One bright, shiny, gorgeous Autumn day in 1997, I was sitting in my home in Flowery Branch, Georgia (having moved from Florida via South Georgia) when it struck me that a significant football game was going to be played that day in a city a mere 45 minutes away, in a venue that was hallowed to me growing up as a Southern football fan. My Auburn Tigers were about to take on the Georgia Bulldogs “between the hedges” at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia.
I never got the opportunity to see a game at Sanford in the five football seasons I attended Auburn. I had been to Athens a few times for work-related conferences before I moved to North Georgia, but that day it finally sunk in that getting to Athens was no longer a stay-over journey or a sunrise-to-sunset daytrip. My rhetorical question “Why the heck am I sitting in this condo?” was answered with a bound out the door and a foot on my accelerator.
I decided to break my usual mold of the inveterate trip planner and just start cruising with cash in my pocket and an Auburn shirt on my back. My “plan” was simple: drive to Athens, find a place to park, and check out the scene in that proud football town. If I didn’t like the scene (snotty fans, too many drunks, “AUBURN SUCKS” banners) I would just turn around and go back home—heck, it was only an hour out of my life, and a beautiful day to drive through backroads Georgia. If I did like the scene, I’d see if I could get a ticket at a reasonable price. If I couldn’t get a ticket, I figured there would be a theater venue that would be showing the game on the big screen that I could watch with fans of both persuasions.
Well, I was glad to find (back then, at least) that the scene was great. It was everything you could want in a college football game day. There was positive energy coming from all the Georgia fans, with none of the angry snarling and razzing seen among many fans these days. The Auburn folks there were all upbeat as well, and many a holler of “WAR EAGLE” could be heard. This year, there was a special urgency and excitement among the Bulldog fans, as Georgia just came off beating Florida and Auburn had just lost REALLY BAD to Mississippi State.
No one said it, but I could feel it in the air from all the Georgia fans there: “This is the year we FINALLY get past BOTH Florida AND Auburn and take the SEC East!” Auburn was said to have “no running game” that year, and Georgia’s defense was a brick wall. It felt like a sure thing for Georgia folk, but …
There was no head-hanging from the Auburn pilgrims. This was going to be an old-fashioned smashmouth game on the field, and a powerful but goodhearted rivalry in the stands.
I found a place to park at the Athens Holiday Inn. I was surprised to see that a barbecue was being hosted at the hotel by the Athens Area Auburn Club—talk about deep in enemy territory! After some excellent BBQ and Auburn fellowship, I decided to “do the town” before figuring out how to see the game. Very soon in my peripetations, however, I found an Auburn fan with an extra ticket for a reasonable price. Holy Heck, I was finally going between the hedges! To feel the ghosts of Dooley and Herschel, where AU and UGA had determined several SEC championships in recent times—this in and of itself required some celebration!
As I was walking in downtown Athens, feeling as proud as an Auburn man could be, I saw a man near me wearing a red cap with the “Uga” bulldog logo, walking with a group of fellow Georgia fan friends. His unsteady gait betrayed that he had already broken into more than his share of “pre-game cheer.” When the light at the intersection changed to red, this gentleman had to be grabbed by the elbow to keep from walking into the soon-to-be-rolling traffic. Upon being tugged back to the corner, he said loudly to his friends, “I know that light changed; what do I look like, STUPID?”
Oh me oh my, such an opportunity does not arise in life that often, and when someone opens a door like that, you better be ready to step right on in. I took a fast but deep breath to utter the greatest zinger I ever threw out in all my Auburn fandom:
“No, but you DO have that Bulldog on your cap!”
The almost exclusively Georgia crowd at that corner let out a collective “WOAH!” realizing that I had landed one right to the chin in the friendly bout of fan-to-fan repartee. There was no coherent response from the victim; I believe neither his intellectual faculties nor attention span was the greatest at that point in time.
(When I told this story to my wife, she asked me, “Were you trying to get beat up?” I had to explain that things were different then, that Auburn and Georgia fans used to shoot fun jibes back-and-forth without trying to HURT anyone. It was all about fun for the most part, not anger or ego, and it was up to you to give as good as you got. I sure wish it was more like that these days.)
As it was getting towards game time, I started towards the stadium, sharing the sense of excitement coming from the fans of both teams. I passed through the famous arches at the front of the Georgia campus and started down the pathway to Sanford with a very, very large crowd. Now, because Georgia had just beat Florida, and were primed to beat a somewhat-down Auburn to take their first SEC East Division title, I had heard that there were more people there for that game than any game before. That was certainly borne out by my walk to the stadium. Well, I say walk; it was more like a cattle round-up, at several points of which I was actually lifted up off my feet and carried by the shoulder-to-shoulder pressure of the largest crowd soon-to-be-in Sanford Stadium.
I finally made it, surprisingly in one piece, to Sanford. However, going through the stadium gates reminded me of that scene in Willie Wonka where the kid gets shot through the chocolate factory piping. After that, I started to find my way to my seat, but first I needed to go to the bathroom. I have often heard the phrase “They were directing traffic” used to describe a busy hallway or such, but the security guards at Sanford literally WERE directing traffic into and out of the men’s room. And they weren’t only directing the traffic, but aiding it as well, by physically pushing people in and pulling people out. This was nearest thing to pandemonium I had ever seen in a bathroom!
I located my seat, and found the Auburn fan from whom I bought the ticket in the seat next to mine. I took a minute to take in where I was, to locate the famous railroad viaduct (now blocked by stands), to see the famous hedges (copied by Auburn as a crowd control feature after the famous “hose” game against, oddly enough, these Georgia Bulldogs). There seemed to be a thorough mix of Auburn and Georgia folks in our section, so I never figured out in whose section I was located. It didn’t matter who was around me, though—I was going to yell and scream and cheer like never before and push the Tigers to victory!
Out came the Tigers, out came the Bulldogs—the Marching Redcoats band played “Glory, Glory” and I gladly hollered “A-U-B-U-R-N” to counterpoint, at least in part, the “g-e-O-R-G-I-A” coming from the majority of the folks there. Oh boy, this was what football was supposed to be all about! I only hoped that the Tigers could come out on top this time, but we all knew, with “no running game,” that this would be an uphill climb.
And the Tigers came out and ran the ball down Georgia’s throat—again and again and again and again. First down followed first down as Auburn kept moving the ball towards and across the Georgia goal line. Georgia themselves couldn’t get much going against the orange-and-blue wall of a defense. The points went up and up on the visitor side of the board, and not so much on the other, until a few meaningless scores by UGA late in the fourth quarter. As the sun set and the cold wind picked up, the stadium started to empty of its red-and-black clad supporters.
That sense of urgency and energy turned into a sense of resignation that THIS was NOT the year it was going to happen for the Bulldogs. A funereal atmosphere began to reign. And I was just sitting there, sucking in every drop of it. I counted down the seconds on the game clock, and when triple-zeros appeared, the score was 45-34 for the Men in Blue!
Wow. That was the only thing I could think—wow. Well, that and the fact that I wished I had brought a heavier jacket for a windy November night. I thanked the AU alum with which I shared the game, and made my way back to my car, still safely tucked in at the hotel parking lot. When I got home, I realized that experiences like these were what college football was all about. These experiences are why college football matters. Football may not cure disease, nor bring world peace, but it matters.
And for one fleeting moment, I really, really WAS a part of a tradition that stretched back over a hundred years: an integral part of that tradition, that also integrally includes every Auburn or Georgia man, woman, and child that ever did or ever will put on the Orange-and-Blue or Red-and-Black. As I lay down to sleep that night, I had to admit that it’s great to be an Auburn Tiger, or a Georgia Bulldog, but ESPECIALLY an Auburn Tiger.
(who knows we are playing at Jordan-Hare this year, but hopes the outcome is the same!)
Tags: Auburn blogs, Auburn man's Sanford saga, Auburn Tigers Football, Michael Val Hietter, South's Oldest Football Rivalry, Track 'em Tigers