I'm not sure if it's part of the aging process, or what, but over the past decade I've fallen into a routine of requesting a press pass during the course of any season to witness college and professional sporting events. I do it to keep myself aware of how intense and proficient the level of competition is on those elevated stages. It's been my experience that, just as muscles atrophy when a person fails to exercise, the senses and memories tend to fade a bit if one stays away too long. That makes it hard to write a descriptive column from afar with dusty files for memories. And that, in turn, makes it unfair to the reader.
For example, last year at a Braves game, I was startled when John Smoltz opened the game with a fastball. I heard the sizzle of that high heat from my seat, and realized that my state of amazement was a signal that I'd been away from the major league game too long. That day served as a personal wakeup call, a refresher course if you will, of the chasm which exists between what big league players and normal folks can do.
As the 2007 football season approached, and aware that due to my airline work schedule I'd not seen a college game in person since Notre Dame visited Georgia Tech last year, I determined to revisit Sanford Stadium at some point to see the Georgia Bulldogs play.
Opportunity knocked a few weeks ago as I talked football at work with a co-worker who was transplanted from Texas when the airline closed its base in Dallas/Fort Worth. My buddy, Bill Davidson, a pretty fair photographer in his own right, being from Big 12 and Texas Longhorns land, was wondering aloud what the Southeastern Conference was all about. The wheels started turning, and one thing led gradually to another.
And thus it came about that, last Saturday, I took Bill over to Athens to kill a couple of birds with one stone. On one hand, it was a great chance to introduce the Texan to an SEC school and to see the Bulldogs play. But on the other hand, I had a deep need to get myself back to Sanford Stadium.
Why? Oh, I don't know, really. Maybe it was for that aforementioned refresher course to help me stay sharp as a writer. Or maybe because going back to Sanford Stadium let me recall simpler times, of being young and having my whole life ahead of me. Snapshots of some of the best times ever swirl through my mind's eye as thick as flies at a watermelon cutting, and I relish chance meetings in Sanford with folks I haven't seen in a while, even as I remember others long gone.
More simply, though, it's like the feeling I get when I tell my wife I've got to go home. She knows that means I'm heading for my hometown of Greensboro just to see it, just to find the key and let myself in my old church for a prayer, and just to reconnect with things that matter.
Yeah, that's it. Going to Sanford Stadium is exactly like that for me: Going home, connecting to things that matter.
With game-day traffic, it took us 90 minutes to get to Athens. On the way I must have told Bill 100 stories about the place he was about to see. I told him about the creek that runs under the stadium, and the way the facility looked in the 1960's before the first double deck was added, when I ushered as a Boy Scout.
The press parking pass put us in the River Road lot across from Gate 6, and I showed Bill the railroad track and trestle there. I told him how in the old days folks would bring their lawn chairs and watch the game from the trestle overlooking the east end zone, even as others perched on the viaduct and watched from the west end zone. And I recalled how special the moment was, as a young scout, when I'd enter the stadium and smell the Poss Bar-B-Q aroma wafting up from the concession stands under the viaduct near the book store.
I got my first little tingle as we entered Gate 6 and encountered Boy Scouts handing out funeral-parlor-style fans, and offering to help folks find their seats, just as I'd done 40 something years ago.
As the specialty team players were just beginning to filter out of the dressing room onto the field, we had a few minutes and headed for the press box. I got a second little tingle - actually more like a visceral charge - as I heard the Redcoat Band begin warming up with John Williams' theme from "Superman." The fanfare started off really quietly, then the volume built until it slap filled up Sanford with the unique, bright brass Redcoat sound introduced by 1960's band man Roger Dantz and which every conductor since has been smart enough to retain.
My mission on this gorgeous day was simple: I wanted to watch and listen to the two men who have been the voices of the Georgia Bulldogs for decades. Most fans know of legendary radio announcer Larry Munson, and the fact that he will retire after this season.
Not quite as many would recognize Brook Whitmire, who since 1992 has been the Sanford Stadium announcer. The duo makes every game day in Athens special. Georgia fans swear by Munson's emotional calls, begging the Dawgs to "hunker down one more time." Whilst I acknowledge Munson's unique delivery and admire his longevity, I never fail to marvel at the professionalism Whitmire brings to stadium announcing. You simply will not find anyone better at it, anywhere. Period.
The Bulldogs began pre-game stretching with 103 players dressed out. Bill headed for the field with his camera, and I settled into my press box seat next to Red & Black editor John Ard, who came to UGA in 1962. John and I swapped tales from the days when folks would spread blankets on the steep hillsides adjoining the north stands, and students would watch the games from the rooftops of their nearby dormitories.
At 12:45 p.m. Brook Whitmire's voice filled the air with a single, powerful statement: "It's Saturday afternoon in Athens, Georgia!" And the whole place came alive. Game on.
The Redcoats entered the field, and a lone trumpet soloist way up in the southwest corner of the stadium played the first few bars of "the Bulldog national anthem." The Redcoats joined in and a minute later the place was thundering.
By now you know that the Bulldogs overwhelmed the Western Carolina Catamounts. You may not know that with the victory the current mascot, UGA VI, became the winning-est Bulldog mascot of all time, as Georgia has won more games on his watch than for any of his predecessors.
After the game, Georgia head coach Mark Richt told me that the thing he was happiest about other than the "W" was that so many of his kids got to play; between 80 to 90 of those 103 players who dressed actually got in the game.
And as for my buddy, Bill Davidson? The Texan had gone where relatively few of us have been, that is "between the hedges" for the whole game. He had a moment with Richt and told him, "Coach, today you sold me on Georgia football."
Mission accomplished. It's a pretty great day when you can introduce a friend to Georgia Bulldogs football, and at the same time revisit a place that helped make you who you are.
Whoever said you can't go home again?