ATHENS — John Sweeney and his family were driving down Clayton Street in downtown Athens looking for a parking place so they could eat at one of their favorite places, Mellow Mushroom. After circling the block a couple times, a spot miraculously opened up right in front of the entrance.
Just as they pulled in, a legendary figured walked by.
“’Oh my God, that’s Herschel Walker,’” Sweeney shouted in the crowded car.
“Who’s that?” his youngest son asked.
“Only the greatest player in the history of college football!” Sweeney said. “I played against him in the Sugar Bowl.”
“You should go talk to him, Dad.”
Seeing Walker swallowed up by a crowd of fans in the street, Sweeney resisted at first. But at the urging of his wife Patty, he finally gave in.
Sweeney stepped into the horde and reached out to shake Walker’s hand.
“I said, ‘Hey, Herschel, my name is John Sweeney and you scored your second touchdown in the Sugar Bowl after my fumble,’” Sweeney said, laughing at the memory. “He was so gracious. He looks up and says, ‘oh, really?’ And with all these people around wanting his autograph, we talked for three or four minutes. We chatted a while and he let my wife take a couple of pictures.”
That picture of Sweeney and Walker standing on Clayton Street 30 years after playing in the Sugar Bowl, remains one of his most prized possessions.
“It was priceless,” Sweeney said of that chance meeting.
That was about five years ago. Three and a half decades ago, Sweeney was the starting fullback for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Today, he is Dr. John Sweeney, chair of surgery at the Emory University School of Medicine.
He and Patty have seven children and they have lived in Atlanta the past 10 years. They reside in Snellville, where all of their kids attended Brookwood High School. Two of those kids, Aidan and Conor, were swimmers at the University of Georgia.
Another one of Sweeney’s sons, Kenan, currently plays football at Auburn. And one of his daughters was a swimmer at Texas A&M. So nowadays Sweeney’s loyalties are somewhat divided.
But back on Jan. 1, 1981, he was singlemindedly blue and gold, and his full intention that day was to see the Georgia Bulldogs go down in the Sugar Bowl.
Things didn’t go as planned.
To this day, Sweeney can never forget about the play called for him early in the second quarter. It was an inside handoff that, for him, will live in infamy.
It was Notre Dame’s first offensive possession of the second quarter and the Fighting Irish trailed 10-3 as they took over at their own 20-yard line. Sweeney, who didn’t carry the ball often, took a quick handoff at right guard. But he was immediately met in the hole by Georgia linebacker and defensive captain Frank Ros. The ball popped loose and rover Chris Welton recovered at the Notre Dame 23-yard line. Walker would score on a toss sweep three plays later to give the Bulldogs a 17-3 lead. Georgia went on to win 17-10.
“It was a bad play,” Sweeney said, the recollection still fresh in his mind. “There were four Georgia guys and just three Notre Dame guys to block them. It’s a play where we should’ve checked to something else, run outside or something. But I got the ball and the guy that tackled me was unblocked. What I remember is just getting hit. I knew I fumbled and it was so loud I knew no one could hear me screaming ‘ball!’ It was just so loud. So, yeah, that was a disappointment.”
The noise in the Superdome is one of Sweeney’s most profound memories of that day. It was the first time he and most every player on either team had played a game in a domed stadium. The crowd was decidedly pro-Georgia, and it grew louder as the game went on.
At that particular point in the contest, the Bulldogs’ fans were in a frenzied state. Not long before Sweeney’s fumble was the infamous Notre Dame play in which kickoff return men Ty Barber and Jim Stone ran out from under Rex Robinson’s kickoff without fielding it. That resulted in Bob Kelly’s recovery for Georgia at the Notre Dame 2 and, shortly thereafter, Walker’s first touchdown.
“Inside the Superdome when the place was full, it seemed like people were right on top of you,” Sweeney said. “And it was incredibly loud, with mostly Georgia people. I think that’s the reason our two deep guys muffed that kickoff. … Communication is key, and the way they decide who’s going to catch the ball is yelling ‘you, you, you’ or ‘me, me, me!’ You couldn’t hear anything in there.”
Sweeney is happy to report that he eventually got over that crushing disappointment. In fact, he is today one of the most respected and decorated surgeons in the nation. In January of 2015, he was appointed chairman of the department of surgery at Emory and also serves as director of surgical services and surgeon-in-chief for Emory Healthcare and chief of the surgery for the Emory Clinic. He specializes in gastrointestinal work but also does general surgery.
So Sweeney has stayed busy with work. And he has stayed busy at home as well, fathering seven children with his wife Patty, whom he met at Notre Dame. It is through his kids that Sweeney became even more intimately familiar – and appreciative – of UGA.
His two oldest sons, Aidan and Conor, both competed for Georgia’s nationally-renown swim program, a sport that’s quite prominent in the family overall (oldest daughter Allyson swam at Texas A&M and is an aspiring college coach). Born just two years apart, the brothers’ presence on the Georgia swim team kept the Sweeneys coming to Athens regularly for the better part of six years. So they’ve gotten to know coach Jack Bauerle quite well, as well as the university, the city of Athens and, yes, Sanford Stadium. They have now attended many games there.
“I’ve donned the red and black quite a bit the last few years,” Sweeney said. “Georgia is really special to me now. We love the place. It’s been a really great fit for us. We love living in Atlanta and being part of Georgia. This is going to be a real fun one for me.”
Sweeney is referring there, of course, to this year’s “rematch” of the 1980 national championship game. Notre Dame and Georgia are playing on Sept. 9th in South Bend, the first meeting since that Sugar Bowl. And, as it turns out, there’s a good chance Sweeney won’t be able to make the game.
As mentioned before, his son Keenan plays football at Auburn. Like his dad, he’s a fullback. He’s a junior and former walkon who earned a scholarship before the 2016 season.
Well, the Tigers are scheduled to play Clemson in South Carolina at roughly the same time on Sept. 9. So unless Keenan ends up getting injured or otherwise doesn’t make the travel roster, the Sweeneys plan to be in Death Valley that day.
But Conor and Aidan both plan to be in South Bend. Aidan actually swam for the Fighting Irish during his last season of eligibility and earned a master’s degree from Notre Dame. That puts him in the Monogram Club – Notre Dame’s letterman’s club – which is a pretty big deal for dad.
“That’s a special thing for me,” Sweeney said. “And it’s amazing with this Georgia game coming, I’m all of the sudden really popular. I’m more popular than you can imagine with everybody who wants to go to that game.”
Though he has offspring who have matriculated at both places, there is no divided loyalty for Sweeney for the Georgia-Notre Dame contest. He’ll be rooting for the blue-and-gold when the teams meet at Notre Dame Stadium in Week 2. He did say he feels “a little trepidation” about his alma mater’s chances, coming off that 4-8 season of last year and all.
But whatever happens, Sweeney will always have 2019 to look forward to.
“It would be really cool to see Georgia in South Bend, but what will be cooler for me is to see Notre Dame between the hedges a couple of years from now,” he said. “Seeing the ‘G’ in Notre Dame Stadium is nice. But two iconic programs like that in Sanford Stadium, Notre Dame playing between hedges, that’s going to be really cool to me.”