There are three inevitable rites of passage for a young man in the state of Georgia, which are circumcision, baptism and the irrevocable choice of being a University of Georgia or Georgia Tech fan. Simply put, one cannot be both. Pulling for both schools would be as taboo as claiming to be a Christian and Muslim at the same time. Growing up a Georgia Tech fan, I was in the minority in a passionate sea of red and black Bulldog fanatics in my home state. My curse was basketball. I played since I could walk on two legs and in the mid-’80s I lived for Mark Price, John Salley and Georgia Tech basketball — sealing my fate as a Rambling Wreck loyalist.
However, University of Georgia fans dominate the state, and their religion is football. They bark in public. They memorize decades of players and marquee moments “between the hedges” and even name their children (and pets) after the likes of Vince Dooley, Herschel Walker and Fran Tarkenton. Yet for anyone who is familiar with the Bulldog faithful, they understand the sectarian affinity that UGA fans attach to their school, which consequently led to numerous bar fights, divorces and exclusions from family reunions during my young adult life. To say the least, the “Dawgs” and Yellowjackets hate one another.
So why in the hell was I pulling for Georgia in Monday’s college football National Championship loss to Alabama? To admit this is just like the time I admitted I “kind of” like Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” at the bar. You can never take that back. And once it leaves your lips, you lose a few friends immediately following the admission. In fact, before Monday, I would have probably cheered for North Korea if they were playing the University of Georgia in anything outside of human rights.
That being said, there was an all too familiar feeling looming in my gut as I watched the Bulldogs squander a 13-0 halftime lead to Alabama. Georgia, which has not celebrated a football title since 1980, had seemingly aligned the stars. They reached the championship game in historic fashion, defeating Oklahoma in two overtimes to reach the final, which was being played just 45 minutes from their campus in the friendly confines of Atlanta. Most of all, the perennial heavyweights from Alabama looked dazed and startled walking into the half with a goose egg on the scoreboard.
But then it began. A bad call nullified a blocked punt and potential touchdown for the Dawgs. A pass bounced off a Bama defender’s head for a crucial interception. And a blatant face mask call was missed and the momentum swung to the Tide. And give credit to Alabama, they stepped up in the most crucial of moments. But in the end, another Georgia sports team came up short after blowing a lead and ample opportunities in the biggest of games.
And then it hit me. I wasn’t pulling for the Bulldogs. I was pulling for my home state. My heart hadn’t fully healed from the Atlanta Falcons’ epic meltdown in the previous Super Bowl, where the birds squandered a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in what is now considered one of the greatest choke jobs of all time. And watching the Bulldogs lose on another grand stage was like watching a distant cousin get beat up by a bully. You may not like that particular cousin, but he’s still family and it reflects on us all.
The state of Georgia lives and breathes sports. It ranks fourth amongst states with current NFL players (just behind Florida, California and Texas) and pumps out myriad NBA and MLB stars. It also serves as one of the most fertile recruiting grounds for NCAA sports. Yet to hear Georgia residents speak about their athletic exploits is similar to Wile E. Coyote boasting about his chase for the elusive Road Runner. The passion is there. The results are not.
Since the University of Georgia last won the NCAA football crown in 1980, only one other college, Georgia Tech, has a Division I football title, which came in the dubious form of co-champions in 1990. The Atlanta Braves boast the state’s only professional sports title back in 1995. But they also lost the Series in ’91, ’92, ’96 and ’99 — not to mention a decade of disappointing playoff loses with one of the greatest pitching staffs in MLB history. The Falcons have reached the Super Bowl twice, falling each time, in ’99 and 2017. And the Atlanta Hawks — well, let’s just say they traded Atlanta’s biggest star in history, Dominque Wilkins, for an ailing Danny Manning in 1994 and the basketball gods have never forgiven their sins (they still have 0 NBA Final appearances).
Maybe it’s in the red clay or the towering Georgia pines, but the state of Georgia is starved terrain in search of championship nourishment. The Bulldogs’ most recent defeat is a culmination of disappointing finishes in the Peach State. This isn’t to sound unappreciative, as there have been triumphant divisional titles and conference milestones—but history judges sports merits on the finished product and the state of Georgia has little to show. And while my son, who was born in the Florida Keys, will have his own crosses to bear with the Miami Dolphins and Marlins — or perhaps the Hurricanes, Gators or Noles — I have spared him the 40 years of heartbreak and disappointment that only a Georgia-bred fan can understand, and was reminded of, this past Monday.