Bulldog partisans. We willed the ball to fall to the ground, we prayed for it. And our prayers were answered. Mettenberger’s last pass hit the ground, we took over on downs, and our dreams were realized.
I watched my friend Gregory stand in disbelief, as he realized we won. Dove was dazed, Kewer, Orta, Owens, Fitz, Sykes, myself, we were all joyful beyond belief. The boys ran out the clock, and we rejoiced. It was over, we had beaten 2 Top Ten SEC teams in September. It seemed like the sky was the limit.
We cheered and clapped and whistled as the players came over to the hedges, we clapped for the LSU players as they walked off. It was a hell of a game, and it just wasn’t their afternoon. Yet, they had played heroically and were worthy of honor. Something curious happened then. We just refused to leave. We stood there with Sanford bathed in the reds and purples of the freshly set sun, thrilled with such a spectacular game, filled with the joy of witnessing it with 92,745 of your best friends. We refused to leave, it was too good of a day, and no one wanted it to end.
The players had left the field, but the Redcoats stayed. Bless their hearts the faithful Redcoats stayed! They didn’t pack up, they didn’t of call it a night. No, the ever-faithful Redcoats lifted their instruments, and punched they sky with a wall of sound. They played the team back out onto the field. The players streamed from the tunnel, helmets held above their heads, smiling, jumping, as amped as the rest of us. They sprinted to the hedges and continued to celebrate with us. They reached across the hedges to shake hands and high-five. Then Coach Richt came over to point at the student section to clap and cheer and celebrate a little bit. Now, I scream and yell for the players when they come over, but I always stood quietly for Coach Richt. Not out of a lack of enthusiasm, but out of respect. You will be hard-pressed to find a finer man who works in sports, or in anything else for that matter. Machiavelli once wrote “It is not titles that make men illustrious, but men who make titles illustrious.” Coach Richt is a man who cares for his faith, his family, his players, and his community. Being the coach of the Georgia Bulldogs is certainly an enviable position, but Coach Richt was a credit to his station and to the University and through his actions he has certainly added quite a bit of luster to the title. The players, the coach, and fans by the thousands just enjoyed the moment.
It was an amazing end to an amazing day. No one wanted it to end. After an hour of celebrating and basking in the glow of the big win we were exhausted. So we left, and so the day ended.
If you’re reading this you have the Internet and so you know that the season didn’t go as we would have liked. But that’s not the point, that day, that moment in time was perfect. It was a perfect morning, a perfect afternoon, and a perfect night. It was the best sporting event I’ve ever been to. Not because of the result or the spectacle. The anticipation, the emotion, the tension, the quality of the play, the weather, and most of all the people, they made it perfect. Kewer, Orta, TO, Sykes, Fitz, Stu, Graham, Andy, Dove, Lyons, Schultz, Roseboro, Mason, Krunal, and all the boys. We lived and died with the Bulldogs that day I’m glad we did it together.
No one who has been a fan of the Red and Black will forget Saturday afternoons at Sanford in the student section. Many of you probably have a specific afternoon you remember as fondly as I remember that one. As we move on in life we think back fondly to those years of walking down to the stadium with a gaggle of friends. Years when we just worried about the next few hours. Before the cares of work and mortgages and big-time responsibility. I’ll continue to go to games of course, but now I’ll have to sit down at times so people don’t yell at me. I won’t be able to wake up and just walk up to North Campus. I’ll have to drive to Athens. It will be different, not worse, just different. And though from now on my butt might be somewhere else in Sanford, my heart will always reside in Section 113, by the trombones, where I once spent a perfect fall afternoon in Athens.