I literally had to step over bodies to get home when Georgia last played Alabama in the national championship.

I left the county commissioners’ meeting that night in January 2018 and rushed to the Georgia Theater in Athens to meet my friend, Ben Munro, and watch the game with a massive crowd on the movie screen, which feels almost like a game experience.

When the Crimson Tide dagger was thrust into the Bulldogs’ side on a game-ending bomb, several guys around me fell to the floor in disbelief and dejection. The catch had hardly settled in Devonta Smith’s hands before I hit the emotional eject button. Outta’ here! So, I hurried to get out and to my car, stepping over moaning men and accidentally slamming into a guy holding a beer, which doused me like the diametric opposite of a coach’s victory Gatorade bath. The cold beer went all down my shirt, soaking me. I only drank water, but I reeked of alcohol. I pulled out of the parking deck and the wails of people on the streets in Athens and the look in people’s eyes stayed with me, like the beer bath, as I drove home in silence, desperate for a shower and anything else to think about.

Why is this fishhook in my cheek, pulling me into such emotionally charged waters? Maybe you are pulled by the fishhook, too. Being a fan isn’t rational, is it? We typically don’t know these players personally, but we care immensely. This irrationality leads some people to ugly extremes, such as those who act like jerks toward the players, toward the coaches, toward other fans. It is ultimately just a game, an overarching perspective that should never leave us. The best coach in college football history greeted Kirby Smart at midfield with a genuine smile Monday, which should serve as a marker for how everyone should aspire to act in a tough loss, whatever the occasion, sports or otherwise. That was gracious and classy. That’s being a winner, even when it doesn’t go your way.

But this time, it went Georgia’s way!

For much of the night, it hardly seemed possible. After that fateful second-and-26 stab four years ago, and after the SEC Championship loss, it was hard not to feel doom set in when things went wrong early. Georgia couldn’t do much in the first half offensively. Heisman winner Bryce Young torched Georgia in December, and he looked sharp in the first two quarters, passing for over 200 yards. But Georgia’s vaunted defense made the Tide settle for threes, not sevens, which was crucial. The Bulldogs could have easily trailed 21-6 at the half. Instead, it was 9-6.

Georgia took the lead in the third quarter, then strangeness hit, dropping the familiar cloud of hex on Georgia. Stetson Bennett was chased out of the pocket and lost control of the ball as he tried to throw it away. It dropped to the ground and was casually picked up by an Alabama player, who clearly thought it was an incomplete pass. It was ruled a fumble and a turnover. Young soon hit a tight end for the Tide’s only touchdown, pulling ahead 18-13. Somewhere a Bulldog voodoo doll was getting stabbed, maybe in Gainesville, Florida or on the campus of Georgia Tech. Doom renewed.

What happened after that will be remembered for as long as people care about college football. The narrative of Herschel Walker has been eclipsed by the tale of Stetson Bennett, who takes his place in American sports history as one of its greatest underdog stories. It truly is — the undersized walk-on, much-doubted quarterback who guides his team to the ultimate prize.

After the gut-punch turnover, offensive coordinator Todd Monken opted against conservative play calling, choosing to let the walk-on take his shots downfield. All the momentum had gone to Alabama. But Bennett quickly snatched it back, moving the Bulldogs down the field through the air and hitting Adonai Mitchell on a 40-yard strike to pull ahead 19-18. The whole vibe completely changed. Once Georgia had that lead again, the team seemed at a completely different energy level. They weren’t going to be denied. They were national champions.

Bennett’s tears of victory on the sideline will be burned in the memories of countless Georgia fans for years to come. It was a cathartic moment, not just for him, but for so many people with the fishhook set firmly in their cheeks, pulling them toward the racing heart in the fall.

What happens is actually impersonal. It happens outside of us. We have no control. But the experience is personal. There are countless personal narratives of where we were, who was with us, what was happening in our lives.

My first football memory is actually that famed 1980 Sugar Bowl. All I remember is my father and uncle falling to their knees in our living room during some big play in the Georgia title win. I was in the room, but not really present. I had no idea what was happening. So while I technically witnessed the title 41 years ago, it hardly counts to me as a lived experience. But soon after, I had a Bulldog football helmet and jersey. I was in our front yard throwing passes to myself. When the next season started, I was all in, following every play, usually on the radio with Larry Munson, since not all games were televised, and even then, we listened to Munson, not the broadcast.

I was listening to Munson on a golf course, then jumping up and down on the 17th tee and seeing men celebrating on the 18th green in Macon after Kevin Butler hit his famed kick against Clemson in 1984. My childhood home was flooded in 1994, and I remember being at my parents' temporary rental home that year, watching Georgia lose a heartbreaker to Alabama. There’s the hobnail boot. There’s the Jasper Sanks phantom fumble. There’s the ‘86 waterhoses, the Hail Mary against us in 2013 at Auburn, the fourth-and-13 loss of 1992 versus Tennessee…just a vast catalogue of memories of the fishhook in my cheek, my heart pumping faster, anxiety rising, the momentum shifting our way or the other.

There’s so much about the past few years that will hang in my memory in bad ways. But it sure is nice to have a memory trophy case for 2021, the best year in Georgia sports history, a Braves World Series title and a Georgia national title.

In a way, these seasons are time markers for all the caught fish, all those with the fishhook that’s stuck for better or worse with this emotional pull to a shared experience. And what an experience! All the caught fish were released Monday to swim in victory.

No emotional eject button this year. I’ll savor this one.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com.

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