I jumped straight out of my chair — my highest vertical leap since I was a teenager, a good solid three or four inches. My old roommate Zane looked at my friend Greg — they had known each other about four hours — and said, “Has our relationship been long enough for a hug?” Old friends texted in from Indianapolis and Phoenix and Fernandina Beach. On the TV they kept cutting to shots of the celebrating team. The winning team. OUR team.
It’s hard to write happy. Sadness makes better country songs and Russian novels. When you try to write about joy it’s easy to put too much sugar in it, and you end up with a plateful of syrup. But as that great philosopher Lyle Lovett once said, what would you be if you didn’t even try? You have to try. So let me try.
The Georgia Bulldogs — the football team I have rooted for since I was old enough to root — won the most thrilling football game I have ever seen, and will play next week for the national championship. It’s 6:30 in the morning on the day after, and my blood is still coursing with a mix of Irish whiskey and adrenalin. I feel thoroughly and completely alive. The birds outside are chirping just for me.
This, I know, is crazy.
I don’t know a single player on the Georgia team personally. Our only ties are geography and laundry. They play in the town where I went to college 30 years ago, and wear the jerseys that still give me a little buzz of delight when I see them out in the world. Years ago, walking through the Harvard campus, I spotted a guy 20 yards away in a UGA shirt. “HOW BOUT THEM DAWGS!!” I hollered across Harvard Yard — maybe the first time those particular words had been hollered across Harvard Yard. In that little moment, with a complete stranger, I felt safer in a new place. At least there was somebody else there like me.
In a lot of the ways that matter, 2017 was the worst year of my life. My mom was sick most of the year — back in the spring we thought we might lose her. Now she’s in a nursing home, feeling better, but aching for the life she had. In August, as I was driving through Athens of all places, I got a call that my best friend, Virgil Ryals, had died of a sudden heart attack. A month later, we got a call on a Saturday night that my father-in-law, Dick Felsing, was in the emergency room. We drove to Knoxville in the middle of the night and got one good hour with him before he lost consciousness. He died three days later.
I haven’t been able to write about all that. I’ve had a hard time just thinking about it. At Virgil’s funeral they ran out of programs. His longtime girlfriend, Danita, mailed me a copy. I didn’t open the envelope for months. It was like I could keep him alive as long as I didn’t break the seal.
Sports has always been my great escape — a way to stave off real life for a few hours. When my mom was so sick and I was at my brother’s house in Georgia, we watched Atlanta Braves baseball night after night. On the day of my father-in-law’s memorial service, we drove past Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, where Georgia was playing Tennessee. When we got back home, I went off in a corner and checked the score. Georgia won 41-0. It meant so little next to the death of a good man. But it was a bit of warmth on a cold day, a tiny bloom growing out of the rocks.
I’m not a rabid fan. I don’t dig through the Georgia message boards, or paint my face red and black, or tear up the house when they lose. I like to think I’ve got some perspective. But really the best thing about sports is when you lose perspective, when you get swept up in the moment and shove the real world off into a corner and care about nothing else but right now, bottom of the ninth, three-pointer in the air, a putt to win the Masters, overtime.
The Georgia game went to overtime.
At the beginning it looked like it would be a blowout. Oklahoma went up 31-14 with seconds left in the first half. But then our kicker, who wears black hipster glasses and has the wondrous name of Rodrigo Blankenship, made the longest field goal of his career as the first-half clock ran out. We had a little hope. And in fact we came all the way back and led 38-31, only to have Oklahoma take the lead back 45-38, and then we scored with less than a minute left to tie it.
I softpedaled the sports part of it there, for those of you who don’t care about sports, but let me just say that the events of the previous paragraph felt like climbing up and down Everest three or four times without an oxygen tank.
We traded field goals in the first overtime. We blocked their field goal attempt in the second overtime. And then one of our running backs, Sony Michel, took a direct snap from the 27-yard line. He swept around the left end and broke into open space.
It took about two and a half seconds from when he broke free until he crossed the goal line. Those two and a half seconds were a gift that maybe only sports can give: that sudden delicious understanding that you haven’t won yet but you’re about to. There wasn’t much in my 2017 that felt as pure and good as those two and a half seconds on the first day of 2018.
I say all that knowing that Georgia fans have it easy. We’re good at football. We win 9 or 10 games most years, contend in the SEC, play on TV every week. But that’s different than playing for the title.
In 1982, my freshman year at Georgia, we went 11-0 and were ranked no. 1 at the end of the regular season. We lost the Sugar Bowl and the championship to Penn State. It hurt, but it didn’t feel like a deep cut. We had won the title just two years before. I figured we’d be back again soon. I was 18 and had no sense of history.
That was 35 years ago and we haven’t played for the championship since. Now, next Monday against Alabama, we get another chance.
Sports happy is not the same as real life happy. A good day with my wife is better than the best day I’ve had watching a ball game. But sports happy counts for something — the same way that movie happy counts, or comic-book happy counts, or reality-TV happy counts. Life is too hard not to take joy where you can get it.
Zane and I sat next to each other for that second half and overtime. We have sat next to each other, watching Georgia games, since we were teenagers. Now we’re in our 50s. We have married good women, lost people we loved, tried to find our way in the world. At some point, after the winning touchdown, after I beat my personal best in the vertical leap, we grabbed each other and held tight. It wasn’t just a game. It’s never just a game.