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(Curtis Compton/AJC)
Georgia cornerback Malkom Parrish raises his arms and toward safety Dominick Sanders in incredulity as Alabama's Devonta Smith crosses the goal line unimpeded for a 41-yard, game-winning touchdown catch in last January's National Championship Game.

A year later, ‘Second-and-26’ still hard for Georgia’s victimized DBs to discuss

ATHENS — On Jan. 1, 1982, nobody could find Buck Belue. The quarterback who led Georgia to a national championship in 1980 and three straight SEC titles had reporters looking for him in the locker room in the minutes following yet another appearance by the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl.

Belue will admit it now, but nobody knew it then. He was hiding in the shower. He was crying.

Georgia had failed to win another national championship and the loss to Pitt had happened in the most excruciating of fashion. Pitt’s Dan Marino threw a 33-yard touchdown pass with seconds remaining to score a 24-20 victory.

And while it went down as a great day for Marino, it wasn’t a great one for Belue. He completed only 8 of his 15 passes for 83 yards that day and threw two interceptions.

Now, everybody wanted to hear from the senior quarterback and team captain who’d just played his last game as a Georgia Bulldog. Belue was in no mood to talk.

“I’m back in the shower hiding out; I was shedding a couple of tears,” Belue said. “One of the guys came back there and said, ‘hey, man, you’ve got to get it together and get out here.’ It was my roommate, Gary Guthrie, who was a manager on the team. And thank goodness it was him. I didn’t want to be sobbing in front of anybody else. He just sort of told me, ‘you’ve got to pull it together, they’re waiting for you out there.’”

So Belue wiped his face, took a deep breath, and walked out of the shower and into a scrum of reporters gathered around his locker to hear his thoughts on what had just happened.

Thirty-six years later, Belue is glad he made that choice. Sure, he was still hurting that day and it was no fun discussing what at the moment felt like one of the worst days of his life. But in a lot of ways, it was cathartic, and necessary.

“If you’re going to get in front of them when things are good, you better do it when things aren’t so good or people aren’t going to respect you,” said Belue, today a popular talk-radio personality and college football analysts. “It’s just what you do.”

Georgia football-Towers' Take-2nd-and-26 shouldn't blemish remarkable careers of Georgia's victimized DBs-Georgia Bulldogs-Alabama Crimson Tide-SEC Championship
Dominick Sanders made a bunch of huge plays during his career as a four-year starting safety for the Bulldogs, including scooping up a blocked field goal against Auburn in last year’s SEC Championship Game.

Belue’s story is exactly the same as the one shared by former Bulldogs Malkom Parrish and Dominick Sanders. They were the defensive backs victimized on the play last January forever to be known in Georgia lore as “Second-and-26.”

Georgia was leading Alabama 23-20 in overtime after a 51-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal. On first down from the 25, freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was sacked for a 13-yard loss by Georgia’s Davin Bellamy and Jonathan Ledbetter. The pro-Bulldog crowd was up on its feet and roaring, anticipating the school’s first national championship in three and half decades.

But on second down, Tagovailoa received the shotgun snap, took a long look to the right side of the field, then turned his head quickly left and unleashed a high-arcing spiral toward the Georgia sideline. At the end of it was freshman receiver DeVonta Smith, who ran under the ball without breaking stride and hauled it in just before breaking the plane of the goal line for a game-winning touchdown.

Trailing Smith from a considerable distance was senior cornerback Malkom Parrish, both hands raised as if to say “what happened?” Also arriving late from the middle of the field was senior safety Dominick Sanders.

It was a blown coverage, simple as that. But that was the last time in a while Parrish and Sanders would be seen by the sporting public. Like Belue, Parrish and Sanders hid in the showers in the Bulldogs’ locker room. Nobody knows if any tears were shed, but nobody could blame them if there were.

Unlike Belue 36 years before, nobody convinced the cornerbacks they should come out and talk about it. So there in the shower they remained, for at least 45 minutes as that’s how long before the mandatory open-locker room period expired.

It’s too bad because, again, it was nothing more than a simple blown coverage. Sanders, a veteran safety, had been successfully looked off by a wily freshman quarterback and fooled by a decoying tight end slanting across the middle.

Parrish, who looked culpable futilely chasing the play, actually did nothing wrong. Lined up seven yards off the line of scrimmage, he’d have been flagged for putting his hands on the receiver, whom he released to the inside as taught.

Great play call, great execution.

“The quarterback made a good play,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who has had more than a few fresh views of the play as he studied Alabama this week. “He looked off a veteran safety and did a good job firing the ball. I think he knew where he was going with the ball the whole time. He’s really good at setting up DBs and safeties. He has good intuition on where he wants to throw the ball.”

Sanders never addressed the play with local reporters and, by association, Georgia fans. But to his credit, he did discuss it briefly at the NFL combine last March.

“He kind of looked me off,” Sanders told SEC Country. “I kind of opened up towards the middle to try to honor the post that was coming backside. I also had a 9-route on my side to the Z receiver. By the time I looked back, the receiver was 5 yards ahead of me and it was pretty much over with. … It was just a mistake on my end. It’s just something I’ll have to live with.”

I reached out to both Sanders and Parrish for this story. Neither responded to interview requests.

Sanders, a Tucker native, is back in Atlanta. According to his Miami-based agent, Spencer Canold of Athletes Capital Agency, Sanders is training “for his next shot” in professional football. He tried out for both the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent but was cut.

Parrish still hasn’t talked to anybody about it, not publicly anyway. His coach at Brooks County, Maurice Freeman, talks to him all the time.

“Malkom is finishing up school (at UGA); I think he’ll finish up in December for his business degree,” Freeman said. “But he’s going back in January to get his teaching degree because he wants to be a coach. And if he gets all of his stuff taken care of, I’ll hire him here if we can.”

For Georgia fans, second-and-26 was instantly soul-crushing. For ‘Bama fans, it unleashed an explosive celebration, accentuated by streamers and confetti falling from the ceiling of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

A segment of both fan bases were unnecessarily mean and cruel to both Parrish and Sanders on social media and other mediums in the immediate aftermath. That’s unfortunate, because in Parrish and Sanders, the Bulldogs could not have suited up two more loyal soldiers.

Sanders, a 3-star prospect, started every game but one in his career and left UGA tied for the school record with 16 interceptions. Parrish started 25 games himself, finished with five career interceptions and played his senior season with a screw in one toe.

“I told him maybe he should take a redshirt that season because he wasn’t going to be 100 percent all year,” Freeman recalled. “He said, ‘we’ve got all these young bull-pups in here, and they’re going to be ready to play soon, so I’m gonna go ahead and do what I can do.’ And that’s what he did.”

In other words, Parrish did everything he could possibly do for his alma mater. So did Sanders.

It’s a shame their careers ended like they did, but neither needs to hang his head. Neither needs to hide in a shower. They gave it their all.

Just like Belue and his teammates did on Jan. 1, 1982. Belue wasn’t the only one who had a tough game that day in New Orleans.

Steve Kelly was the defensive back assigned to cover tight end John Brown on Pitt’s game-winning TD. You’ll find Kelly quoted in most accounts of that Sugar Bowl. In most, he is described as “red-eyed” and “teary.”

Nobody asks Kelly about the play anymore. That’s been taken care of.

Sanders and Parrish should’ve already handled that, too. Maybe they will eventually.

Said Belue: “Not to throw shade on anybody, but somebody needed to tell them to man up and come answer the questions, otherwise you’re going to be asked about this for years to come. ‘Let’s go get this over with.’ Somebody should’ve told him that.”

Regardless, the hope is that those two UGA alums will be remembered for all that they did for their school, and not what they didn’t do on one play.

“I love the kid,” Smart said of Sanders. “The kid gave everything he had for Georgia. Appreciate everything he did. I played that position. It’s not an easy position to play.”

All who saw last year’s championship game can second that.