We don’t know when the Dawgs will be playing football again in Athens, or whether fans will be in attendance. We do know, however, that when Georgia next plays a home game with a crowd, it will be a special occasion for someone … because they’ll be attending their very first UGA football game.
Whether it’s a child brought to a game by a parent, a freshman standing in the student section for the first time, or someone who just hasn’t made it to a game before, that first time cheering on the Georgia Bulldogs Between the Hedges is a rite of passage for many in this state.
Not long ago, I answered a reader’s question about Georgia wearing silver helmets in the pre-Vince Dooley days by mentioning that the glint of those helmets was one of my strongest memories from the first Georgia football game I can really remember attending, the 20-0 win over Vanderbilt in 1963.
I have a vague notion of my Dad taking me to an earlier game, when I was much younger, but it’s only a fleeting memory of the Redcoat Band playing. I have a feeling that it must have been before I was 5 years old in 1957, because I was more aware of the Bulldogs by that age, and I think I would have remembered if I’d seen Charley Britt or Fran Tarkenton playing in a game in the latter days of the Wally Butts era.
Also, I clearly remember Georgia football in 1961-63, when Larry Rakestraw, who went on to play three years for the Chicago Bears, was the three-year starter at quarterback. I’m fairly certain I never got to see Rakestraw, who died last August at 77, in person until that game against Vandy in ’63, when he was the senior starter.
We sat in the North Stands (before the stadium was double-decked), and I clearly recall that Rakestraw’s sophomore backup, Preston Ridlehuber, also got to play some late in the game, which was during the final season of Johnny Griffith’s brief time as Georgia’s head coach.
That ’63 Vandy game also was the first time at Sanford Stadium for my friend Dan Pelletier, who also was 11 years old. In a piece I did a few years back, Dan recalled that “the stadium seated 40,000 and the male students wore ties and the coeds wore dresses.”
The next year, Ridlehuber would be sharing quarterback duties with Lynn Hughes (one of my earliest Bulldog heroes) in Dooley’s first season, which is when my fandom kicked up a notch. I went to a few games during the 1964 season, and then started a 15-year run of not missing a home game with the 1965 opener against Alabama, the famed flea-flicker game.
I think my middle brother Jonathan, who was 8 then, was with me and Dad at that game, but he doesn’t remember. The first game he recalls attending was later that season, when he went with some boys from his Cub Scouts den and sat behind the end zone with the Y boys who used to play before the games. My youngest brother, Tim, believes his first time at the stadium was in 1966 or ’67, when he was 6 or 7. “I’m guessing it was one of the early games against a nobody team, whichever year it was,” he said. “I seem to remember it was hot.”
Another friend, Keith Parnell, who was a year younger than me, said he remembers more about his first game than the ones he attended decades later. It was 1962, against Florida State. “Georgia lost 18-0, probably the only 18-0 game I’ve ever seen. My 9th birthday was about a week later and going to the game was my birthday present. I remember … I got a pennant, the small one, and a button with a bulldog on it with a ribbon, and little gold plastic football.”
In contrast to the fuzzy memories I have of my first game, my son recalls exactly when he and his sister first got to go with me to see the Dawgs play.
For young Bill, it was the 1991 game against Cal State Fullerton, when he was 6 years old. At that point, Greg Talley and Eric Zeier, now the color analyst on UGA radio broadcasts, still were platooning at quarterback on a Ray Goff team that featured tailback Garrison Hearst and flanker Andre Hastings. (Freshman Zeier would get his first start the following week against Clemson.) My son’s recollection: “I remember cars parked on the sidewalk and how enormous the stadium was.”
Our daughter Olivia’s first time at Sanford Stadium was the 44-7 shellacking of Louisiana-Monroe in 2005, Mark Richt’s second SEC championship season, when she was 11. QB D.J. Shockley threw for 246 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 44 yards in the game, and Danny Ware ran for 109 yards, but what Olivia was most excited about was finally getting to do what her brother had done, “sitting where Bill usually sat,” as well as going with me to the Five Points Waffle House before the game.
When I polled Junkyard Blawg readers back in 2009 about how old they were when they attended their first UGA football game, 52 percent said it was by the time they were 18, with that split evenly between 26 percent attending for the first time when they were between the ages of 6 and 12, and 26 percent who went to their first game as teenagers. Twenty-five percent saw their first game while in college, which was the case for my wife, Leslie, whose first game was sometime during her freshman year at UGA. Of the remaining folks replying, 14 percent saw a game before they were 6, and 9 percent saw a game for the first time after college.
Of course, there’s some debate about what age is appropriate for taking a child to their first college football game.
Those early-season games, when it’s oppressively hot and humid, are no fun for very young children, and their inattentiveness — and the need for their parents to constantly get up and disturb the folks around them by taking their children to the restroom or concession stand — can be quite an irritation. Oftentimes, they want to leave at halftime, too.
A few years back, I heard from UGA fan Barry Cochran, who was trying to decide whether to take his then-6-year-old son to see the Dawgs play that season, possibly for a game against Appalachian State.
Some kids are fully ready to watch an entire Georgia football game at age 6. My son was one of them. (His earliest memory of a Georgia football game is one he didn’t attend — a rather obscure 17-16 Dawgs victory over Alabama in 1990, when he was just 5.)
Anyway, I told Barry I thought his idea of initiating his son to the joys of a football Saturday in Athens with a late-season, low-pressure game (when Dad wouldn’t be worried about the outcome) was an excellent idea, assuming that he was pretty sure the boy would really enjoy spending three-plus hours at a game. If not, I said, perhaps it would be better to wait a season or two.
On the other hand, my friend Dan, whom I mentioned earlier, can make a pretty good case for starting your kids out very young at Dawgs games. As he once told me: “I took my son to his first game when he was not yet 3 years old. He was the proud owner (and constant wearer) of a UGA replica uniform, complete with helmet and shoulder pads.”
When they got to the game, Dan said, as the Dawgs ran onto the field, his son’s eyes “got as big as saucers and he looked at me and said ‘Dad, they all have uniforms just like mine!’ A precious memory that I will never forget.”
Moments like that are great. Best of all, though, is the fact that, no matter what age you are when you attend your first game at Sanford Stadium, it’s usually the beginning of a lifetime obsession.
As brother Jon, a former member of the Redcoat Band, likes to say, “Once a Dawg, always a Dawg … how sweet it is!”