Flashback to 2006

“Richt Era: 15 Years in Athens” book by Han Vance debuts 11/11 at Avid Bookshop on Prince Avenue in Athens. That’s the FRI night (6:30-7:30p reading, signing, discussing) before Georgia battles Auburn Between the Hedges. Signed books are $17.85.

Circa 2006: I thought we were going to be pretty good again, because we had been strong throughout the five-year Richt era, half a decade of near dominance, near excellence. We were ranked only 15th due to so many question marks after the Greene-Shockley quarterbacking duo departed. Joe Tereshinski the third, aka JT III, was an upperclassman third generation Georgia footballer whose family worked in football for the university, so he was tapped by most to start at quarterback. He was battling all-world new recruit Matthew Stafford out of Dallas. The Texas gunslinger already had the strongest arm in Georgia football history as a true freshman. Joe Cox of Charlotte was also in the mix, and he had never lost a football game in high school.

We easily outclassed the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 48-12 in Athens to start the 2006 season. Then after we moved up to a #12 ranking, our defense looked super fast and dominant in snuffing an unranked S. Carolina team 18-0 on the road. JTIII was nicked up, but it didn’t matter much as the 10th ranked Dawgs pitched back-to-back shutouts by blanking the UAB Blazers 34-0. I was really impressed.

In this period of time, we were making an effort to play bigger teams from out of the Southern region. The Colorado Buffaloes rolled into Athens as underdogs. Going with young Matthew Stafford, the #9 Dawgs found themselves in a 13-0 hole. Stafford had happy feet and was playing like a nervous true freshman, so Richt called on Joe Cox to save us. And he did, hitting the game-winning touchdown pass to big tight end Martrez Milner, to the elation of the Sanford Stadium crowd. I was fully jacked up!

I was at the frat the next week – which when I say the frat does not mean a traditional fraternity but rather indicates Tom Bailey’s house off Blackwell Road in northeast Cobb County, unincorporated Marietta. Some of us went to Georgia, most of us are big Dawgs fans, and most of us went to either Sprayberry (like Tom) or Lassiter (like me) High Schools. They’re great guys to catch a beer with and watch a game, and we’ve hung around that same house for decades and been through a whole heck of a lot of good times and bad times and growing pains. And beers…definitely some cans of beer. Anyway, Mississippi was on the schedule for a late night road game, and Tom and Jason Kisz and I were in front of the massive TV watching our Dawgs, who had dropped a spot to #10. We played flat and definitely did not look like a worthy top ten team but still won 14-9. Hey, it was just Ole Miss.

We had a pretty weak offense for a #10 team, I knew, and faced an explosive and motivated 13th ranked Tennessee in a night game in Athens that next week. But JT III was back to save the day. He played a nearly flawless first half and was putting great touch on the ball. Hyper-focused and really ready to compete and earn his birthright, and then the wheels fell off. He fell apart late in the half and never, I mean never recovered. Tennessee was just the third program to score fifty or more in Athens as the Vols were unstoppable through the air and crushed us in a high-scoring lopsided affair 51-33. They easily scored more than we had collectively given up all year. So much for our dominant defense, and so much for JT III – we went with the freshman after that. We had to; he was much more talented.

We took our lumps, too. The wheels fell off the whole program the next week as #16 ranked Georgia lost on Homecoming to Vandy 24-22 and remained unranked for the rest of the season. Clearly, Georgia should never lose the Homecoming game.

We edged Mississippi State in a home game 27-24 and still had a shot at a good season if we could somehow take out Florida.

I was there with the guys, from that frat I mentioned, after a bad skateboarding wreck. I’ve written much longer on this horrific experience in the past but here I will just leave it at: alcohol and pain medication simply don’t mix. Georgia came out flat and played catch up and did not get there, losing 21-14.

We dropped games to Kentucky and Vandy in the same season, folks, losing 24-20 in Bluegrass Country in a game that was not even televised. We had lost four-of-five and were having a bad year. This after starting 5-0 and being in the top ten.

Auburn was #5 in the nation and awaiting us. We picked off their passes (Tra Battle got three interceptions) and shut down their running game and easily upset them on the plains 37-15. Then in a game that was a return to form of the early season we bested the #16 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 15-12 in Athens.

We started strong, had a really rough middle season and then played much better and won out by beating two good, ranked rivals, in upsets to do so. To culminate the resurging from our midseason swoon, Georgia played a strong Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl (which has gone back and forth from being called the Peach to the Chick-fil-A to the Peach again, once it reached College Football Playoff bowl rotational status. For this book, I choose to simply call it the Peach Bowl). The SEC is often favored in the Peach Bowl, but we were underdogs because #14 Virginia Tech had nearly won their conference.

We came back on them big to win 31-24 behind the tough as nails blocking, pass catching and short yardage running of fullback Brannan Southerland, whom my brothers and I nicknamed WHITESTUFF. It was the most fun I’d had at a game in a while, crushed between two of my brothers and with some other family members, who are more immediate family of my middle brother August and are all giant fans.

Afterward I blogged about the game day experience on MySpace, which ended up being the genesis of BIG HAIRY BLAWG (first called “Big Hairy Blog”) and all of my work as a sports journalist.

I had already been writing about other topics online, and I was working on a book on my summer of 2005 California travels (“Golden State Misadventures”), as well as writing poetry by then. That next season, I covered the Dawgs from start to glorious finish (on MySpace) and had a readership over 30,000. The following year, www.bighairyblawg.com debuted.

The thousands of hours I spent on this sports writing over subsequent seasons gave me writing, editing and promoting experience. It has also greatly enhanced my personal fan experiences. I’m forever grateful to the Georgia Bulldogs for all of this and really for all the memories, good and bad.

Thank you for reading, too.

Glory to Ol’ GEORGIA