William Faulkner once famously wrote that, for every Southern boy, “there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” He was referring to the Battle of Gettysburg shortly before Pickett’s Charge, when there was still a wisp of hope for the Southern cause. What happened after that was complete disaster but, up until that moment, there was still a chance at victory.
Southern boys of Faulkner’s generation might have still felt a connection to that chivalrous and doomed moment for the South. But for Southern boys my age, that loss of innocence most likely came when their favorite college football came close to lasting glory, but failed.
For me, that moment was the evening of January 1, 1983. The University of Georgia was playing Penn State in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship. Penn State started out strong, building a 20-3 lead shortly before halftime. But the Bulldogs rallied. With a little more than four minutes to go in the game, Herschel Walker plunged into the end zone to cut Penn State’s lead to 27-23, the last touchdown he would score in his legendary college career. I perched on the edge of our sofa, staring intently at our 20-inch RCA television, willing Penn State to give the ball back. Georgia was going to win the game. All they had to do was force a punt, punch in another score and win the national title for the second time in three years. They had always won in the short time I had been a rabid Dawgs fan. Sometimes it came in miraculous fashion, but Georgia always won. Tonight would be no different. As Faulkner might have put it, “the brigades were in position, the guns were laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags were already loosened…”
Herschel never got the ball back. Penn State finally punted with four seconds to go, and the game was over. Joe Paterno, about whom we know so much more today than we did back then, got the victory ride. The Yankees had whupped us again. Less than a month later, Herschel skipped his senior year to play for the USFL, and Bear Bryant was dead. It was a bitter, depressing winter for college football fans in the South.
When you’re a kid and you start paying attention to sports, the tendency is to follow whatever team is having the most success at the time (unless, of course, your parents goad you into rooting for their sad-sack alma mater). For me, the team to follow was Georgia, which had the best player in college football and which lost only four games over a four-year span in the early 1980s. Most of the games weren’t on TV in those days, but Georgia had a brilliant, growling radio announcer named Larry Munson who made every snap vividly intense, and who was at his best when the “Junkyard Dogs” defense had to make a play to seal the win (“Hunker down, you guys,” he once urged them on four straight plays against Auburn. On that day, the Dawgs did exactly that).
The Sugar Bowl against Penn State was one of those awakenings all young sports fans have when they realize their favorite team is not invincible. The next year, there would be an even more painful 13-7 home loss to Auburn, the first defeat between the hedges of Sanford Stadium in more the four years.
Georgia would go on to have some good teams and even a couple of great ones, but it would never be quite the same after that. Three decades later, the Dawgs have yet to return to the national championship game. They were one play away last year, almost upsetting Alabama in the final seconds. Maybe this season it will finally happen again. Georgia has another great running back, and lots of experience on both sides of the ball.
At any rate, the start of college football is something I always look forward to this time of year. In October, my own sad-sack alma mater, Missouri, will take on the Dawgs at Sanford Stadium. I’ll root for the Tigers, but a part of me will remember the ghosts of autumn Saturdays past, when the most important thing in my world was the Dawgs hunkering down and finding a way to win.