In sports, certain defining moments become frozen in time. One of those was on Nov. 2, when Dansby Swanson threw the ball to Freddie Freeman for the final out of the 2021 World Series. After a quarter-century drought, we were finally the world champions.
But that moment meant something else to us in the Bulldog Nation. Was it a sign that we would finally break “the curse” of Nick Saban and accomplish what we had been yearning for since 1981, the last time we won a national championship? We were already ranked #1. The only thing between us and our goal was another match-up with our nemesis.
It would be five long weeks before we reached our moment.
After two years of a national pandemic and widespread civil unrest, the only place things still seemed normal was the playing field. But between the hedges in Athens, things were anything but normal.
By now, everyone knows the story of Stetson Bennett IV, the kid from Blackshear who had dreamed of quarterbacking for Georgia since childhood. At only 5’11”, he joined the team as a walk-on, but after a year of playing on the scout team, transferred to a junior college for more playing time.
He returned to Georgia when Kirby Smart believed in him enough to offer him a scholarship. Even then, he didn’t get his break until the vaunted starter from Southern Cal was injured and he, Stetson Bennett IV, had to step in.
The social media mob went into high gear and stayed there – even as Bennett proceeded to lead the team to an undefeated season. Relentlessly, they slammed him for not being up to the job and Smart for not replacing him. Some of the sports pundits did too.
For those of us in the Bulldog Nation who believed in Bennett and Smart, the attacks felt personal. Why, after all we and the country had been through, could they not just be happy for us?
But on the night of Dec. 4 in the 2021 SEC championship, Alabama humiliated our beloved Bulldogs 41-24. How could we, the country’s #1 team, play so poorly? Maybe the naysayers were right. Maybe we were never that good after all. You could hear hearts breaking throughout the Bulldog Nation, which had grown to include many who had never set foot in Athens.
But hope springs eternal in the heart of a “Damn Good Dog.” We got the chance to redeem ourselves in the CFP playoff series, in which we demolished the University of Michigan and earned another crack at Alabama in the CFP championship game scheduled for Jan. 10, 2022. The only thing between us and the prize we had been chasing was Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, with its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Bryce Young.
Our soon-to-be-frozen moment occurred in the last minute of that game. We were ahead, but Bama had the ball near our endzone. Would this be a repeat of our shocking overtime loss to Alabama in the 2018 CFP? Miraculously, with only 54 seconds to play, freshman Kelee Ringo intercepted a Bryce Young pass and ran 79 yards to put us ahead 33-18.
As the clock ticked down, it started to dawn on us that after 41 years, we were going to end our seven-game losing streak to Alabama and bring the national trophy back to Athens, where we always thought it belonged.
Now that the joyful parade and celebration in Athens are behind us, we can look back at that moment when everything first became real. It was just about perfect. Herschel Walker and Vince Dooley were there. Kirby Smart was bringing glory back to his alma mater. In the background from Athens was the sound of the chapel bell ringing. And on the sidelines was Bennett crying. A post-game commentator said four out of every six Bulldog fans in the stands were crying. I was crying. So was the friend watching with me.
The national pundits said they were tears of joy, but as a certified Georgia Bulldog, I think they were tears of redemption. After 41 years of trying and believing, despite being told we weren’t good enough, it took all of us – the players, the coaches and the fans – never giving up to prove the critics wrong.
That night, based on the text messages flooding my phone, everyone I knew was a Bulldog, no matter where they went to school. The new season starts in six months. Bennett has announced he’s coming back. Stay tuned.