Or, How I Stopped Worrying About the ACC and Learned to Love the Dawgs.
Now that Kyle King's Dawgography project is in full swing, I figured I might as well share my story of how I became a rabid Georgia fan. I'll warn you now that there's nothing particularly amazing or shocking about it, but I do have a minor confession to make: In the grand scheme of things, I haven't actually been a Georgia fan that long. Compared to the multi-generation Dawgs legacies who were swaddled in Georgia onesies as they witnessed Herschel Walker shake the entire Florida defense firsthand, I'm a regular Johnny-come-lately.
But I have the excuse of having been born in Virginia, somewhat removed from SEC country. My parents both grew up in the Commonwealth -- mom on a farm about halfway between Richmond and D.C., dad in the Washington suburbs in Fairfax County -- and I was born in Roanoke. My folks both got their degrees from UVA, and I spent the first seven years of my life within an hour's drive of the Virginia Tech campus, but I don't recall either school's football program -- or college football period -- being a huge part of my life during that time. Probably because neither was all that great at football: From 1978 to 1985, the Cavaliers and Hokies went a combined 86-88-2, with only a handful of bowl bids between them. My sister and I didn't get a tremendous amount of Wahoo indoctrination from either of our parents; we were more likely to get withering assessments from my dad of just how bad the 'Hoos were before George Welsh arrived in '82.
From there we moved to northeastern Tennessee, where I at least recall having the good sense to be repulsed by Volunteer orange, but as a shrimpy, unathletic little kid -- I played teeball for a single season when I was eight years old, and wasn't even all that good when the ball was standing still -- I still didn't take a lot of affirmative interest in anything SEC-related. The closest I got to any SEC exposure was the occasional indoctrination attempt from my aunt, who'd settled in Tuscaloosa after finishing her master's degree at Alabama.
So when my family moved down to Columbus, Ga., the summer before I started high school, I didn't have any established loyalties to Georgia or anyplace else; I knew enough to get a little excited about Alabama winning the national title in 1992, but that was about it. When I started applying to colleges as a high-school junior, I set my sights on schools as far away as Michigan and Texas, and kept Georgia on the back burner. But along the way, the HOPE Scholarship happened, and I was presented with a dilemma: Go far away from home to the University of Missouri, which had the top-ranked journalism school in the country, or go to UGA, which had a pretty well-respected journalism school and free tuition. The needle began to swing in Georgia's direction when I talked it over with the late Billy Watson, the venerable publisher of our local newspaper, who told me that the statistical ranking of the school I went to didn't matter nearly as much as what I wrote and managed to get published once I got there.
Not long after that, my dad clinched it when he told me that if I went to Georgia, he'd use the money he and my mom had been saving in my college fund and buy me a car. Next stop, Athens!
Now, I'd been to Athens a few times before that for the annual "conventions" held at UGA for high-school newspapers, but I knew I'd only scratched the surface of what Athens and the university had to offer, so when dad and I motored up there in the summer of '95 for orientation, I was still more than a little bit intimidated. And when our orientation leaders gathered our group on the steps of the Tate Center to teach us how to "call the Dawgs," I'm sure my main objective was to slink to the back of the group and fade into the woodwork as quickly as possible. But evidently that's not how it happened.
As we were driving back on Sunday, dad smiled as he recalled watching the Dawg-calling "lesson" from a distance. "You never struck me as someone who was interested in being part of a big crowd and getting geeked up about sports," he said. "I figured you'd think all that stuff was kind of dumb. But when you got up there and they taught you the 'Go Dawgs' cheer, you were up there yelling it louder than anyone."
How'd it happen? I'm still not sure. For one thing, football Saturdays in Athens are almost completely inescapable -- as I discovered the hard way when I tried to move my car out of the Lumpkin Hall parking lot the morning of the Georgia-Alabama game in 1995. But a kinder and more accurate way of describing the "inescapability" of SEC football is to talk about just how infectious the energy of a Southern football Saturday is, particularly when you're sharing it with some of the best friends you've ever made in your life. More than a decade after I got my diploma, I'm still heeding the call to return to Athens and spend fall Saturdays with those same folks at the Tent City tailgate near the South Campus quad, not to mention joining those folks on forays to places as far away as Tempe or Boulder.
So I waved my Georgia flag from the Virginia alumni section for the '95 Peach Bowl, stood in a monsoon to watch the Dawgs eke out the first win of the Jim Donnan era over Texas Tech in '96, camped out for a good 24 hours in the now-legendary season-ticket line at Stegeman Coliseum in '98. By the time the spring of 1999 rolled around and my Georgia career was just about over, I was frantically calling people from pay phones in Union Station in downtown D.C. (yes, these were the days before everyone had cell phones) to find out where Champ Bailey had gone in the NFL draft. And when I went back up to Virginia for my first post-college job, at the daily newspaper in Lynchburg, I spread the good word of Dawgdom to anyone who would listen, and more than a few who wouldn't.
(Coincidentally, that's where I ran into the hottest girl from my high school, who'd moved up to the L-Boogie with her parents; we went out once, and then I made the highly questionable decision to rain-check our second date so that I could jet down to Athens and go to the Georgia-LSU game. The Dawgs had to bat down a last-second two-point-conversion attempt just to eke out a 23-22 win over a Tigers squad that would finish the season 3-8, and I never got to go out with the girl again. This is a big part of the reason why I just roll my eyes and mutter something crotchety about ungrateful kids whenever I read a Red & Black columnist disparaging Mark Richt for underachieving.)
More than a decade later, my Dawgs devotion has only increased with each passing year, through thick and thin, through upset wins in Jacksonville and inexplicable fourth-quarter collapses against Kentucky. I'm now dating a Tennessee girl who's just as rabid about the Vols as I am about the Bulldogs, and while I know there's no hope of ever converting her to the Dawg side, she's gotten several tastes of the Athens tailgating scene and is already begging to go back. (And she even bought be a UGA rep tie for Christmas. Those of you who know whom I'm talking about know what a big step this is.)
So while I still can't explain exactly how Georgia reeled me in, I know they did it with great speed and ruthless efficiency, particularly for someone who, up until that point, had been about as well-acquainted with SEC football as he was with quantum physics. The Dawgs have brought me both ecstatic joy and bottomless sorrow in the past 15 years, but never once have I regretted donning the red and black and earning my diploma from the University of Georgia.
And they also may have saved me from a lonely, pointless existence of following the ACC, which might be achievement enough. Incidentally, both of my parents have joined the cult of the red and black along with me, to the point where Georgia games dominate their weekend viewing even when I'm not around (and my mom coordinates her gameday attire with whatever Mark Richt's wearing on the sideline). Now, when it comes to academics, my dad rarely misses an opportunity to tell me how UVA is the closest thing to a "public Ivy" and, oh yeah, Thomas Jefferson founded the place. But when Saturday rolls around, our household is all Dawgs.