To me, Georgia football looks like a swath of red arcing through the browns and oranges of autumn, and it smells like notes of bourbon whiskey wafting amongst clouds of grill smoke. And it will always sound like the voice of Larry Munson, that unmistakable half-growling, half-beseeching tone calling upon all the angels and saints in heaven to help the Bulldogs hunker down one more time.
Keep in mind that's in spite of my having become a Bulldog fan in the Information Age, where I can open up my laptop in an airport in Brussels or Beijing, log on to ESPN3.com and watch Georgia take on an opponent as inconsequential as Kentucky or Vanderbilt. If you added up the number of Georgia games I've seen in person or watched on TV, I'm sure it'd dwarf the number of games I've listened to on the radio. But the sound of Georgia football is never going to be a whirring computer fan or even the voice of someone like Verne Lundquist or Sanford Stadium's own PA announcer. It's Larry. It was always Larry, and it's always going to be.
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I could probably put together a doctoral dissertation on why that is, if I had the time. I might need plenty of time, because it wasn't like Larry was a polished instrument of broadcasting. He wasn't the least bit objective (though Georgia fans, for their part, recognize that as a big part of his charm). Even in his younger years, he'd occasionally lose track of which player was which, or where the Dawgs were on the field.
And occasionally he'd set upon a seemingly inconsequential fact and gnaw on it for four quarters like a dog with a rawhide bone. Long before Tim Tebow and Riley Cooper even met, much less decided to room together, I can remember Larry narrating a drag of a game against Vanderbilt and seizing upon Vandy QB Greg Zolman's left-handedness as if it were the very Mark of the Beast that was allowing the Commodores to hang in there and harass the Dawgs as long as they did.
But doggone it, he came by it honestly. At a time when much of what passes for sports programming on TV and radio seems to be an attempt to do one of three things -- push a prefab storyline, inflame fans for the sake of inflaming them, or cram silly catchphrases into the public consciousness come hell or high water -- Larry, warts and all, represented a time when the game, not the people covering it, were supposed to be the center of attention. Sure, Larry went down in history for lines like "Run Lindsay run" and "We just stepped on their face with a hobnail boot and broke their nose," but he didn't mean to -- all that stuff just came out. There was no script to his enthusiasm. And unlike many of the broadcasters today -- who, if they came up with something as memorable as the Hobnail Boot line, would be hunting for ways to drop it into every game they covered so that their networks' online stores could sell it on T-shirts -- he never recycled old material. He recognized that you couldn't recreate that stuff any more than you could recreate the exact plays and circumstances that inspired them.
Larry Munson wasn't a journalist, and even if he was an entertainer, it was only by accident. First and foremost, he was a fan. He got excited when the Dawgs had a chance to do something good and fretted when things weren't going so well, to the point where you could almost hear his head shaking in the booth. Nobody who covers sports these days wants to admit to being surprised about anything; even when Appalachian State knocked off fifth-ranked Michigan in the Big House a few years back, you had guys coming out of the woodwork to explain why this Mountaineer strength matched up with this Wolverine weakness to make the upset virtually inevitable. But even after witnessing 42 years of Georgia football history being made, Larry never lost his capacity to be surprised, amazed, or overjoyed at what he was seeing.
We should all be so lucky.
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Larry's last game in the booth was on Sept. 6, 2008, a 56-17 Georgia shellacking of a Central Michigan team we'd paid several hundred thousand dollars to come down to Athens and get run off the field. Not the appropriate swan song for an icon like Larry Munson, you might say, and you'd probably be right. He could've called it quits after the Sugar Bowl beatdown of Hawaii eight months prior and gone out on the highest of high notes, or he could've taken a gamble and said, "I'll call the Florida game this year and if we win, that's it." But there was nothing about Larry's career that was scripted or calculated, even in the way he chose to end it.
The next home game Larry would've called, had he stuck around, was the "Blackout" debacle in which Georgia found itself down 31-0 to Alabama at halftime and had to scrape together every last point they could against the Tide's prevent defense just to lose by 11. Kind of glad Larry wasn't subjected to that one, honestly. That game, you could argue, was what started the Georgia program on the slide that lasted the better part of three years, and that they only managed to pull themselves out of this season.
I won't try to make any connection between the two events, correlation not equaling causation and all that, but I do wonder if my own feelings of doom and gloom during that decline might have been tempered by having Larry there to lead us all through it.
Larry stuck around on this earth just long enough to watch Georgia knock off Kentucky last Saturday. If he was, in fact, willing himself to live just so that he could see the Dawgs clinch their first SEC East title in six years, then that would stand as the one calculated, premeditated thing he ever did. For his sake, I kind of wish it'd been a better game, but then breathless narration of a frustratingly close contest was always one of the things he did best. "Man, we just can't seem to punch it in there, can we?" he would've grumbled as the Dawgs failed to cross the goal line in the first half. But he would've yelped in excitement when Marlon Brown caught the game-icing touchdown pass from Aaron Murray, and as Mark Richt accepted the ice-water bath of champions on the sideline as the clock ticked to zero, he would've been the happiest man in the state of Georgia.
I would say I hope he's a happy man right now up in the Great Beyond, but I know he's already fretting over the game this weekend and wondering whether we can stop that Tech triple-option. And that's what Georgia football sounds like, even though I can't hear him uttering the actual words. What I'm imagining in my head is enough.