Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York magazine, columnist for MLB.com and the founder of Deadspin. He lives with his wife and two rambunctious boys in Athens and will be writing for BI throughout the season.
If you’ll forgive me, I shall begin my first piece for this publication with a brief negative thought: What is the worst moment of the Kirby Smart era?
I don’t mean the most disappointing moment, or the moment that hurt the most. We all know that’s 2nd-and-26 in the 2018 BCS Championship Game—it’s a gut shot just to type those words—but even as painful as that was, it’s difficult to call that the “worst” moment: Georgia was within one play of a national championship, after all. I mean the worst moment, the moment when the program and its coach were the most under fire, the moment when you, as a dedicated fan of Georgia football, the sort of person who reads this particular magazine cover to cover, were the most dissatisfied with the state of the program.
I’d argue it was just last year. I’d argue it was October 19, on a cold, rainy, absolutely miserable night at Sanford Stadium, when Georgia hosted the Kentucky Wildcats. It says a lot about the state of Georgia football in the Kirby Smart era that the lowest moment could happen during a game that the Bulldogs won 21-0, and when history books look back at the 2019 season, it will be unlikely that anyone even notices: Who boos when your team is pitching a shutout?
But if you were there, you remember. You remember that first quarter, when Georgia went three-and-out on their first three possessions, just running futilely the ball up the middle in a driving rainstorm, as fans—who hadn’t had the chance to truly register their displeasure after a stunning final-second home loss the week before against South Carolina—cascaded boos from all corners of Sanford Stadium. Teams usually claim they don’t hear boos from their fans in those rare occasions when they arrive, but a large part of the narrative for the rest of the Georgia season revolved around those boos: Who they were for (Smart said they were directed at Jake Fromm, though James Coley seemed to be the target), what percentage of the fans in attendance took part (“half” seems a tad high, but it was plenty), how the team responded to the boos (Smart used them to try to push the “Us Against The World” button coaches always push when none of the other buttons seem to work). The boos were a big deal! I don’t think it’s unreasonable to posit that the boos from Sanford faithful had a lot more to do with the offseason changes to Georgia football than the musings of hot-take national columnists with an axe to grind. I’m not much of a boo-er myself, but I understand why fans do it: They spend a lot of money to watch these games, and the opportunities to express one’s displeasure are few and far between. Booing is one of the few recourses fans have. Fans don’t want to boo: They want to cheer and scream and be happy. But boos happen.
Or at least they did.
In the wake of all this country and this planet have been through since the last time we gathered around the hedges to watch a Georgia football game—November 23 against Texas A&M, which now seems like 40 lifetimes ago—suddenly, the idea of going to a sporting event with 95,000 of your closest friends and being unhappy about it seems like the most insane concept imaginable. Suddenly, that freezing, dark, drenched night at Sanford watching two tired teams try to juggle a slippery football, the night where the frustrations from the week before, and the frustrations of the end of the two seasons before, spilled over into the public view … that night now seems like the most wonderful time in the world.
What were we so upset about? We were watching football.
The national emergency of the last few months has rattled us, has forced us to ask questions about ourselves and our nation, has kept us inside and estranged from our schools, our workplaces, our friends, our families … all the things that keep us together, all the things that keep us from feeling so alone. It has scrambled our priorities, upended our lives, put us in financial peril, left us desperate to something, anything to hang on to.
But it also has reminded us that a large part of what we had before, what made up what we called our Daily Lives, meant so much more to us than we realized at the time. Things we took for granted and never really appreciated—walking our kids to school at Barrow Elementary, eating out at Donna Chang’s or The National, playing Uno at Rook & Pawn, meeting friends at Jittery Joe’s, just pulling up for a pint at the Royal Peasant—now feel like the most glorious of indulgences. They are the world we are trying to get back to.
And at the center of all that, as it always is in this town and this state, is football. There are many, many questions that are going to have to be answered before Georgia football begins its season, not just by the Georgia athletic department, but also the SEC, the NCAA and, really, the nation at large. We do not know, even this close to the start of the season, how many games will be played, how many fans will be allowed inside the stadium (if any), how this is all going to work out.
But by all accounts: There’s going to be football this year. It might look a little different. It might not be exactly what we’ve been used to. It might take some adjustments from everyone. But that central organizing principle of this beautiful town of Athens, coming out of a time when it has been difficult to have anything that we can all embrace as one, is returning, one way or another. And no matter how it looks: It will look so glorious. All the little things we took for granted, all the little fan grievances we carried with us, all the when are we gonna get our title? frustrations … they will all fade away. Because we’ll have football. It will seem absurd that we ever thought to do anything other than scream and bark and rejoice.
It’s going to be awhile until we have everything back to what it was—it may take longer, even than we are ready for. But that normalcy is there, and the route there is through our routines and our obsessions and those collective experiences that bond us after so much time apart. The first game will mean so much: It will be a sign that there is indeed a road back on this journey.
And then we can go back to grousing about the play calling again. Because that’s when we know we’re truly back to normal: When we’re so comfortable that we can go back to being temporarily grouchy about something that is otherwise a permanent joyous thing in our lives. Georgia football has always been a joy, even when it hasn’t felt that way. The goal for all of us is to get back to where we were before. It is going to take a while. But just talking about the upcoming season, however it ends up looking, is a step in the right direction.
It’s a step toward normalcy. It’s a step toward being a community again. It’s going to be bumpy. It’s going to take some unexpected turns. But we’re going to get there. This is just the start.
It’s enough to make you want to stand up and cheer.