No pain. No gain.
That’s a way to describe how the families of Georgia’s top-rated recruiting class perceive that teeth-gnashing loss to Alabama in the national championship game.
For 20 members of the 2018 class, they already had signed with UGA during the early period. Christopher Smith II and his family were already a part of the program.
But the Smith family didn’t really need to put pen to paper to feel invested. That feeling goes back to the days when Chris Smith Sr. did not even dream about his son playing for his team.
“I am such a Bulldog fan,” he said. “I can’t even think that way yet. It would almost be surreal. You know how when you kid is growing up you just don’t see that for them? I didn’t see this for him. This wasn’t a dream or anything that I thought about until it came true. He was going to Georgia. But to actually see him play? That will be a wow. But it was such a dream I can’t even process that yet. Not until I see it.”
Smith describes a spectacle that happened three times for his family during this past season. His family gathered together for the SEC Championship Game, The Rose Bowl and finally the overtime thriller with Alabama.
He compared it to Fourth of July party. Wings and all.
“You don’t see everyone together like we were for that one,” Smith said. “Well, all three of those games really. The whole family was sitting around watching. It was like an event. We didn’t have everyone over. It was just the family. We all made plans to watch those games together.”
Smith describes himself as a lifelong Georgia fan. He can’t even count up how many years. It just seems like forever.
“Those three games were the biggest three games in my lifetime of watching Georgia football,” he said. “Not just for my kids and their lifetimes but for my lifetime. Those were the big three. Those are the new big three.”
But there’s a twist in this road. Smith knew his son would play for Georgia. But for him, a certain switch had not yet been flipped.
“Not for me,” he said. “Maybe for my wife. But for me, I didn’t already feel like he was a part of the program. This was the biggest thing ever for me as a fan. This was bigger than the (Atlanta) Falcons going to the Super Bowl. The Bulldogs were playing for the SEC Championship, then The Rose Bowl and then the national championship. That’s the biggest thing ever.”
“Now with that Alabama game for the national title? I wouldn’t even care if Chris didn’t even play football. That would’ve been the biggest game ever for me. It would have been the biggest game still. But then it did become more. We had a little bit more since Chris was going to play for Georgia. It became a real big family thing. When Georgia lost, it felt like family there.”
A family conversation about sports history
The fact that his son was on the way to UGA did increase the buy-in for his family while watching those games. That elevated the highs. His son had a specific reaction to that Rose Bowl triumph.
“I have never been more nervous,” Chris Smith II said the night of that Oklahoma triumph. “At the end. I was yelling to the top of my lungs. Great. Amazing game.”
The overtime loss has somehow smeared that memory. Or at least he thought he did.
“It is hard to remember those good times now,” Smith said.
That was until Smith had a recent conversation with his son about epic moments in sports history. Chris Smith, the 4-star cornerback, said he would never forget Lebron James swatting aside Andre Iguodala’s shot in the 2016 NBA Finals.
“Chris said he would never forget that play,” Chris Smith Sr. said. “But then I never would forget that field goal block against Oklahoma. That was something that was etched in my mind. That is something that will last forever to me. That can ease the pain of the last play of the national championship game. Some folks might forget that, but to me, man that Rose Bowl win was just huge.”
Another UGA recruiting family weighs in
Luke Ford, the nation’s No. 2 tight end, signed with Georgia as the top player from Illinois in the 2018 cycle. The Fords are an All-American family
Luke’s father, Tim, flew Apache helicopters and served two decades in the U.S. Army. Yet across the miles, their story sounds a lot like what the Smiths went through in front of their TV.
“I don’t think Chris slept that night after the Alabama game,” Chris Smith Sr. said. “First of all, he was like me. We were both devastated. He didn’t sleep that night at all. I didn’t go to bed until like 4 a.m. that morning. Just trying to digest it.”
The Fords bled that night, too. Their oldest son, Noah, will transfer to UGA this fall. He will be a preferred walk-on fullback.
“We all got into the big TV room and there was more screaming and yelling,” Tim Ford said. “There was screaming and despair and elation. If you go all the way back to the Rose Bowl, that was one of the most unbelievable roller coaster rides. With Luke and Noah going there, we were so much more invested and it meant so much more to us. I tell you what, we truly lived and breathed with every snap of every play.”
A lot of red and black spilled onto their family room floor, too.
“It was devastation all around,” Tim Ford said. “We hung the flags at half-mast. Everybody went out and mourned when we lost. It was terrible when we lost that game. We couldn’t believe he was that wide open going into the end zone. What we chalked it up to was the refs stole the game from us and that was that.”
Ford painted a compelling picture. But he was only kidding about that. At least mostly.
They found a better way to look at it.
“That Alabama game was just miserable for us to watch it end that way,” Tim Ford said. “But on that same side, it was just an incredible experience because you saw how far Georgia had come in that one season and how close they came to toppling Alabama and winning it all. There’s an excitement now and an anticipation that the boys are coming right back next year. Or at least that is the hope.”
Watching it unfold. The two families had a similar reaction. That pain would indeed lead to gains in 2018 and 2019 and beyond.
Lisa Ford, his mother, definitely shook her head in agreement with that thought. That’s wasn’t a joke.
“Every down point here was a spot to build on,” Tim Ford said. “I think that will put that fire in their bellies to go do it again and break through to the top. I know I’ve never seen my two boys work out any harder in anticipation of getting there and reversing that outcome since that game.”
Smith told his father that exact same thing.
“It took him awhile to get over it,” Smith Sr. said. “But then Chris was saying ‘That’s alright we will be back’ and he was talking about him and Justin (Fields) and the players that he knows that are already there. He was like we will definitely be back to that game.”
It is just a sign of what is ahead. Smith will be part of a strong defensive back corps with 5-star Tyson Campbell and 4-stars Nabad Joseph and Divaad Wilson at the corners. They will be tasked with slowing down those Alabama receivers in a rematch that appears very likely down the playoff road.
“He’s excited about this class and he feels that this group of kids with Tyson (Campbell) and Divaad and Justin (Fields) and Zamir (White) will be the kids that tip the scales even more in Georgia’s favor. So in the future, they probably will win the national championship. That’s how he thinks.”
When Smith was committed to Georgia, he heard some talk from others. Georgia wasn’t the place. The Bulldogs don’t play for it all. That’s an underachieving program.
“I really do think that the game opens his eyes to the possibility of what the future can be for Georgia,” Smith Sr. said. “He heard those things back when he was committed to Georgia about going somewhere else. He was committed then and I think that loss to Alabama has made him even more committed to win a championship for Georgia because of what happened in that game.”
Heartbreaker? A different way to look at that loss
Jamaree Salyer, the 5-star signee at guard, sees everything a different way. If there was any heartbreak, it was fleeting.
He wants to see the Bulldogs face Alabama again. That’s the number one team he wants to play in his college career.
His view of that loss doesn’t exactly equate to fuel or a fire in the belly. It simply framed the parameters of a goal to make that series a rivalry.
“I feel like playing ‘Bama will be that true test,” Salyer said. “For anybody. They are a great great team. There are not too many people that can say they have beaten Alabama in the past seven years. I want to be a guy that says ‘I beat Alabama’ in my college career.”
Salyer wasn’t sad. But maybe he was more proud than anything else.
“People have to respect us now,” he said. “I feel like we’ve gotten over that hump. People always saw us as a team from the SEC but never an elite team in college football as a whole. Now, that season and that tough overtime game against Alabama shows that people will have to respect us. People have to respect us. When people see Georgia on the schedule now, they know they have got to play. It is not the same old Georgia anymore. We’re not the same team. You can tell with this recruiting class we have coming in we’re not going to be the same team. I was excited by that game. That game motivated me. I want to find out how that feels to be on the other end.”