Glory, glory

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.

 

— TT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

32 thoughts on “Glory, glory”

  1. That was awesome. I cried. Last night and reading this. I am way too caught up in this season. I graduated in 1996. We have NEVER been THIS good, nor THIS close since I stepped foot on campus. As a Dawg, we try not to get too excited because that other shoe is likely to drop soon.

  2. Next assignment: Compare watching a Georgia game with Zane and other friends at home to watching at a Georgia sports restaurant then to any out-of-the-South sports bar.

  3. loved your commentary! hopefully, monday night will be the first time nick saban loses against one of his former assistant coaches! monday can’t get here fast enough!

  4. This was one of the best reads I have had in a long time. All of this was me last night with my son and friends watching the game. Been a Dawg fan my whole life and man it felt good to spend time with family and friends watching the game.
    Thank You !!!

  5. Tommy,

    I had the pleasure of meeting you once when you were visiting with “The Unbroken Circle” music group in Winston-Salem. I had long admired your work and it did not take long for us to start talking about the Dawgs. It’s what fans do, right?

    I grew up in Stone Mountain, Ga and been a Georgia fan all my life. My first game was at Grant Field in 1969 (we lost but I was with my Dad so it didn’t matter except that he was sad. He then took me to Manuel’s Tavern and I felt like I was a man–I was 6.) After that, I was a Dawg. Jimmy Poulos, Andy Johnson, Goff & Robinson, etc etc. I was there when Belue saved us against Tech in 78. I attended WFU as an undergrad partly because I listened when Wake came down to Sanford Stadium in 79 and won. I heard Munson say “the football world was turned upside down”. Figured I should check out a school that could do that. [I did get my M.Ed from UGA so I am a Deacon Dawg.]

    The memories….I saw Herschel get the frosh record against Tech. I remember the plane that flew over the stadium that had the banner “Thank God for Mrs. Walker”. I was on my knees in front of the TV watching Lindsay score. I can tell you where I was when I heard Herschel was turning pro (Trump was dead to me a long time ago). I met Munson once–he seemed Old Testament old. Just last weekend when we were in Athens visiting my sister, I took my son to the Butts-Mehre (Dawg Mahal) so he could see the shrines to Dooley, Sinkwich, Walker, Terry Hoage, etc. Seemed like a pilgrimage that needed to be made.

    I could go on but I won’t because I know that you have your own Dawg moments. I will now add this article to mine because you summed up so well what being a Georgia fan is all about. I am sorry about your losses this year. But I am glad that us Dawgs had last night. Thanks for writing so well.

  6. Perfect description of what all us Georgia fans experienced, but can’t begin to describe. Great read! Go Dawgs!!

  7. Loved this article. Herschel and I were Freshman the same year. Suffice it to say the early 80’s were a great time to be in school and be a Dawg. My husband and daughters think I’m crazy but your words summed up exactly how I feel. Thank you and GO DAWGS! BEAT BAMA!!!

  8. I’m with you 100%. I pulled a full-on Bjorn Borg to my knees in tears after that last TD. I graduated from UGA in 1994, which was one of the worst times in Ga football history.

  9. I don’t know how you do it! You are a master wordsmith and often bring me to tears with your wonderful prose. So well-written from the bottom of your soul and I thank you for sharing and putting it into words like no other could ever do.

  10. Very good read. I am a WV girl in love with the Dawgs. The best thing my ex gave me was an intro to Georgia football. Don’t see many red and black jerseys here but I yell Sicem when I do.

  11. Someone earlier said that your work is “prose.” That pretty much nailed it. It was possible through words to look directly into your heart.

    Most profound sentence:. “Life is too hard not to take joy where you can get it.”

  12. Fortunate enough to have been in New Orleans in 81,82 & with my son in 83. Though those days would be the norm. Glad to be here long enough to see my son and grandson go to the Rose this year. That was a great article and sums it up very well. Go DAWGS

  13. Great column! My own Georgia journey began as a freshman on campus in the fall of 1982, when Herschel was still on campus and Vince Dooley had a bottomless bag of tricks to draw from so that even in the darkest moments you felt victory was still achievable. Like you, I was young and didn’t recognize how special the time was. I danced on the field at Jordan-Hare in Auburn that year (the only away game I ever attended), unaware we’d be winless against them the rest of my time at UGA. The Rose Bowl win brought back that “team of destiny” feeling I have not had since those long ago autumns. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. For me, the Dawgs have always been the team that made my hopes worth sharing and my dreams worth daring. They’ve made me happy, made me mad, mad me cry and made me celebrate. They’ve also added in a big way to a life worth living as they earned love worth giving.

    Beautiful words, Tommy. I’ve never met you, but feel like I truly know you. Thanks for sharing what I felt and could not articulate nearly so well… and Go Dawgs!

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