ATHENS — The spring game weekend, and the lead-up to that scrimmage, had one and all whetting their appetites for football — but learning very little about the Georgia team. Much of that was by design.
Network television is nice. It brings an enviable status. But the last thing any coach wants is to do is disclose, even inadvertently, any wrinkle or sanguine information for prying eyes of the 12 opponents on the schedule. They all now have file copies of the G-Day game on ESPN. Georgia, by the way, has an opponent file, too.
That more than 80,000 aficionados of the Bulldogs sallied forth to fill Sanford Stadium proper is amazing. Were it not for the restricting of entry into the west end zone stands owing to construction, Georgia might have broken the record crowd of 93,000 that witnessed Kirby Smart’s first spring game in 2016. That confirms the view of the loyalists that the leader has the right stuff to move the Dawgs into a high-cotton football lifestyle.
This was a week for network cameras, either live or for creating stories to be told down the road. First, Paul Finebaum and the SEC Network were on campus to collect video for a special about Renaissance Man Billy Payne (UGA letterman 1966-68, two SEC rings) for whom Georgia will soon name its new indoor athletic facility, along with his late father, Porter: The William Porter Payne and Porter Otis Payne Indoor Practice Facility. Naturally, you know what the football players and other student-athletes are going to say about that. No doubt it will be The House of Payne.
After the SEC Network had exited the city limits, NFL Films arrived with a crew to do a story on Fran Tarkenton, a member of the college and professional football halls of fame. Interviews took place all over the lot.
The Athens Country Club became a venue for old-home week with the players of the late Wallace Butts gathering Saturday morning for their annual reunion breakfast. Wally’s Boys membership, understandably, is in decline. But friends of friends of Wally’s Boys help perpetuate the memory of Georgia’s longtime coach who got the Bulldogs in the bowl business and left his mark on UGA football with Heisman and Maxwell award winners and four SEC championship teams. More than 225 Butts enthusiasts and loyalists showed up. A lot of that was owing to the management of the association, by Bill Saye, a dedicated former letterman.
With Tarkenton and Pat Dye participating in the program and providing insights for NFL Films, it was a memorable day that drew countless luminaries to this signature event. Sonny Seiler, the master of Uga, the famous mascot, was there. Ole Faithful, the incomparable Charley Trippi, returned as he always does. The breakfast even drew Susan Goodenow, a UGA graduate who is an executive with the Chicago Bulls.
Keynote speaker Paul Holmes capped a perfect morning by speaking insightfully, respectfully and humbly. This one-time Bulldogs lineman reminisced, laced his remarks with humor and sat down before snoring could set in. His sense of timing was superb.
Wherever Tarkenton went, the NFL crew followed. He interacted with current players, coaches, fans, former players, alumni and media. He was eager to accommodate autograph requests, but most of all to bask in the sunshine of Sanford Stadium, where on Nov. 14, 1959 he gained Bulldogs immortality with his fabled pass of 13 yards to Bill Heron to defeat Auburn 14-13 to give Coach Butts his fourth and final SEC Championship.
Tarkenton always has held high respect for the passing genius of his college coach, often saying, “I got a master’s degree in the passing game with Coach Butts at Georgia and a Ph.D. from Norm Van Brocklin when I was with him when he coached the expansion Minnesota Vikings.”
We all get sentimental as we get older. Tarkenton and Dye, who were key players in bringing about a turnaround for Butts in his final and troubled days, enjoyed a sentimental journey on G-Day morning. When they spoke, there was an uncommon reverence, their colorful remarks becoming a dueling of compliments.
On the sideline, there was a parade of admirers, including Billy Payne, whose big day is forthcoming; Sony Michel, who on this day wore No. 27; and Nick Chubb, who wore No. 1. Tarkenton had special affection for that self-effacing display. He knows, from his 26 years of football competition (four at Athens High School, four at UGA and 18 in the NFL) that leadership and heart often trump talent.
Before Jay Jackson and the NFL Films crew could signal for a “wrap,” Tarkenton wistfully looked down on the hedges with his wife, Linda, and whispered, “What a wonderful place. God, how I would like to relive those days.”
G-Day is not billed as homecoming, but, in truth, it often is.