SPORTS COLUMN: Roll it again... Georgia's national title win immortalizes brand new reel of iconic highlights
The Courier Herald, "Slices of Sports" – January 15, 2022
I'd be willing to bet I'm like most Georgia football fans in having a handful – or several – favorite highlight plays from over the years that I go back to and replay, either on a screen or in my mind, over and over again.
Whether they're moments I was alive to witness or ones that took place before my time that have been preserved by video, they're legendary plays – preferably accompanied by immortal Larry Munson narration – that never seem to get old.
The Hobnail Boot, Kevin Butler's game-winning kick against Clemson, "Sugar Falling out of the Sky," Lorenzo Carter's blocked kick and Sony Michel's game-winning touchdown run in the Rose Bowl are all highlights that if you haven't seen (heck, you can't even attend a game at Sanford Stadium or listen to one on the radio without bumping into at least one), you may not actually be a Georgia fan.
They resonate in a different ways with different people, but all conjure great feelings of the moment, and where one was to see it. And they’re uniting for Dawg fans across generations, even the ones like me who only experienced a good majority of the greatest ones secondhand.
Every season has those plays. But it's only the truly historic and legendary ones, most amid the greatest of seasons, that occupy such an iconic place in the culture of the fan base. And even among those, few rise to the level of championship-caliber.
They are pieces of history who speak to their own significance, because they were connected to a major title and the added weight that comes with continually delivering against the best competition, and with the most on the line.
And as is the case with most of them, they need little prompting to bring back memories of what took place, how, and why it was such a big deal, whether you were there in-person or not.
As an example, the only three words I'd need to get a die-hard Braves fan to recall the one-hit shutout of a certain hall-of-fame pitcher in the World Series clinching win of 1995 are "Glavine, game 6." (I actually tested this theory out on a co-worker across the room while writing this, and the point held true).
Without question, that goes for all the high-points of Georgia's last national championship season in 1980: Herschel Walker's explosion onto the scene, running over Bill Bates to win the season opener at Tennessee, his huge touchdown runs against George Rogers-led South Carolina, Buck Belue's miracle touchdown pass to Lindsay Scott in Jacksonville and Herschel's 150-yard rushing effort playing with a relocated shoulder against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
Until Monday night, my generation and plenty of others that weren't lucky enough to be alive in 1980 didn't have any of these championship moments that we could call our own.
Sure, the old highlights are special, and I'll always have a fondness for the plays seen firsthand in the years since that almost got us to the same pinnacle. But none will ever be as remarkable for me as the highlight reel of Monday night's win over Alabama that finally brought the Bulldogs back to that mountaintop.
I've already watched the string of clips at least a dozen times, and a minimum of once each with the commentary (dang, if the internet ain't great) of ESPN's Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, ESPNRadio's Sean McDonough, Voice of the Dawgs Scott Howard, Alabama voice Eli Gold and even the play-by-play of Russian and Spanish telecasts of the game.
Each of the plays are ones that, in the years past, we're used to seeing made against Georgia in all-important matchups, primarily by the Tide. This time, it was the Dawgs who made them for a change, bearing out Kirby Smart's mantra for the season: "Either you're elite or you're not."
The elite, and championship-defining moments that stick out:
• George Pickens' somersault catch on the first-quarter deep ball, and his presence of mind to pin the ball to himself with one hand to prevent any contact with the ground that might dispute a completion upon landing. The Dawgs only got a field goal out of this first deep drive, but we'll let that slide.
• Jalen Carter's blocked field goal to suddenly reverse the Tide's building momentum late in the third quarter. It's funny how special teams plays always seem to be the ones that have the most game-changing power, no matter how well you've got things going in the other two phases.
• James Cook's breakaway run moments later to set up the game's first touchdown, and the one that put the Dawgs on top for the first time all night.
• Stetson Bennett's deep ball to Adonai Mitchell, on a fearless shot with dead-eye precision to the freshman receiver in the right of the end zone for the final go-ahead score. How the ball could be more accurately placed against perfect coverage, I'm not sure.
(And before we continue, let me add that Bennett on Monday proved himself a national title-winning QB in the order of Buck Belue, who was likewise unheralded, but found a way to make plays in the biggest of moments that few other more talented ones before him could. His ability to overcome the odds, and the doubters – of which I was one, and proven wrong – in his performance is downright inspiring).
• The runs of Zamir White, behind a set of ill-intentioned blockers, right up the teeth of the (second) best defense in the country again and again on the several-play drive in the fourth quarter that added to that Georgia lead. They brought back images of numerous matchups from years before, when it was Bama (Eddie Lacy, Derrick Henry, Damian Harris, Najee Harris, et. al.) gashing the wind-sucking Bulldog defense over and over again down the stretch.
Monday night, it was Georgia playing the role of fourth-quarter bully. And to give offensive coordinator Todd Monken credit, he ran the dadgum ball, and flat out broke Alabama's spirit.
Each passing play, the feeling of what was coming became more real. And it was easy to resist at first, as many times in the past as Georgia has toyed with our emotions in games against Bama just like this one.
I called back the memory of leads in the national and SEC title games of 2017 and '18, last year's matchup with the Tide in the regular season and even the 2012 SEC championship that all ended with Alabama either slipping or blowing its way by for the win.
With every chance, it was some set of elite plays just like the ones listed above that Georgia couldn't find a way to make, or couldn't stop.
With three minutes to go, I was already reading the game recap to myself: Bryce Young leads a last-minute drive to tie on a touchdown and two-point conversion, and win the game in overtime to spoil the Dawgs' hopes yet again. The script looked all too similar to the ones before.
And then Georgia made one more huge play – and perhaps what will go down as the most iconic of all – with the same resilience and refusal to be denied that we saw from Bama so many times over...
• Kelee Ringo's interception of Young's third-down pass, and the boldness to not go down and defer to his offense to seal the ballgame, but to haul the football back to the end zone and do it himself... That was championship playmaking.
There are plenty of Georgia fans other than me who have far more ownership of this 41-year drought than me. I'm only 28, and though the waiting period over that length of time has been just as dark, those who are older know even more of the disappointment and frustration that's come to a head in the numerous recent near-misses.
But for each of us who weren't there in 1980, a Georgia national championship is something we've never tasted in our lifetime, and also something we've dreamed of seeing for as long as we've been old enough to know what football is.
That goes back, for me, to attending games as a seven- and eight-year-old, and longing to watch Georgia go undefeated in the regular season (back then, the only means of truly contending for a national title), which remained an elusive accomplishment for the Dawgs up until this year.
There were numerous car rides home after heart-rending losses to the likes of Tennessee or South Carolina to snap an early-season unbeaten streak that had me all but crying (or at least devastated for the entire coming week) at the slim hopes of winning it all that had been dashed.
I long ago stopped investing the level of emotion in the outcomes of games and seasons that I once did. It's not worth it, and eventually you learn that you can't win 'em all. But there was still a lingering hope that it might just work out for Georgia to do it one day – one that fate found a way to challenge in every way possible over the years.
It's been a while since a Georgia game has brought back those tears. And I kept them away as the fourth quarter drew to a close on Monday night.
But as I ran back those highlights over again later in the evening – and I'm not ashamed to say I was up until about 3 in the morning – there was a little moisture that filled the eyes while watching, and feeling the energy of the Indianapolis crowd, as Bennett hit Mitchell to re-take the lead, Ringo raced down the sideline to glory and Smart lifted the CFP trophy beneath a whirlwind of red confetti.
For the childlike fan in all of us, that's the ultimate moment.
And deep down, there's a confirmation that, no matter how long the wait and the number of disappointments, everything you dream of seeing one day is possible, as long as you stick around long enough to keep anticipating it.
Feels a bit surreal to say that those plays will now be the ones replayed years from now on the Sanford Stadium video board and that I'll tell my kids stories about someday. They'll be a new set of iconic moments that endure for generations long after this one.
And unlike the many "ordinary" great plays from over the years – which all told were only moral victories – reliving these will carry a new feeling: The one of not finishing a season in more disappointment and heartbreak, but of winning it all.
I doubt it will wear off anytime soon, if ever.
Now, let me go so I can re-watch those highlights one more time...