Editor’s note: With the all-SEC national championship game set for Monday in Atlanta, we asked two prominent Southern writers—and unabashed fans—for their take on the big game. See Monte Burke’s essay about Alabama here.
I jumped straight out of my chair—my highest vertical leap since I was a teenager, a good solid three or four inches. My college 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. But as that great philosopher Lyle Lovett once wrote, “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 game I have ever seen in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma, and will play Alabama 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 adrenaline. I feel thoroughly and completely alive. The birds outside are chirping just for me.
This, I realize, is crazy.
I don’t know a single player on the Georgia team personally. Our only ties are geography and laundry. They play in Athens, the town where I went to college thirty 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 twenty 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—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, my father-in-law, Dick Felsing, went to the emergency room. My wife and I drove from our home in Charlotte 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. 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.
These Dawgs are especially easy to root for. They play analog football—they run the ball a lot and play great defense. The two star running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both passed up the NFL draft for one last year of college. The freshman QB, Jake Fromm, reminds me of Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles. I keep expecting Molly Ringwald to rush the field after every Georgia win.
I’m not a rabid Georgia fan, though. I don’t dig through the Bulldog 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.
Georgia-Oklahoma went to double overtime.
The whole Rose Bowl game felt like riding a rollercoaster blindfolded and backwards. Oklahoma went up 31–14 in the first half. Georgia came all the way back and led in the fourth quarter, then Oklahoma went back ahead, then Georgia scored with less than a minute left to tie it. In the second overtime, the Dawgs blocked a field goal. And then 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 going 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.
* * *
In 1982, my freshman year at Georgia, the football team went 11–0 and was 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 eighteen and had no sense of history.
We haven’t played for the championship since. Now, this Monday, 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 fifties. 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.
Get the other perspective here: Why You Should Pull for Alabama
Tommy Tomlinson is a Charlotte-based writer and the host of the “SouthBound” podcast. His memoir, “The Elephant in the Room,” will be published soon by Simon & Schuster.