In sports, certain defining moments are frozen in time. One of them was on November 2, when Dansby Swanson threw the ball to Freddie Freeman for the 2021 World Series Final. After a quarter century of drought, we were finally world champions.
But that moment meant something else to us in the Bulldog Nation. Was this a sign that we were finally going to break Nick Saban’s ‘curse’ and accomplish what we had been striving for since 1981, the last time we won a national championship? We were already ranked #1. The only thing standing between us and our goal was another match with our nemesis.
It would take us five long weeks before we reached our moment.
After two years of a nationwide pandemic and widespread civil unrest, the only place things still looked normal was the playground. But between the hedgerows of Athens, things were anything but normal.
By now everyone knows the story of Stetson Bennett IV, the kid from Blackshear who dreamed of being a quarterback for Georgia since he was a kid. At just 5’11”, he joined the team as an extra, but after a year of playing on the scout team, he 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 Southern Cal’s vaunted starter was injured and he, Stetson Bennett IV, had to step in.
The social media crowd kicked into high gear and stayed there – even as Bennett led the team to an undefeated season. Relentlessly they criticized him for not being up to the job and Smart for not replacing him. Some of the sports pundits have done it too.
For those of us in Bulldog Nation who believed in Bennett and Smart, the attacks felt personal. Why, after everything we and the country had been through, couldn’t they just be happy for us?
But on the night of Dec. 4 at the 2021 SEC Championship, Alabama humbled our beloved Bulldogs 41-24. How could we, the No. 1 team in the country, play so badly? Perhaps the naysayers were right. Maybe we’ve never been so good after all. You could hear hearts breaking throughout the Bulldog Nation, which had grown to include many people who had never set foot in Athens.
But hope springs eternal in the heart of a “Damn Good Dog”. We had a chance to redeem ourselves in the CFP playoff series, in which we tore down the University of Michigan and earned another crack at Alabama in the CFP Championship game scheduled for January 10, 2022. The only thing between us and the prize we had was chasing Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, with its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young.
Our soon to be frozen moment happened in the last minute of this game. We were in front, but Bama had the ball near our endzone. Could this be a repeat of our shocking overtime loss to Alabama in CFP 2018? Miraculously, with just 54 seconds left, rookie Kelee Ringo intercepted a pass from Bryce Young and ran 79 yards to give us a 33-18 lead.
As time passed, we began to realize that after 41 years, we would end our seven-game losing streak against Alabama and bring the national trophy back to Athens, where we always thought it belonged.
Now that the joyful parade and celebration in Athens is behind us, we can look back on that moment when it all became real. It was almost perfect. Herschel Walker and Vince Dooley were there. Kirby Smart was bringing glory back to his alma mater. In the background of Athens was the sound of the chapel bell. And on the sidelines, Bennett was crying. A post-match commentator said four out of six Bulldog fans in the stands were crying. I was crying. So was the friend who watched with me.
National experts 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 – players, coaches and fans – never giving up to prove that critics were wrong.
That night, from 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 announced that he would return. Stay tuned.