ATLANTA -- Mark Richt’s wife, Katharyn, waited for him in the hallway outside the Georgia locker room. She sat on a black platform in the middle of a small, tight group. Nobody spoke much. You could smell the diesel fumes from the buses idling around the corner, and hear the blowers on the field piling up Alabama’s victory confetti, but here in the hallway it felt like a hospital waiting room, with family and friends trying to accept this little death.
The players were out there in the buses. They had tried to explain what it felt like at the end, when they had the ball at the Alabama eight-yard line, with a chance to win the best SEC title game there ever was and advance to the national championshp game, and could not get all the way home. A TV guy asked Todd Gurley, the freshman running back, a convoluted question about frustration and comebacks and pride, and Gurley just looked up at the end and said, “I mean, it’s life, man.”
I should probably be writing two columns. One would tell you all about this amazing game. The crowd, split 50-50 and deafening on both sides. Five lead changes. A blocked field goal for a TD. Alabama, after running the ball relentlessly, throwing a bomb for the go-ahead score. Georgia -- resurrected by an interception overturned on review -- going 80 yards in the last 1:08. And that last play: a tipped pass unexpectedly dropping into the hands of receiver Chris Conley, who did what he’s trained to do -- catch it -- but fell short of the end zone as the clock ran out.
The other column would tell you what it was like to watch all that as a Georgia grad and lifelong fan, how I had to swallow my shouts (or divert them to Twitter) because there’s no cheering in the press box, how my credential got me on the field and behind the Georgia end zone as the Bulldogs drove right toward me to win the biggest game a Georgia team had played in 30 years … and how I saw them cry and curse as they walked off the field while that stupid confetti fell.
Maybe that’s two columns. But it all happened at the same time, and it’s all mixed together in my head, and this is how sports and life and death work, right? Messy.
So I went down and sat a little distance from Katharyn Richt and her little group, and waited for her husband to come out.
Mark Richt coached the game of his life even though Georgia lost. His team was bold to the end and never scared of Nick Saban and Alabama, even when the Tide ran Georgia to the edge of exhaustion (Eddie Lacy, 181 yards rushing; T.J. Yeldon, 153). From the opening kick to the last play it felt like a match of equals, on the field and on the sideline. And that has not always been true.
In the news conference after the game, somebody hinted that Richt and quarterback Aaron Murray always come up short in big games. Richt bristled a little but blew the question off -- “I’m not worried about that” -- and walked offstage. But he stood for a second in the little area behind the curtain and slammed his drink to the ground. Then he turned around and came back to the podium. “If anybody thinks our guys didn’t play their tail off, Aaron Murray didn’t play his tail off, they’re crazy,” he said.
It was as close to fury as most people have ever seen from Mark Richt.
Sometimes, as fans, we think it hurts us to lose more than it hurts the players and coaches. Don’t fool yourself. Here’s tight end Arthur Lynch, who caught three huge passes on that last drive, flinging his helmet through the end zone after it was over. Here’s linebacker Alec Ogletree, who ran back the blocked field goal for a TD, slamming his towel on the ground over and over and over. Here’s Jarvis Jones, the all-world linebacker, swallowing hard to reroute the tears.
Here are the Georgia fans, staying in the stands to watch Alabama celebrate, figuring if they had to take the pain, they might as well take it all.
Why do sports hold so much power? Not because they’re life and death -- they’re not. But they make us feel life and death, in all its messy glory, in all its numbing agony. I felt all those things Saturday night, and so did those 75,000 people in the Georgia Dome, and so did all those millions watching and listening, even those who didn’t care who won and lost, but were screaming at the end because the game made them feel.
And now, more than an hour after it was over, here comes Mark Richt out of the locker room.
He’s eating from a bag of chips and holding a Coke. He just stands there for a second, not sure where to go.
Katharyn jumps up and walks over and they kiss. She says something soft, just for him, and he nods. He goes over to say hey to the rest of the group, and a couple of them hug him, but there’s not a whole lot to say. Everybody just stands there for a second. Then Richt starts to wander toward the buses.
Behind him, everybody exchanges glances. Are we leaving now? I guess we’re leaving now.
This is the way it ends. Sometimes there’s no revelation, no great pronouncement. It’s not a movie. It’s life. You do your best. Then you get on the bus and go home.