As I exited Williams-Brice stadium on October 6, 2012 amidst a swirl of callous Gamecock banter, the guiding principle of Arrested Development’s G.O.B Bluth was the only recurring impression able to cling to my subconscious.
Georgia had just been drubbed, 35-7, in Columbia, South Carolina, abdicating their stronghold on the SEC East in a season now hanging by a thread. Once again, a Mark Richt team failed to show up on a big stage and once again, the Dawgs appeared in the midst of a nationally caroused fall from grace.
I walked silently through South Carolina’s campus with the shine of the stadium’s lights growing ever fainter. The entire journey, G.O.B.’s iconic five words continued to streak through my head: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
Desperately, I was trying to get home. But…where was home?
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, few things are interminably linked. Fried food and the denial of heart disease. The smell of corn dogs and the 225 area code. Self worth and the success of LSU football. The usual.
Life in Baton Rouge marches to the beat one drum: that of the Golden Band from Tigerland. SEC football is more powerful than religion in more than a few cities below the Mason Dixon line. Louisiana’s capital is no exception. Saturdays are for worship, reveling in tradition set by generation’s past, watching Tiger Stadium become the state’s 6th largest city following kickoff.
Our household was no different. Arrival to campus past noon for a 7pm game was considered late. If LSU lost, no other football was consumed that evening. My childhood bedroom had purple carpets and gold walls for god’s sake.
Between the years of 2002 and 2011, I missed two home games in Tiger Stadium. Both due to scholastic missteps resulting in groundings. My parents knew exactly how I ticked. There was exactly one privilege revocation affecting my decision making.
As high school drug on though, my parents continued to impress one phrase upon me:
“You’re not going to college in the same zip code you grew up in.”
At the time, this was blasphemy. Heresy. Sacrilege. LSU was eviscerating its 2011 opponents. The hallowed LSU Student Section was on the observable horizon. Why would I leave the only school I’ve ever known right when the going was about to get good? Or so I thought.
I remember the ride down to New Orleans for the 2012 BCS National Championship remarkably well. Retrospectively, pulling onto I-10 in Baton Rouge, the gloomy day seemed symbolic of the game to be played in a dome 70-odd miles away.
There was an innate sense of unease playing Nick Saban for a second time. It was like stealing something and thinking you got away with it, only to get publicly called on your misstep.
As Eddie Lacy streaked down the left sideline, placing LSU squarely on the list of ‘Greatest Teams to Never Win a National Championship’ next to USC of 2005 and Miami’s 2002 juggernaut, for the first time in my life; football felt futile.
After the game, scrolling though social media, between misquotes of Albert Einstein talking about stupidity and insanity, one question remained constant. The 2011 season ended just like it began, with the entire Louisiana collective delivering one liquor fueled inquiry towards the BCS selection committee: “Why?”
The 21-0 defeat didn’t register like a normal loss typically did. It felt inevitable. That inevitability manifested a sense of uneasiness towards the school I once loved. In that moment, I vividly remember one inexplicable feeling: that my best memories as an LSU fan were in the rearview mirror. The game felt like a formality. Like it was the period on a sentence that had already been written.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my LSU fandom died on the field of the Superdome. The only emotion I could quantify was anger towards the opposing sideline, concentrated on one slightly built signal caller.
I’d be lying to you if I told you that those 60 minutes had nothing to do with my collegiate decision making process. The inextricable link between college football and academic institutions in the South is palpable. As is my perception of those same schools due to their on field product.
Rightfully or likely wrongfully, my university selection criteria was lax, to say the least.
South. Big. Football. At the time, that’s all that moved the needle.
I threw applications at Texas A&M, Texas, South Carolina, and Clemson, and as a long shot, Georgia.
Due to their rolling admissions process, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Clemson admitted me within a month. Near the same time, I received an email from an official UGA email address thanking me for my application. They alerted me I was placed on a near 1000 person waiting list and would contact me in the future with any updates.
One Google search I’ll never forget: “UGA 2011 Waiting List Admission Percentage.” Scrolling through data from the previous year’s class I found out that ONE of the 799 person wait list for the high school Class of 2011 admitted. Well, the decision just became a bit easier.
I had family who were alumni and one cousin currently enrolled at Texas A&M. I decided to spend a weekend in mid-February for a tour. If I could describe it in one word: acceptable. I wasn’t completely sold, but it wasn’t LSU, and it checked all the right boxes.
So, the week after, like all 2010-era teenagers, I took to social media. In one declaratory Facebook status, I posted:
TEXAS A&M CLASS OF 2016
That was that. In the same way I would dully select a pair of slacks while back to school shopping, I committed to attend a school to which I was not remotely connected.
But, on May 7, 2012, I finished my second to last high school exam to find a 12 second voicemail on my cell phone from a 706 area code.
“Mr. Stephens, this is Michael Johnson from the University of Georgia. If you could give me a call when you have a chance, I think we may have some news you’ll be excited about.”
My saint of a mother said that we should go visit Georgia, on Mother’s Day Weekend, just to make sure I really wanted to go to College Station. If you’ve ever been to Athens in May following graduation, you can confirm its ghost town-esque nature.
As we prepared to leave, the same lack of inspiration was present. I sat on the floor of our Georgia Center hotel room and used the only definitive decision making process by which I’ve ever sworn.
Flip a coin. Assign sides. As the coin is in the air, you’ll subconsciously identify what side you want to see.
Easy enough. Heads – CSTAT. Tails – Athens.
Tails never fails.
Humans crave community. Whether its through religion, music, sports, or art, we yearn to act as a piece of the larger sum. Just as misery loves company, we look to others in times of jubilation.
The 2012 football season was probably the most atypical 100 days of my life. Not only did I find myself in a city 600 miles away from home, I was disconnected with the only social fastener with which I felt comfortable: college football.
With my last minute decision to attend Georgia, flushing 3+ months of college planning down the drain, football temporarily took a backseat. So, when I showed up on campus in August of 2012, the only familiarity I had with UGA football was through my previous lens as an LSU fan.
I wanted to associate with this school’s team, but it felt inauthentic. Not even 9 months ago I was cheering as LSU snatched a 3rd SEC Title from Mark Richt.
I had a college football addiction that needed to be serviced, but no mechanic was in the shop. It was like a severe drug addiction without a supplier.
There was familiarity with the headline names. Aaron Murray. Michael Bennett. Jarvis Jones. Bacarri Rambo. But after that, it all blended together.
How was this team supposed to fare in the SEC? A freshman starting at left tackle? We’re starting a 3 star from North Carolina at running back?
As I walked into Sanford Stadium for the first time, there wasn’t a homecoming feel. It wasn’t the place I thought had always been missing. It was like the first girl you hook up with after ending a long relationship. Something was off.
That no-name from Tarboro ended up taking his first two touches as a Bulldog to the house, finishing the day with 227 total yards and 3 touchdowns. But, I didn’t see the conclusion of what we came to know as a typical Todd Gurley performance as I left at halftime.
Week 1 was discouraging. Watching a game with players with which I was unfamiliar. Half heartedly participating in foreign cheers. Feigning an attempt at fandom.
But, the week after, my first of two observable evolutions of my Georgia fanhood occurred.
The Dawgs headed to Columbia, Missouri to play the SEC’s newest Tigers. I arrived late to the watch party, cramming in between new friends on a small couch in near the back. To my right, Parks McLeod – world’s foremost authority on all Georgia news and information. Due to my large ass, he had to hold his portable beer cooler on his lap.
Nerves around me intensified as Georgia clung to a seven point 4th quarter lead. Then, in typical Jarvis Jones fashion, the senior linebacker jumped a James Franklin slant route. Simultaneously, Parks jumps, sending a soupy mixture of ice water and Natural Light soaring into the air. It felt like a baptism into my newfound religion.
Georgia started the 2012 season 5-0, bringing us back to Williams-Brice Stadium. Following the drubbing, I was accompanied by several Dawg fans providing commentary on what felt like a movie they had seen three dozen times.
“Aaron Murray can’t win the big one.” “Mark Richt is washed.” “Get me out of this godforsaken town.”
The novelty of the Missouri win had worn off. I was struggling to make the necessary connection with the school I had begun to call home. For some mystifying, unsubstantiated reason, it felt like I would permanently remain an outsider.
I decided to give Athens, The University of Georgia, and my affiliation with the school one last shot: A weekend at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
Florida was #2 in the country and following Georgia’s performance against South Carolina, the Dawgs threat to the Gators was hollow. The SEC East hung in the balance of a scale that felt heavily weighted towards the team from Gainesville.
Halfway through the 4th quarter, with Georgia nursing an unsafe 10-9 advantage, Malcolm Mitchell ran a 10 yard button hook, shed his defender near the Florida 40 yard line and bolted for daylight.
Outside of a national championship, I don’t think I’ll ever ever have another moment in my sports fandom nearly that transformative. For just the second time as a UGA student, I felt part of a whole, something bigger than myself.
I SAID IT'S GREAT TO BE A GEORGIA BULLDOG!!!
— AnJRUE Stephens (@StephensAndrew) October 28, 2012
In 2012, I wanted a national championship not for myself, but for those that had indoctrinated me into the Bulldog Nation. For me, a title would have felt cheap. But since that moment, I’ve experienced life as the world’s most typical Georgia fan.
Aaron Murray tipped passes, Prayers at Jordan Hare, Multiple losses to Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, Josh Dobbs Hail Mary’s, Faton Bauta, Head coach hirings and firings, the ushering in of a new era, and in what remains a constant in my life more than death and taxes: Nick Saban continually showing up to destroy the will of teams I support.
As I walk through Gate 10 on the East Side tomorrow, there won’t be any Nick Saban. There won’t be a Les Miles, JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, or Jacob Hester. The scenery will look familiar, but the feeling is forever different. The University of Georgia took a piece of me that it’s never giving back.
To quote the state of Georgia’s official mouthpiece, Offset: “Bitch, I’m a dawg. Woof.”
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