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Riley: What the Alabama-Georgia football game means to me

What do you think of when Georgia and Alabama play? Do you think about the heartbreak in 2012, 2017 or 2018? Maybe it’s about Alabama’s terrible kickers over the years. Or what Saturday will be like with Kirby Smart returning to Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Nick Saban potentially not on the sidelines for the first time since 2006?

For me, I think about Jackson Smith.

Jackson is one of my best friends. There’s no single person more responsible for why I love college football than Jackson. I wouldn’t have the job that I do if not for him.

I’ve never been great at meeting people and would describe myself as something between shy and painfully awkward in social situations.

But when I first met Jackson during my sophomore year while working at Georgia’s student-run television broadcast, Grady Newsource, he didn’t care about that. Part of what makes Jackson special is that he’s going to find the one thing he has in common with you and build out a friendship from there.

For us, that one thing was college football. We both enjoyed the absurdity in the sport and constantly found the humor in it. Whether it be laughing over Paul Finebaum callers — PAAAAAAAWWWWLLLL THOSE ‘BARNERS ARE CHEATIN’ — to the exploits of former Ole Miss quarterback Bo “Dr. Bo” Wallace, college football was my ticket in with Jackson.

From there, he became one of my best friends. I’m certainly not the only person who would describe him that way, as he had that kind of effect on people. He brought joy to everyone and really made you feel like you mattered. Factor in the just incredible hugs he gave out and he was beloved by many.

Jackson graduated from Georgia and he did truly love the Dawgs. He’s the kind of Georgia fan you’d want at your tailgate. The kind of fan to ask “Who is that coming down the track?” at your wedding.

But he did have one flaw, at least in the eyes of some Georgia fans. He was also a massive Alabama fan. He’s got family ties to the state and he loved to use Roll Tide whenever he could, much like the classic ESPN commercial. I wouldn’t say they were his favorite team, but if Alabama and Georgia were his children, he definitely seemed to be a little bit more invested in the Crimson Tide.

Given how often the two matched up over the years, a Georgia-Alabama game would always be an interesting week for him. After a Crimson Tide victory, friends would just ask him how he could root for them. He’d usually just shrug his shoulders and smile.

After college, Jackson eventually ended up teaching English in South Korea. He always wanted to travel the world and was never one to be chained to a traditional 9-to-5 desk job. Yes, like the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, he was a Free Bird. But being thousands of miles away though didn’t stop him from passionately following the sport he loves.

Jeju, South Korea, where he lived, was 13-hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone. So a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff meant that the game started at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday morning.

But if Alabama or Georgia were playing, he was watching.

In last year’s Iron Bowl, he awoke in the early morning hours to watch the two teams square off. When the game ended with yet another key missed Alabama field goal, Jackson so eloquently summed up the whole affair.

For the national championship game against Alabama in January of 2018, the game actually started during a somewhat normal hour of 9:30 A.M. in South Korea. The problem was that the game was on a Monday night in America and Tuesday morning for him. And he had to teach that morning.

Watching the game live was out of the question but he was determined to watch the affair in its entirety with no spoilers. So he shut his phone off and didn’t turn it back on until he finished watching Alabama win again and saw his beloved alma mater come up short.

He told me afterwards he was glad he didn’t watch the game as it unfolded live. Most Georgia fans probably wish they could feel the same way.

Even though he was on the other side of the world, he’d still find time to reach out and talk about the things we cared about like our friends, Cane’s or our favorite Athens bar. And almost always whenever Georgia had a meaningful game.

In hindsight, it was odd that I hadn’t heard from him about how Georgia might do against LSU in the SEC championship game last December. On the day of the event, I got an email from a mutual friend of his asking to call. I was planning on doing it after the game.

But before I got to a point where I could call, I found out the news. Jackson had passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 6. He was 27 years old.

I learned what happened shortly after exiting the locker room following Georgia’s 37-10 loss that day. Whatever disappointment or emotion I had with regards to the game at that point couldn’t compare to what I felt at that moment. To what I still feel. To what so many people who loved him still feel.

In the 10 months since his death I’ve thought about him a lot. I’m certainly not the only one who has, as that’s the kind of impact he had on people. Even if he’s no longer physically still here, his memory and those he helped create still come up often.

Part of the reason he still feels so present to me is in part because of the relationship we had with college football. The sport serves as a constant reminder of the bond we had. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, like when listening to a Scott Cochran press conference and I’m unable to share with him how Cochran is exactly what he was made out to be what he was at Alabama.

But there are happy moments. Proud moments as well. Like anytime I appear on the Paul Finebaum show. He always thought that was the coolest part of my job, and because of the connection I made with him, it probably will be so long as I get to keep appearing on it.

This Alabama game was always going to be the biggest one of the 2020 season for Georgia. Part of the reason for that is because at the moment Alabama is the program with which Georgia’s is so frequently measured against.

But it has been the game I’ve thought the most about since Jackson’s death. He probably wouldn’t have flown home for the game, as he only ever seemed to come home for weddings. But I know he would’ve been up watching it and that we would’ve talked about it. I would’ve shared what it was like inside Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time and just the experience of being at such a massive football game.

I’m lucky that I still get to do those things, even if I’m not attending the game in person this year. Jackson helps serve as a reminder of that. Of why it’s important to find joy in not just everything you do but in the people you get to share those experiences with.

At the beginning of 2020, I made a resolution for myself. I wanted to be more like Jackson. To be more cheerful, to try and make the best out of any situation. To try and be present with people, even if you can’t physically do it.

I’d say I’ve been about as successful as an Alabama kicker attempting a field goal. But much like how Saban continues to trot his woeful kickers out there, I have to try and try to emulate what Jackson was to so many people, including myself.

The Georgia-Alabama game will always be a big deal to many for a variety of reasons. For me, it will be because the game will remind of my dear friend Jackson and all the joy he gave and will continue to give to so many people.

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