ATHENS — I should preface this whole thing by saying I am not a Georgia football fan. But that doesn’t make the events of the National Championship Game on Monday night sting any less.
I grew up in the state and was more of an agnostic college football fan. Georgia was the only school I applied to, but that’s because it had a good journalism program and it was an affordable in-state school. My professors at Grady beat the idea out of us pretty early on that you shouldn’t be a fan or root for the team you cover.
So I never lived and died with each Jake Fromm pass or Nick Chubb touchdown this season. But my friends did. And that’s why the 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama hurts for me.
We’ve all recently graduated from Georgia, and most of us have been able to stay at least reasonably close to the city and school we so deeply love. After Georgia sealed a spot in the championship game with a win over Oklahoma, many of us had begun making plans to return to Athens to watch Georgia play for its first national championship in our lifetime. I pitched to my editors the idea of letting me cover the reaction and game from Athens, and they were all for it.
One friend came all the way from central Pennsylvania. Another drove from Charleston, S.C. Most of them had work the next day and were going to have to leave early the next morning regardless of the result. We all got in at various times, but we’d agree to meet at the bar — Magnolias — where we spent so many nights when we where in college.
It was cold and a little wet in Athens, but nothing like the last time Georgia played Alabama, when it poured throughout the day. As always, Athens was beautiful as the sun set and the game approached.
— Connor Riley (@Kconnorriley) January 8, 2018
Most of downtown was packed. More than 90 minutes before the game, lines were pouring onto Broad Street as people waited to get into one of the many downtown Athens establishments. At Magnolias, two separate mobs formed by the doors to the upstairs bar in hopes of getting there quickly and securing one of the nine precious tables. I somehow was the first one up the steps and scurried over to an available table. Shortly afterward, the upstairs bar was swarming with anxious Georgia fans, and all the tables were taken.
As the game unfolded, I found myself getting sucked into the atmosphere around me. Maybe I didn’t believe Georgia would win, but in the moment, it didn’t matter. The fun and joy that followed Mecole Hardman’s touchdown and DeAndre Baker’s interception were contagious. One of my friends even took joy in the fact that I was smiling.
.@Kconnorriley IS SMILING, EVERYONE
— Dillon “HUNKER DOWN” Richards (@thedillonjames) January 9, 2018
Naturally, Alabama came back. Georgia didn’t exactly blow it with one or two plays. Tua Tagovailoa and the Alabama defense just made a few more phenomenal plays. That’s what champions do. As the fourth quarter reached its conclusion, the euphoria in the air had been replaced by the all-too-familiar feeling of dread.
From my perspective, just about everyone in the bar felt that Andy Pappanastos’ kick was going to end the game. Sure, at one point or another we all had made jokes about Alabama’s kicking woes. But there’s no way Pappanastos would miss this 36-yard field goal to end the game.
He did. Hope was back. I, as you can hear in the video below, was screaming.
WIDE LEFT pic.twitter.com/Xbi1hagTRU
— Connor Riley (@Kconnorriley) January 9, 2018
You know what happens next. Rodrigo Blankenship drills a 51-yarder. Georgia sacks Tua Tagovailoa. It’s second-and-26. I’m going to get to celebrate a national title with my best friends, I told myself.
And then it was gone. Alabama scored. The joy had been swallowed whole by the Alabama football industrial complex. Again. Like it had for the past 36 seasons, Georgia was unable to be the final team celebrating.
I got to eat Cane’s chicken, sprint up a flight of steps just to secure a table at a bar, and watch Georgia play for a national championshipgame with some of my closest friends in the world. Like the 2017 Georgia football season, Monday night was a special night. I hope I’ll be able to look back on the fun memories we created and ignore the heartache.
“Give them credit, but I think everybody can see that Georgia’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Kirby Smart said after the game. “I’m very proud of this team and this university, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Before trudging back to our friends’ apartment for the night, we had to do one more thing. The night we graduated, one of my friends hid two bottles of champagne on North Campus, and after a long night out, we pulled them out and celebrated one final night on campus together. So on Sunday, I asked one of my friends if she was going to do it again, in hopes that we’d all be celebrating again.
She bought a bottle and before heading to dinner before the game, we stashed it on North Campus. We decided to go grab the bottle anyway because you’re not just going to leave a bottle of unopened champagne behind. We couldn’t find it for a few minutes and one of my friends pointed out how poetic it would’ve been that the champagne had been taken. Eventually it was found, and it remained unopened.
Maybe someday, Georgia football fans will get to celebrate with champagne. Maybe someday I can celebrate a Georgia national championship game with my friends. I’m bummed it wasn’t Monday night, but I’m hopeful it’ll happen someday soon.