How this UGA season meant more than a National Championship
Thousands of hearts broke around Dawg Nation Monday. I was there in Mercedes-Benz Stadium to witness it first-hand.
While I could dwell on the fact that Georgia lost in overtime to Alabama, I’m not going to. This year, this team of Dawgs was more than that one game. They were a unit, a team, a family. To me, that speaks more volumes than a trophy.
Don’t get me wrong, a National Championship trophy on display in Butts-Mehre would be wonderful, but it’s not the only thing that matters. This team, led by second-year head coach Kirby Smart, proved that this season was the beginning. A rebirth of sorts similar to a Vince Dooley-era team.
I am a third-generation Georgia Bulldog. My grandfather graduated from UGA in 1956 in the middle of Wally Butts’ tenure as head coach, my parents witnessed the Herschel Walker-Vince Dooley domination of the 1980’s, and I graduated along with former UGA standouts Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Jordan Jenkins -- just to name a few.
For the last 24 years, I have eaten, slept, and breathed Georgia football. I joked my lullabies as a child were UGA fight songs like "Dooley’s Junkyard Dawgs" and "Bulldawg Boogie." My family has had season tickets for over 30 years and we make it a tradition to Call the Dawgs Between the Hedges every Saturday in Athens.
So, it’s natural that during my brother’s freshman year the Dawgs have their best season since our parents were in school. During Smart’s second year, this team did something no one expected and they did it with class. This was a season dedicated alumni have been waiting for since the 80’s and something my generation has never experienced. In so few words, it was magical.
For my family, it wasn’t just magical but therapeutic. Working as a journalist, we covered various stories of Georgia fans who also used this season as a form of therapy. One Macon couple lost their daughter prior to the season. The Dawgs were able to bring them out of the darkness and Connie Bibbs even surprised her husband Charles with tickets to watch their boys play in the iconic Rose Bowl against Oklahoma.
Another story that touched my heart was Chip Prengaman who passed away in March of 2016 from a heart attack. His wife quoted him saying, “The year I die, the Dawgs are going to win a national championship just to make me mad.”
Chip’s story stuck with much of Dawg Nation because many of them have said that same or similar line at one point. One including my father.
Like I said, my family has had season tickets for over three decades. I grew up 20 minutes from Athens and I basically call it home. In 2008, during the era of Knowshon Moreno and Matthew Stafford, the team had the chance to go to the Rose Bowl. My father said if chosen, we would go. Instead, we were chosen to play Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl that year where we dominated 41-10.
Now, 10 years later he kept his promise. On December 5, my parents surprised my brother and me with roses and tickets to the iconic Rose Bowl.
Then December 20 happened.
I got a call at work that my father was going to have emergency double-bypass surgery. At the time, I didn’t realize the gravity of the surgery and asked, “you can still go to the Rose Bowl, right?” Wrong. I began to come to terms that I might have to miss out on what would be (and was) a historic game, but if it meant my father would live I was fine with that.
My father being my father wasn’t going to break his promise to me. While he was recovering in the hospital (which we decked out in UGA swag), he sent my brother and me to California alone so our family would be represented.
Not to rub it in for those of Dawg Nation who couldn’t be in attendance, but I’ll use this phrase again: it was magical.
Sitting where thousands have sat before, there are no words to describe sitting there seeing our team in their Silver Britches run onto the field. I joked with family friends in attendance that it was probably a good idea my father wasn’t at the game, probably because he would have had a heart attack right then and there because I almost did.
Watching Sony Michel’s touchdown run in double overtime made up for the last 24 years of heartache and shortfalls. I knew in that moment that this was something special and when I looked at older alumni around me they could see it too. To make our historic win even sweeter, we were sitting in the middle of the Oklahoma section.
This brings us to a few days ago. As season ticket holders, we were granted tickets to the National Championship game. My parents previously told my brother and I that they were going to sell them. Since my dad just had open-heart surgery I wasn’t going to argue even though deep down I was disappointed.
That was until he pulled the wool from my brother and I’s eyes once again. On January 5, also deemed UGA Football Friday, we were told that we would once again be representing our family at the National Championship Game.
On Monday, my brother drove straight from class in Athens to my apartment in Atlanta. Donned in my lucky D.J. Shockley/Todd Gurley number 3 jersey we went to witness history at Mercedes-Benz.
For Georgia fans, this was just as historic as our double-overtime in the Rose Bowl. The atmosphere was electric as our team kept their lead throughout the game. Chants of “U-G-A” rang throughout the stadium. Seeing us light it up for the 4th quarter in Pasadena was a sight, but seeing it at the National Championship game was another level.
Then overtime happened. I looked at my brother and realized just a short week before we were in this exact same position in California. This was the moment my father wanted us to experience. He wanted us to experience the history and magic, something we had yet to see in our lifetime as Dawg faithful.
When Rodrigo Blankenship hit that 51-yard kick the tears began to well in my eyes. Then we sacked Alabama’s freshman quarterback Tua Tagovalioa on their first play in overtime and I thought, “this is it, we might actually win this thing.” Tagovalioa responded with a 41-year touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to finally take the lead and ultimately dash our championship title by three points.
While the confetti cannons exploded to celebrate Alabama, the sounds of hearts breaking around Dawg Nation drowned it all out.
We had been beaten. We had been beaten by three points. In Overtime.
Needless to say, I left a piece of my heart there that night.
Yes, it was heartbreaking and yes, I wish we were the ones walking out of that stadium chanting our team’s name but we weren’t. Instead, we walked out in silence with our heads held high because like many fans have said across social media and have been saying for years, “I’d rather be a sad Georgia fan than a happy fan for any other team.”
Our boys played with heart, they played with class, and they played not just for themselves but all the alumni before them, their fellow students, and everyone who will come after. This team and fan base has nothing to be ashamed of.
I believe heartbreak makes the heart grow stronger. As a ‘tortured’ fan base we always come back stronger than ever.
Like Smart said following the game, “I think that everybody can see that Georgia is going to be a force to be reckoned with. I’m very proud of this team and university and we’re not going anywhere.”
And you know what, he’s right. This wasn’t the end but just the beginning. Dawg Nation has reawakened and we have no plans slowing down anytime soon.
Hunker Down Dawgs.
“There is no tradition more worth of envy, no institution worthy of such loyalty, as the University of Georgia.” – Larry Munson