I was born and grew up in Athens, Georgia.
Sanford Stadium was always a very special place. The first UGA game I can remember going to was when I was 6 in 1948 and saw the Dawgs beat Tech.
That would be the last time we beat the crowd from North Avenue for eight long years, known as “the drought.”
I grew up dreaming of playing for Georgia in Sanford Stadium. The closest I ever came was when I played in intramural games for the Athens YMCA between the time the teams warmed up and came back on to the field when I was in the fourth and fifth grades. I had grown up hearing my father telling that as a freshman he was there the first game ever played in Sanford when the Georgia Bulldogs beat the Yale Bulldogs. Someday I dreamed I would play for my home state.
One lesson we all learn as we move through life is that not all of our dreams will come true. Do not misunderstand; I have been very blessed and much of what I dreamed of has come true and the reality is even greater than the fantasy.
But the dream to play in Sanford Stadium never got off the ground.
Over the years that dream faded and I knew I would never get to play on that hallowed ground, but my dream is about to come true as I live vicariously through my grandson, Zac Johnston. Next Saturday, his team from Charleston Southern University will be in Athens to play UGA. I will be there and for the first time I will not be wearing red and black, but blue and gold. I know the odds will be way against the UCS Buccaneers, but that will not matter. I will be living the dream and I would remind you that last month CSU came within one point of beating Vanderbilt which would have made them only the fifth FCS team to be a SEC school.
Zac, the son of Ronnie and Kelley Johnston, played for two years at Eastside under the tutelage of Coach Rick Hurst. Both years, Zac started on the offense as a wide receiver and on defense as a safety.
His junior year the Eagles went to the elite eight only to lose Cairo, who went on to win the state and the next year to the semi-finals where they lost to Peach County who also went on to win state. It was a lot of fun following the Eagles those two years.
Before coming to Eastside, Zac played at Wesleyan School in Norcross, where he held the season record for receptions. One of his teammates there, and in junior league football since the fourth grade, was David Andrews, the star center for the Dawgs. There will be a little added drama Saturday as the two old team mates meet on the field, Zac playing middle linebacker and Andrews right across the line.
After graduating from Eastside in 2010, Zac was invited to walk on at Charleston Southern. The dream of a scholarship was not yet fulfilled. But after “red shirting” for one year, Zac became the first freshman in school history to be awarded the Eddie Gadison Scholarship named for a past walk on that became a star at CSU and given to the player most likely to succeed. Zac was determined to keep alive the dream of playing college ball.
He not only kept the dream alive but for four seasons started as a linebacker, first on the outside and the last two years as the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker is the “quarterback” of the defense. The first week he was on campus he met a young volleyball player from Iowa starting at CSU, Maggie Murphy. Last May, I lived the dream of officiating at their marriage. They will be moving to Covington following the end of this football season.
The past two seasons have been the best in school history and now they come to end of the regular season with the game against Georgia in Athens. Linda and I plan to be in the stands watching our grandson with pride. We are so proud of the man he has become. Because he wouldn’t give up on his dream, I get to live my dream.
Life takes interesting turns for all of us. I could not be happier to “fulfill” my Sanford dream through my grandson. I am reminded of a Swedish proverb, “a sorrow shared is cut in half, a joy shared is doubled.” Truly, to see his joy playing in Athens is far better than if I had been able to play. When we do not allow ourselves to share the joys of another we miss so much in life.
I appreciate you reading these thoughts from a very proud grandfather. My father used to say when someone said something nice about my brother or me, “If you don’t improve with the next generation why bother to have them.” Well I can truly say that about all three of my children and all four grandchildren. Now I am just waiting for the next generation, and for one Saturday I will be chanting “Go Bucs” instead of “Go Dawgs.”
E. Wiley Stephens is a retired United Methodist Minister and author who now resides in Covington.