Authors Note: This column is written to kick off the 2014 season. It is all the more applicable for the 2016 season.
My day had started at 4:30 a.m. After a few hours of work, some whirlwind errands, some last minute packing, and seven hours of driving, I had finally arrived in Atlanta.
“Why do I do this to myself?” I sighed. “I could have stayed home, saved a ton of money, and watched it from my recliner.”
My quest was to make it to my good friend Taron’s house. He has been my friend since we met as students at the University of Georgia in 1984. The following morning, the two of us were headed back to our alma mater, and those hallowed hedges of Sanford Stadium to watch our beloved Bulldogs play their season opener against Clemson. But … why?
Taron and I both have big screen televisions these days. I have a DVR, so I can pause the game and go get a coke. The viewing experience has never been better at home. Yet here I was, willing to drive over five hundred miles, with no tickets, to walk the campus from one end to the other in ninety eight degree heat, hoping for an opportunity to pay double, or more likely triple price, to get into the game. It made no practical sense.
The next morning things seemed a little more understandable as we donned our red and black official Georgia clothing and headed toward Athens, but in the back of my mind I was still asking myself if it was worth it. Along the route Taron and I reminisced about old times, but we spent much more time worrying about the future and shaking our head at the state of things.
When we finally hit campus, I grumbled to myself again about paying thirty dollars to park a good mile from Sanford Stadium. I shook my head at my own stupidity, as sweat poured from our brows as we tromped through every tailgate party we could find with two fingers aloft in search of tickets. “I’m too old and too wise for this,” I actually said aloud. Then I thought to myself, this time would probably be my last.
We got the tickets and they were the best I’d ever had. The fifty yard line split our seats right down the middle. We had plenty of time to attend the Dawg Walk, where players walk through a corridor formed by fans and the band on their way to the locker room.
I stood there in the sweltering heat, awaiting a procession of nineteen- to twenty-three-year-olds whom I had never met and will never meet again. Despite myself, I was getting caught up in the crowd’s excitement. I looked up and saw a three-year-old girl in a cute little cheerleader outfit. She was sitting on her daddy’s shoulder and waving her red and black pompoms. I got a lump in my throat as I remembered the way my own daughter, now all grown up, had once done the same.
The band was there, and the Drum Major had them strike the first notes of the fight song, “Glory, Glory to Ol’ Georgia … ” It was the song I sang to the top of my lungs as a student in ’84. Beside me was a handsome young couple, probably about twenty years old, and they were singing to the top of their lungs too. I joined in and for a moment forgot about the heat.
Later we made our way to our seats. I struck up a conversation with two older men in the seats behind me. Both were in their seventies. We made small talk mostly, but we talked about the Bulldogs too and what they might be this season, and whether or not we dared to get our hopes too high.
The band marched, the pomp and ceremony was unleashed, and the Bulldogs stormed out onto the field. As the Dawgs burst through the paper G held by the cheerleaders, all things seemed possible. An SEC Title seemed in reach, a national championship just around the corner. It was opening day, and we were undefeated.
My friend and I cheered with great gusto, and I noticed the elderly gentlemen were giving it their all as well. We all knew all the same cheers. The game was a real battle through three quarters and every time the DAWGS were defending on a second or third down, we leapt to our feet with ninety-two thousand others. The heat was more oppressive than ever, but the game was on the line, the opportunity lay before us to hang on to our optimism, so we downed one bottle of water after another and rose to cheer once more.
Then the Bulldogs began to dominate, and the excitement built to a fever pitch. High-fives were exchanged between Taron and me and the elderly gentlemen, and the two guys to my left and the father and son to Taron’s right, all of whom we had shared friendly conversation with during time outs. After a long touchdown run we made the high-five rounds, but added a fist bump for the guys in front who we’d never so much as spoken with prior to that.
That’s when it hit me. I knew why I did it and would likely keep doing it, as the two gentlemen sitting behind me. All ninety-two thousand of us were human. And despite the fact that we like to think of ourselves as independent or as loners, there is nothing we desire more than to be with other like-minded humans. We seek unity in diversity, E Pluribus Unum–out of many, one. On Saturdays in Athens, when the Red and Black is worn with pride, there are no racial divides, or political parties, or wedge issues. For that brief snapshot in time, we are all united. We are all one Bulldog nation. And we long for that in our “real” lives … we yearn for it. But it eludes us.
Bulldogs young and old love Athens. We flock to it from literally every corner of the nation. From the three-year-old little girl with her pompoms, to the twenty-year-old couple, to Taron and me, to the elderly men, we know the cheers. They are the cheers of our forbearers from football seasons going all the way back to the 1800s. In a world of constant and overwhelming change, the cheers stay the same and that comforts us and warms us. When we learned the cheers we were young and vibrant, hope was in abundance, the future was before us, and everything was possible … for the Bulldogs and for us.
The game ended with a decisive Bulldog victory. We shook hands with the new found friends, not conscious of the fact that we will likely never see them again. There was a twinkle in our eyes as we departed because we knew that the dream of a national championship would live another week. We walked, at first in a sea of red and black, towards our cars. Then as we branched out further from the stadium, our numbers dwindled, until finally Taron and I walked alone through the last dark parking lot. We drove off through the night dehydrated and drained. Faint smiles still lingered on our faces as we rode silently down a dark Georgia highway barreling headlong back into reality. But we had been there hadn’t we? What we’d felt was real, wasn’t it … just for a little while? That we were united as one, and in our hearts we’d all been young again, and hope had overflowed, and all things had seemed possible … Go Dawgs!