RUTLEDGE, Ga. — Driving east out of Atlanta, keep going until there’s no evidence of civilization, exit onto Newborn Road and head south into the middle of nowhere. Turn left onto Centennial Road, drive about a mile, then hang a right onto the gravel road known as Keencheefoonee. Proceed through the wooden gate, turn left at the horse stables and pull into a dirt parking lot. Then walk downhill along an asphalt path through a shady white oak forest, emerge into sunlight and arrive at the happiest place on Earth.
No, you’re not at Disney World. This place is better. You’ve arrived at Camp Twin Lakes, which for this one week at least is known as Camp Sunshine.
Longtime Georgia Bulldogs fans know the drill. UGA’s football team has been making this trek an hour and change south of Athens annually for most of the last 35 years. Vince Dooley and his wife Barbara were appointed to the Camp Twin Lakes board of directors in 1983 and the Bulldogs have been making a midsummer visit here every year since (well, every year except for those under coach Jim Donnan, according to camp administrators).
For the unenlightened, Camp Twin Lakes is a retreat in which children with cancer and their families can get away to enjoy outdoor recreational activities for the summer. It has air-conditioned cabins for “glamping,” swimming pools, lakes, a farm (complete with miniature cows and alpacas), sports playing fields, a zip line, a gymnasium and much more. All of the available activities are retrofitted to accommodate children battling different forms of cancer. And, of course, there’s an infirmary to attend to any children who might get sick — or just scrape a knee raising their buddy on one of the many trails snaking the expansive property.
It’s here that one sees a whole different side of Georgia coach Kirby Smart. He completely drops his guard and relaxes. He back-slaps and jokes with his players. He peels off at the sight of any of the campers or their families. During the hour-long tour, he seems to know somebody personally at every corner and stops to chat, falling behind and then double-timing it to catch back up.
The familiarity is because Smart has been coming to Camp Twin Lakes a very long time. He first started coming when his older brother Karl was diagnosed with leukemia in the 1990s and camped there. His brother has long since been well and eventually served as a counselor, but Kirby has kept coming. He came when he was an assistant coach at Valdosta State and when he was with the Miami Dolphins and Alabama.
“It’s convenient because I have a lake home that’s 30-45 minutes from here (on Lake Oconee),” Smart said Wednesday. “So through the years, when I was with the Dolphins or Alabama, I’d stop by. A couple of those years Karl was still here as a counselor, so being able to stop in here to see him and everybody was good.”
Now that he’s head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, he brings his whole team with him, including wife Mary Beth, twins Julia and Weston, and little Andrew. Wednesday they had a good time posing with a cardboard cut-out of Kirby and Karl on display in the camp’s courtyard. Andrew kept asking everybody when the dodge ball game would start, and was front and center and in the middle of everything when it did.
“He needs to get smacked around a little bit,” Smart said with a chuckle. “He’s a little too brave for his own good out there. The players are scared to bean him because they know he’s mine.”
“Nobody’s like Kirby,” said Mo Thrash, one of the original founders of Camp Sunshine who serves as the Bulldogs’ tour guide and taskmaster each year. “He’s come every year since he’s been out of college. He’d always call me and say, ‘Mo, can I come to camp?’ He show up, spend an hour, hour-and-a-half with me walking around the camp saying hey to kids. No press, nobody around, just being himself. Then he’d leave. He did it every year. Then he became Georgia’s head coach. He’s just very special.”
Wednesday was the first of two trips that the Bulldogs will make to Camp Sunshine. In all, Smart said about 70 players signed up to participate. The other half will come next Wednesday.
The first group seemed to include a lot of freshmen and first-year players. Notre Dame transfer Jay Hayes, wearing his new number 97 Georgia jersey, was front-and-center for many of the activities. So was long and tall true freshman Tommy Bush, until they went to alpaca pen. The nearly 6-foot-6 tall receiver, wearing the No. 12, eased to the back of the pack when the group was asked to pet the odd-looking, furry creatures.
The many interactions with the campers and staff were entertaining to observe. The players were split into two groups and toured opposite ends of the complex, then switched. When being shown the cabins where the campers stay, the girls of Cabin 10 came pouring out and high-fived every player. “Oh my God, they’re all so tall,” one of the young teens shouted.
The residents are not all Georgia fans, either. At the intersection of two paths, a young man named William yelled, “Go Gators.” To that the jersey-wearing Bulldogs responded with a collective, “boo!”, then just laughed it off.
In the cafeteria, Smart made a beeline to a young man wearing Alabama gear, including a crimson-and-white cast on his right leg. Colton, who’s 14, said he first met Smart when he was an assistant for the Crimson Tide.
“Now he tries to talk me into being a Georgia fan, but he knows I won’t convert,” Colton said defiantly.
Thrash showed the team the lake and pointed to the zip line and ropes course far across on the other side.
“What’s the weight capacity on that?” Smart asked loud enough for everyone to hear. “We’ve got some people here we think can break it.
“Be sure to keep Fernando off it,” he added, referring to support staffer and former Georgia and NFL offensive lineman Fernando Velasco.
At the heart of it all, though, is a serious message.
“You guys are heroes to these kids; you’re heroes to me,” Thrash said when he huddled up the team at the outset of the tour. “So go in here, look around the place, see what we do, say hello to the kids, get to know them a little bit and have a good time.”
“I want them to appreciate what they have,” Smart said of the benefit for the players. “You look at some of these kids and see how they have to struggle and go through things. Some of them are well now and they come back because they’re the hope for so many other kids who are going through what they did.”
For the team, it was a well-earned reprieve. They’ve been working out and doing conditioning every morning for the last two weeks. That includes Wednesday when the players who signed up for the trip had to report to the Butts-Mehre football complex at 5:30 a.m.
“I don’t know if everybody slept the whole way down because I was asleep as soon as the bus pulled out,” junior tight end Isaac Nauta said.
Participants range from players such as Nauta and senior center Lamont Gaillard, who have been every year since they arrived on campus, to junior running back Elijah Holyfield, making his first trip Wednesday. It’s a voluntary event for the players.
“My freshman and sophomore years I was kind of trying to do too much,” Holyfield said. “Finally I said I’ve got to go this year because everybody was talking about how much fun it is. I knew I had to do it before I left Georgia and I loved it, so I’ll be back next week, as well.”
It was especially re-energizing for the freshmen, who have known nothing but regimen and brutal intensity since they arrived on campus May 31.
“I think they can finally see that there’s a human side to everybody and you can go out and have fun,” Smart quipped.
Camp Sunshine is unique to the University of Georgia. Located 51 miles east of downtown Atlanta, the camp is located in the heart of Bulldog Country. No other teams make the pilgrimage to the East Georgia outback, just the Bulldogs.
“It’s only a Georgia thing,” Thrash said. “We’d love for other teams to come in. But it’s always special when the Georgia Bulldogs come in. They’re part of Camp Sunshine.”
They definitely shine some light on what’s already a very happy place.