ATHENS ― It was a fairly warm fall Saturday in Athens on Oct. 4, 1997, when four recently acquainted college students made their way to Herty Field for a little pregame preparation.
Tailgating was already in full swing with a sea of red and black preparing for another game day. There was nothing different, nothing too special or remarkable about that day in 1997. In all honesty, it was just another game.
And although Georgia routed Mississippi State 47-0 on that day, this story isn’t about the game. It’s about Steve Davis, Matt Leathers, Jim Paige and Tyson Marsh ― just four young men who started a legacy that has spanned 20 years.
The UGA Paint Line.
Four students, one common ground
Marsh would be the first to tell you that the four students who started the Paint Line at UGA were little more than strangers the first time they painted up together that day on Herty Field in 1997.
The university was still on the quarter system so school began later than it does now. Back in 1997, football season already had started when Marsh picked up the phone to call a friend of a friend about his plans for the game against Mississippi State.
And that was how the Paint Line began, well, sort of.
“We just scrounged up some kind of paint and laid out on Herty Field back when it was still just a parking lot and painted it up,” Marsh said. “It was so low key. I think the picture is just us spelling ‘DOGS.’ We couldn’t even find a fifth person to spell what we wanted to.”
But whether it was “DOGS” or “DAWGS,” it didn’t really matter as the four students quickly drew quite a bit of attention out on Herty Field that day.
“I remember laying down amongst all the tailgaters, and it created a big reaction,” Marsh said. “People were immediately coming up, wanting to take pictures with us and just thought it was kind of cool that we were doing that.”
It was a good time had by all and prompted the four to paint each other again and again. But that wasn’t always met with joy that first year as it was out on Herty Field that day. And on the night of the Georgia-Auburn game in November 1997, there was at least one person who wasn’t very happy with Marsh’s commitment to the Paint Line. When Georgia played Auburn that year, the temperatures were dipping right below 20 degrees.
And Marsh’s mom wasn’t very happy.
“[My brother] remembers my mom calling and screaming at him because I was out at the game without a shirt on and painted up,” Marsh recalled. “She was furious that my older brother didn’t do something to stop that terrible idea.”
It was a “terrible idea” that soon turned into a tradition.
Continuation breeds tradition
Cory Benson arrived at Georgia wanting to stand out. He said in the midst of 30,000 students at the university, he wanted to have something to show for his presence in Athens.
The Paint Line gave him that opportunity.
“It means something very foundational as to who I am, who I represent,” Benson said. “It’s a way that I can express my personality, and one of my favorite things to do is just being able to paint up and do something crazy but in a way that cheers on a sport that I love watching.”
Benson doesn’t recall a time when Georgia football didn’t consume his Saturdays. And he doesn’t seem to want it any other way, saying he remembers watching David Greene throw touchdown passes to Reggie Brown in the early 2000s. While for some Georgia fans who remember the glory days of the Herschel Walker and Vince Dooley era, Benson’s memories of Georgia football are just as fundamental, just as the Nick Chubb and Sony Michel era is to children today.
Just as game days as children were filled with Georgia football for Benson, so are game days today. Benson spends his Friday afternoons gathering supplies. The paint, the paint brushes … all the essentials of a paint line.
While a lot of Saturdays include waiting.
“We have to be the first ones in line at the student gates to get our seats on the front row of section 110,” said Benson, who is the second “G” in “Georgia.” “We get to the gate about four or five hours before kickoff, and once the gates open up, we run down to the front row, and we start getting painted up.”
The Paint Line, which has evolved tremendously in both look and size since 1997, then stays for the entire game. Rain, sleet, sunshine, cold or hot temperatures, the elements don’t matter. The Paint Line isn’t going anywhere.
A team to look up to
When Slater Brown was younger, he looked up to a bunch of young men with the painted chests, screaming on the first row of the student section at Georgia games. Now, as a sophomore at UGA, Brown is one of them, the “S” in “Dawgs.”
And for Brown to be a part of a group that he so actively admired growing up, it is quite the privilege to wear his red wig with pride and his black cross like a badge of honor.
“When I was asked to be a part of the Paint Line, I became the person that I had been looking up to,” Brown said. “To be the guy that a kid looks up to, that is a responsibility but it is one of the greatest things you can do to just be somebody kids can look up to.”
And oh boy, that Paint Line sure is an attraction to the children at Sanford Stadium. Throughout any game though, you can find a host of children taking pictures with or in front of the Paint Line. Maybe it’s the energy of the Paint Line, maybe it’s the funny wigs, or maybe it’s something special that draws in these children to seek out the Paint Line on a Saturday when their favorite athletes are playing just on the other side of a few hedges.
“We’re different, and as a kid you gravitate towards things that are different,” Benson said. “Honestly, we hope that being different in a positive way shows these kids that they can have fun in who they are, too.”
It’s being different along with a lot of commitment that has allowed the Paint Line to become a staple of Georgia football.
The painted platinum year
As Marsh stood at Herty Field in 1997 waiting for the paint on his chest to dry, the thought didn’t occur to him that 20 years later his fun idea with a few friends would turn into a legacy.
But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.
“The fact that I am maybe some way connected to any tradition around the University of Georgia or the football team is just a really cool thing,” Marsh said. “It is always something that I’ll cherish and be proud of, especially considering it was started very simply with no intent to really grow into anything.”
But grow into something it has as students such as Benson and Brown continue the painted tradition, which is now in its 20th year.
But what is it exactly that got the Paint Line to its platinum anniversary? Brown said that comes from the cohesion of the group and the novelty of it.
“Our uniformity is what I think people come back to. It’s just an image of Georgia,” Brown said. “It is not something that everybody gets to experience.”
Benson said it’s more about dedication.
“It has caught on due to our commitment,” Benson said. “We are committed to be at every single game really early. We are committed to be at the game for the entirety of the game. It’s just the commitment.”
But for one of the men who started it, the Paint Line may be about something more.
“Georgia is just an extremely passionate fan base and I think people gravitate towards any type of expression of that passion for the Bulldogs,” Marsh said. “I think it is something that they can identify with. It’s a display of passion; it’s something to see and remember and I think it just continues on through that. It’s a very small piece of the Georgia football tradition.”
And even though Marsh and his college friends started the UGA Paint Line back in 1997, he said that it is all of the line members since that day in October who have transformed the UGA Paint Line into something to be proud of.
“It’s kind of a cool thing that we started it, but they have built it up and the credit goes to them,” Marsh said of all the Paint Line members in the tradition’s 20-year run. “We were just a bunch of goofballs having fun on a Saturday. They have really taken it and made it into what it is now.”