I was 26 when my daddy died, and in all those years, I heard him curse exactly once.
It was the weekend of the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville. I brought some of my friends from UGA to our house in Brunswick, on the Georgia coast, before we headed to the game. My mama set out chicken and cornbread and mashed potatoes and went back to the kitchen for something. My daddy checked to make sure she wasn’t listening. Then he said he’d been in town that morning and had seen a car with a message shoe-polished on the back windshield.
I should stop here and make sure you understand. My daddy was a churchgoing man, a teetotaler, a nightly reader of Psalms. His only vices at that point in his life were chewing tobacco and the Bass Pro Shops catalog.
“Do you know what the sign said?” he whispered, drawing us in around the table. “It said F--- FLORIDA.”
I about coughed up a quart of sweet tea. When I caught my breath and looked up, he smiled.
He didn’t even care about football. But he knew I cared about it. And he knew I cared about Georgia-Florida most of all.
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The Georgia-Florida game is about the territory south of Atlanta and north of Orlando. This land is my land. People eat boiled peanuts and hold rattlesnake roundups and know the words to the first and last verses of “Amazing Grace.” It should be its own state. Jacksonville would be the capital.
Growing up, I listened to a shock jock called the Greaseman on Jacksonville’s WAPE. I saw Andre the Giant win a battle royal at the Jacksonville Coliseum. That was the same place I saw my first concert. Nazareth and Blackfoot. The singer for Nazareth spent half the show with a pair of panties on his head.
When I was little, shooting hoops by myself in the backyard, I’d pretend I was Jimmy DuBose, a great Florida running back of the early ’70s. I liked the Gators and the Bulldogs equally. But growing up is about making decisions. You have to pick a team. I was on the Georgia side of the line, and I bought all the way in. I still remember the pain of Georgia losing to Stanford 25-22 in the 1978 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. I didn’t have to look that score up.
Some people choose their college based on academic reputation or scholarships or other such logical things. Here’s how I chose: On Nov. 8, 1980, I was on my high-school debate team and we were in Athens for a tournament at UGA. We had finished our last round and were waiting for the scores. Some guys in the back of the auditorium were listening to the Georgia-Florida game on the radio. They just about turned it off when Florida, up 21-20, punted Georgia back to its own eight with 1:35 left. Georgia quarterback Buck Belue lost a yard on a scramble, then threw an incomplete pass. It was third down and 93 yards to the other end zone.
The guys with the radio started screaming. All of a sudden, from outside, we heard car horns. We ran out and saw UGA students running up and down the street, throwing toilet paper into trees, hugging and shouting and spraying beer and rolling on the ground in joy.
That’s when I knew where I was going to college.
I didn’t hear Larry Munson’s call until a few days later -- there was no “SportsCenter” or YouTube back then. It is the greatest call in sports history, and do not even try to argue about this. It struck especially deep with me for two reasons. One, Munson mentioned St. Simons, and Jekyll Island, and all those places where all those Dawg people have got those condominiums. We lived on St. Simons until I was 12. That was my county. That was my homeland.
The other part -- well, it’s harder to explain. I was a fat kid, no good at kickball, always picked last for relay races. I loved the Braves, who were the worst team in baseball back then, and the Falcons, who specialized in breaking hearts. I had even latched on to the Red Sox just in time to see Bucky Dent’s homer fly over the wall. When Munson said:
… 26 to 21, DAWGS on top. We were gone. I gave up. You did too. We were out of it and gone. MIRACLE!
… I felt like all that love I put into sports had paid off. Miracles could happen. They could happen to my team. They could happen to me.
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For years a group of us had the same routine. We’d stop at my folks’ house on the way down, get to Jacksonville, throw our bags in our hotel rooms and go have supper at Beach Road Chicken. The beauty of a neutral site is that the crowd is 50-50. And it would be that way at Beach Road Chicken, at the hotel, at the bars down on the Landing by the St. Johns River, at the little jiffy mart where you stopped to get fresh beer and ice the morning of the game. Always somebody yapping at you. Always somebody who had your back.
My friend David Duclos and I got last-minute tickets one year, way too late to find a hotel, so we slept in his blue Camaro in the Gator Bowl parking lot until a cop ran us off at sunrise. Inside the stadium, no matter where we were sitting, we’d run down to the Georgia tunnel and pound on the awning until the players started pounding back from the inside, like some crazy drum circle.
We found girlfriends there, and lost them. We lounged around, six to a hotel room, and discussed the mysteries of the universe. We even talked to Florida fans, and many of them seemed smart and funny, even though they were clearly not as enlightened as us, because they had made such a terrible choice.
A game against your biggest rival is about the glory of winning, but more than that it’s about the pain you cause the loser. Many Florida fans have told me that their favorite game in the series was in 2002, when a Gator team that would end up 8-5 gave Georgia its only loss of the year and cost the Dawgs a shot at the national title.
My favorite was 1985. That year, the week before the game, Florida rose to No. 1 for the first time in its history. We drove down, had our Beach Road Chicken, pounded on the tunnel … and a middling Georgia team (the Bulldogs would finish 7-3-2) crushed Florida 24-3.
After the game, for the first and only time in my life, I ran onto the field. (There’s a video of the end of the game; if you see me in there, let me know.) I high-fived a cop. I grabbed some guy and we head-butted each other so hard that we staggered. I dropped to my knees and clawed up a square of the Gator Bowl turf. I kept it in a bag in my closet for years. One of my roommates thought it was pot.
I went a few more years after college, and then went to the only Georgia-Florida game in Athens, when they were renovating the Gator Bowl in 1995. By then Florida was killing Georgia every year. Florida coach Steve Spurrier called a flea-flicker at the end so the Gators could be the first team to score 50 at Sanford Stadium. For the first and only time in my life, I left a Georgia game early.
It’s been a weird, streaky series. In the ’70s and ’80s, Georgia won 15 out of 20. A.S.S. (After Steve Spurrier), Florida has won 18 out of 22. It’s not that common for both teams to be good at the same time. This year, Florida is 7-0 and No. 2 in the BCS; Georgia is 6-1 and No. 10. Florida is a solid favorite. But Georgia’s gonna win. That’s how I feel before every Georgia-Florida game, until the facts prove different.
If your team loses, it loses. But don’t sit around before the game expecting to get beat. Push your heart all the way in. Figure on miracles.
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The lesson you learn, if you pay attention long enough, is that your enemies aren’t that different from you. I still hate the Gators, but it’s sports hate, not real hate. If my folks had lived on the other side of the line, down in Ocala or Yulee, I’d be a Florida fan. I wouldn’t enjoy wearing jean shorts and worshipping Danny Wuerffel and doing that stupid “two bits” cheer, but that’s how it goes.
The point, I think, is not so much who you root for. The point is rooting. It feels so good to have something that bonds you to your friends and connects you to strangers. It feels so good to have one game every year that concentrates all that emotion and sends it in one direction like arrows flying to a target. My friends in Indy and Phoenix and Kentucky and Japan will all be thinking the same thing on Saturday afternoon, and it’ll be something along the lines of what my daddy said at the dining room table all those years ago.
Sports aren’t much less complicated than life in general. But what sports can do, for a few hours, is bring your life some clarity. My clarity comes on Saturday afternoon. I want Georgia to win by eight touchdowns, and I want the Florida bus to get a flat tire on the way back to Gainesville. I want these things because years ago I chose a team. And this is our big game.
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