ATHENS – When Ned Beatty’s character, near the end of the movie Rudy, enters Notre Dame Stadium for the first time, he looks around and says: “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen.”
There may be Georgia fans, steeped and reared in college football who also will feel the history when they walk in the stadium on Saturday. The players on their team, however, are a different story.
It was hard enough finding a Bulldogs player who had even seen Rudy, a movie released in 1993, before almost every Georgia player was born. At least one player had never even heard of it.
“I don’t think anybody on our team has,” junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said.
There is at least one: fullback Christian Payne, a walk-on just like the movie’s title character.
“A tear may have been shed,” Payne said. “Great movie. I love the history.”
Players also haven’t grown up watching Notre Dame on television Saturday, the way previous generations did. Georgia players surveyed this week tended to say that other than film work this week, the last Notre Dame game they remembered seeing was the 2013 national championship game against Alabama.
Kirby Smart was there for that game, calling plays for Alabama’s victorious defense. But his frame of reference for Notre Dame football goes further back, to when Notre Dame was a national power, perhaps the national power. He was a preschooler when Georgia beat Notre Dame to win the national championship after the 1980 season. But a decade later Smart was old enough to remember the Lou Holtz era.
“It’s a special place I know that,” Smart said. “They have had a lot of talented players — the most Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, second nationally in victories — it’s just a resume that speaks for itself. My personal memories are Tim Brown or Rocket Ismail returning punts.”
Senior receiver Javon Wims, a native of Miami, also cited the Catholics vs. Convicts documentary on ESPN, about the Miami-Notre Dame battles of the Holtz era.
“I know it’s a very historical program,” Wims said. “They have the Touchdown Jesus statue. It’s going to be a very beautiful place to play in.”
That tended to be what Georgia players knew about the place they’re about to visit. And some, such as senior safety Dominick Sanders, had zero interest in talking about the mystique factor.
“Me personally, nah. I don’t really know anything about them and I don’t really care,” Sanders said. “Just my main thing is let’s put them pads on and let’s go to work.”
Sophomore safety J.R. Reed and his family exemplified the generational difference when it comes to knowledge and perception of Notre Dame. Like his teammates, Reed hasn’t seen many Fighting Irish games, and didn’t seem particularly awed by it.
But his father, Jake, who played receiver in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings, is so excited about the trip he’s going early so he can tour South Bend and Notre Dame. The pageantry is similar to a field Jake Reed played some games in.
“My dad talks about Green Bay (and Lambeau Field). So that awes him all the time,” Reed said. “I’m actually glad it’s not cold. The only time I hear him talk about Lambeau he says his fingers almost froze off.”
Senior linebacker Davin Bellamy said he has done his research about Notre Dame Stadium and seemed excited about it.
“The infrastructure of it is so different than any other stadium I’ve played in,” Bellamy said. “It’s kind of flat and the fans are closer. I can’t really compare it to any SEC stadium, especially with the Jesus being in the end zone. That’s something you always hear about. It’s just so legendary. It’s very different. It’s very different. And I don’t think I’ve ever played in a stadium like that.
“And that’s why I’m so excited. And their fans are loud and they get after it. And I just love being in that adversity, I guess you could feel like.”
So while Georgia players may not quite feel the same history that their parents and coaches feel, there does at least seem an understanding and appreciation of it.
Just not any intimidation, they at least say now.
“Once the ball’s kicked off, everything goes away. You’ve got to get out there and go after those guys,” Reed said. “But walking in you’re definitely going to see Touchdown Jesus, you’re going to see their fans. You’re going to see the history. The Heisman winners. The Hall of Famers. When you go in there, it’s a very historic team, a very historic city. So you respect that.”