Georgia football-National championship-2022
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart celebrates with fans after beating Alabama 33-18 in the College Football Playoff Championship game on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Indianapolis. (Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Riley: What Georgia football winning the National Championship meant to me

I realized pretty quickly that Georgia’s National Championship win wasn’t going to mean as much to me as it did to others. Not because I’m a caricature of some cynical media member that hates sports. But more so because as I looked to my left as Kelee Ringo was making his way to the endzone in Georgia’s victory over Alabama, the writer sitting next to me in the press box of Lucas Oil Stadium was full-blown ugly crying.

Like me, said writer is a Georgia alumnus.

Georgia overcoming the decades-long struggle to return to glory didn’t immediately move me to tears. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up a Georgia fan and my journalism professors pretty quickly beat out the idea of being a fan of the team you cover. Covering the 2015 Georgia football season probably also goes a long way in not getting too caught up in the wins and losses of a team you consistently report on.

It wasn’t really until the next morning that I had really begun to appreciate Georgia’s 33-18 victory over Alabama. By the time Kirby Smart, Lewis Cine and Stetson Bennett took the dais and gave the champions’ press conference, I had finally had time to scroll through the hundreds of texts and thousands of social media posts of everyone celebrating.

Smart — a Georgia alumnus who spurned plenty of head coaching jobs to ultimately return to Georgia to coach the program he once played for — also gave a quote that perfectly crystalizes what college football is all about.

“The response of our team after that SEC Championship is what will always stick with me of seeing Julian Rochester bawling in the locker room after he was the same young man bawling after the national championship in 2017,” Smart said said. “And to see him overcome so many injuries – and he wasn’t a major impact on the game, but he impacted his room. He impacted Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, Devonte, Wyatt, because they wanted it for him.

“And when you want it for people in the room, it makes it a lot more special.”

Related: Jordan Davis best captures a ‘forever legendary’ Georgia football team, celebration

What makes college football special isn’t the actual football. The NFL will always trump college football when it comes to that. The players are just better, faster and stronger. It’s why the SEC is superior to that of the Sun Belt.

The differentiator between college football and the NFL is the people. The people you celebrate with. The people you tailgate with. The people you cry with. The people you puff your chest out to because your school beat their school.

Those you enjoy the sport and all that comes with it over a series of years.

It’s why so many people are frustrated by the recent change to the sport by expansion. The people who are Georgia and Michigan fans have no real personal connections to those who attended Texas and USC. They’d much rather play Tennessee and Penn State on an annual basis than host Mississippi State and Nebraska once every four years.

One of my favorite pictures from the championship celebration is an interaction between Smart and cornerback Derion Kendrick. Unlike so many of the other players on the roster, Kendrick hadn’t been at Georgia for years. He arrived on campus at the beginning of June after being dismissed from Clemson. Yet in the picture below you can tell that the journey Kendrick went through to get to that January night meant a lot to both him and Smart.

You can see the personal connection those two shared, something we rarely get to see in such a vivid way.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, Georgia defensive back Derion Kendrick (11) after the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship against Alabama at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis, Ind., on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

If you’re reading this you’re most likely a Georgia football fan. I’d venture to guess that when Georgia finally won, you weren’t celebrating alone. You texting in group chats, watching with friends or if you were really lucky, watching the confetti fall with your loved ones in Indianapolis.

Upon rewatching the game, I noticed all the sideline shots of the former players that were on hand to watch Georgia win. From David Pollack to Richard LeCounte, the connective tissue that comes with being a Georgia fan was on display on its sidelines the night the Bulldogs at last beat Alabama.

“To start the celebration in the locker room was pretty incredible, to be in there with those men,” Smart said. “It really touched my heart to see Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb (indiscernible). Those guys set a really big foundation.”

Not unlike the Georgia team, getting to see my friends and loved ones revel in the joy of Georgia winning a National Championship meant a lot to me. From the 9 East, Grady Newsource and various group texts I’m a part of, it ruled to see all those who had wondered why Georgia was playing Stetson Bennett to finally shut up and enjoy the moment.

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