Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Sights and Sounds of the 2018 NCAA Football National Championship

Reliving the splendor and the sorrow of an all-SEC national title game, smack dab in the heart of college football country.

The 2018 NCAA National Championship had it all: thrills, chills, spills and one of the most unforgettable endings in the history of college football. And if you thought the game was thrilling on TV, you should've seen what it was like being there live as it happened.

By: James Swift

It's called "The Gulch" - a "P"-shaped sliver of concrete and asphalt abutting the CNN employee parking lot and an old railroad line. The cavernous lot looks more like the delivery zone for a heavy industrial plant than a tailgating hotspot, but the view is hard to beat - directly ahead is the $2 billion, freshly opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For those who didn't mind the $90 parking fee, it wasn't a bad place at all to begin the 2018 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football National Championship Game, held Jan. 8 in Atlanta.

Although the game itself didn't start until 8 p.m., revelers were filing into nearby Centennial Olympic Park at noon. While the 35 degree Fahrenheit weather wasn't optimal, it was still an improvement over last week's temperatures, which at times, dipped into the teens. With the wind chill factored into the equation, some days it damn near hit zero. By comparison, the game day weather was almost balmy - regardless of the frozen over water fountains.

The fairgrounds were a smorgasbord of corporate synergy, as booths with representatives from Dr. Pepper, AT&T, and Allstate dotted the hinterlands. A series of uniform food tents encircled the periphery of the park. Hard cider, Jamaican jerk chicken and Cajun platters were all offered; those with more routine tastes could settle on a standard Chick-fil-A meal, now upcharged to $7 a sandwich. 

Although the big game itself featured the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs, that didn't stop attendees from wearing the colors of other teams, collegiate and professional, to the festivities. Amid the football fanatics sporting Nick Chubb and Damien Harris jerseys, one could also spot guests in Georgia Tech, Northern Illinois, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars regalia. One even showed up wearing a full Louisiana State University tiger costume. Naturally, old Herschel Walker jerseys were ubiquitous, as were attendees donning houndstooth scarves - or, as some are keen on calling it, "Bamaflage."

On the main stage a DJ keeps spinning a mash-up of stadium rock staples. "More Than a Feeling," "Don't Stop Believing," a carefully edited version of Nazareth's "Hair of the Dog" with the word "son of a bitch" slyly bleeped out - the usual stuff. A disembodied announcer promotes something called the "world's first college football escape room," which might have been inside one of the many ESPN-branded, V.I.P. only booths set up around the makeshift campus. Meanwhile, Alabama and Georgia students gathered in a Taco Bell sponsored cheering section off to the side of the towering (40 foot? 50 foot?) video screens. Unlike the rest of the plebs, their section was lucky enough to have several heating spires - a precious luxury as a chilling rain began to fall around 3 p.m., just in time for the Darius Rucker concert.

Sure, waiting in the freezing rain for five hours might sound like an eternity, but it's just a drop in the bucket compared to 37 years. After all, that's how long the Bulldogs' faithful have waited for this return to the NCAA Championship Game. Not only was 77-year-old Atlanta native Charles Doyle around to see UGA win the 1980 National Championship, he was one of the few attendees alive when Georgia won their first claimed national title in 1942.

Doyle, who wore a slightly modified version of the same snazzy ensemble he adorned for last year's NFC Championship Game, recalled listening to Bulldogs games on the radio with his grandfather during World War II. He has especially vivid memories of Charley Trippi, the 1946 Maxwell Award winner who was nicknamed "The Quintuple Threat" for his ability to run, pass, catch, punt and play on the defensive side of the ball.

"That name stayed with me all the way until I got old enough to play football myself," Doyle said. "That's the game I love - that was my first love, before I had a wife."

A victory for the Bulldogs that evening, he said, would be a moment fans in "all four corners of Georgia" would cherish for their rest of their lives. And if UGA pulled out the win tonight, what were his plans?

"I am going to crack a bottle of champagne and take the cork out of another one," he said with a jubilant grin, "and drink both of them."

A LONG TIME COMING  Charles Doyle, 77, is among exclusive company in "Bulldogs Nation." Not only was he around for Georgia's 1980 National Championship win, he was alive when UGA won their first NCAA title in 1942. (Photo Credit James Swift)

Stand in the Place Where You Live

Considering the big game was held in Atlanta, it's not surprising some Alabama fans appeared apprehensive heading into the park. Alas, despite the historical bad blood between the two Southeastern Conference (SEC) juggernauts, fans of the two schools got along rather well. Bulldogs and Crimson Tide supporters posed for photos with one another and shared cigarettes with concession workers. They both joked with the the assault-rifle lugging police officers in and around the park ("We already know Alabamans go both ways," one cop commented on a jaywalking Tide fan) and received tips on ticket scalping from the clearly bored security personnel.

With so many passionate fans (not to mention so much overpriced, yet easily attainable alcohol on the premises) all clumped together, the largely amicable and carefree mood was a bit unexpected. It didn't take long, however, to notice some big distinctions between Bulldogs and Crimson Tide loyalists.

The Bulldogs fans, by and large, had a convivial, if not outright exuberant, demeanor. Many attendees had literally waited their entire lives for the game, and after almost four decades of disappointment, merely getting to the Championship was in and of itself a de facto victory. That the underdog "Dawgs" had an opportunity to claim their first college football crown since 1980 against the very same team that prevented them from participating in the 2013 National Championship made it all the more tantalizing.

Contrast that with the disposition of the aggregate Alabama fan. Perhaps the Crimson Tide faithful weren't more reserved because they were stuck in "enemy territory" (or had their umbrellas taken from them at the front gate), but because all of this National Championship stuff was simply business as usual. Keep in mind, this is a team that's won four NCAA titles since Barack Obama was in office, with a win tonight giving them their fifth national title over the course of a decade. They're not ecstatic to be here, they expected to be here from the first day of the season.

Embodying that stoic commitment to excellence is Darrell Oden, a Birmingham, Ala. resident who has been a fan of the Crimson Tide for more than four decades. He said he still gets worked up thinking about the 1979 Iron Bowl, when Bear Bryant's squad bumped off arch rivals Auburn 25-18. "Great days," Oden said without cracking a smile. "Great days."

His inexpressive disposition sharply contrasts with the bubbly UGA sorority girls prancing about the park - almost all of them shining their pearly whites through their Taylor Swift-red lips.

Oden said he has no hard feelings against Georgia fans. "They're hospitable, they're good people," he said. "They're alright." In fact, he said he wouldn't even be that devastated if the Bulldogs defeated his beloved Crimson Tide. If his team has to lose the National Championship, at least they'll be losing against a fellow squad from the Deep South.

"I'll be sad," he said, "but at least it's still in the SEC."

And almost perfectly displaying that classic Alabama "lunch pail" ethic, Oden described his rather staid celebratory plans if Alabama won the game. 

"I'm going to party for a little," he said, "but I've got to go to work in the morning."

BUSINESS AS USUAL Long-time Crimson Tide fan Darrell Oden said he didn't plan on celebrating Alabama's National Championship win too much - after all, the Birmingham, Ala. resident had work in the morning. (Photo Credit James Swift)
Shiny Happy People

The last time Alabama played against Georgia was 2015, when the traveling Crimson Tide visited Athens, Ga. and steamrolled the Bulldogs 38-10. Alabama also won two meetings in 2008 and 2012 against Georgia, who haven't bested the Tide on the gridiron since Sept. 2007. 

The final score there, rather ominously, was 26-23, UGA.

By 7 p.m. - just an hour before kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium just a few blocks away - Centennial Olympic Park was about as vacant as it had been all day. Blame that on the freezing rain; outside of a lone Atlanta Fire Department tent (complete with a heated air vent tube and several vaping EMTs), there was nowhere for attendees to seek refuge from the elements.

The hum of helicopters could be heard shortly thereafter. As if the massive road block along Northside Drive wasn't a big enough clue, the thousands of law enforcement officers swarming in and around the vicinity was indication that President Donald Trump had officially made his arrival at the Championship Game. Astute onlookers may have even noticed several snipers on top of the buildings adjacent to the park.

The rain subsided an hour later, however, almost as if the gods of the gridiron themselves turned off the great celestial sprinkler in the sky. The fans began trickling back into the park; by kickoff, more than 10,000 people had made their way towards the park's center stage and its enormous (and 1984-esque) high-definition screens.

There is no official estimate for the number of people who visited Centennial Olympic Park for the game-viewing party, but 20,000 may not be an inaccurate guess. Meanwhile, an unscientific poll of the constituents of the event probably would have put the ratio at 80 percent Georgia supporters, 20 percent Alabama fans.

And in just four hours, those Bulldogs fans - the ones who have been starving for a championship for nearly four decades - were on the cusp of experiencing the joyous exorcism of 37 seasons worth of disappointment or the single most heartbreaking loss in school history.

This was the moment UGA supporter Nathan Jacob had been waiting two decades for. 

"We're witnessing history tonight," the 20-year-old Atlanta native said. "A win tonight would mean a lot, not to me, but more the city itself, because of the altitude, the magnitude of the game."

FOR LOVE OF THE GAME Atlantan Nathan Jacob, 20, said he harbored no grudge against Alabama or its fan base. "It's all love with football," he said. "It's just a game where you get to have fun." (Photo Credit James Swift)

This One Goes Out To The One I Love

Heading into the big game, both Alabama and Georgia had one loss on their records - each to Auburn. Alabama's loss to the Tigers pushed them out of the SEC Championship Game, which pitted Georgia against Auburn in a rematch that, this time around, the Bulldogs easily won. In the four-team playoffs, Georgia just barely got past the Oklahoma Sooners in one of the most thrilling Rose Bowl games ever played, while Alabama exacted revenge on the team that defeated them at last year's National Championship Game, Clemson, by a 24-6 margin.

Both teams got to the big dance through a combination of stellar defense and a steady rushing attack. It's the second national title game appearance for Alabama starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, while it's the first for UGA QB Jake Fromm - the true freshman who stepped up to the plate after starter Jacob Eason went down in the first game of the season.

The ace up Georgia's sleeve, so to speak, is its one-two rushing combo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, two talented halfbacks who routinely did their best Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl impersonations on luckless defenses throughout the SEC and abroad. Meanwhile, the Tide have their own terrifying twosome in the form of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, who combined for 18 touchdowns and 1,796 rushing yards throughout the season.

As expected, defensive play was the name of the game for the first quarter. Fromm was intercepted by Alabama defender Tony Brown on the Bulldogs' first drive, but a missed field goal meant the Tide would give UGA the ball back without putting any points on the scoreboard. 

The two teams would exchange punts before Georgia recorded the first field goal of the game in the opening minute of the second quarter. Georgia's defense would force an Alabama three and out, with Bulldogs kicker Rodrigo Blankenship netting a 27-yarder to make it 6-0 Georgia with about seven minutes left before halftime. 

Alabama would have to punt two more times before Georgia's Mecole Hardman scored the first touchdown of the game on a one-yard run with just seven seconds left on the clock.

With a comfortable 13-0 lead heading into the second half, not to mention Alabama's seeming inability to pass the ball for half an hour, the UGA faithful treated the halftime Kendrick Lamar performance like a warm-up for the inevitable National Championship celebration.

And then, Alabama brought in the Hawaiian.

GET HYPED The UGA faithful definitely had their heads held high at halftime; the Bulldogs entered the third quarter with a 13-0 lead. (Photo Credit James Swift)

Talk About The Passion

Before the National Championship Game, pretty much the only thing Tua Tagovailoa was known for was the time an Alabama fan asked online whether or not "the language barrier" would hurt his ability to communicate with his teammates. The 19-year-old 'Ewa Beach native largely served as a clean-up pitcher for Jalen Hurts during the regular season, stepping in as reliever once Alabama had already amassed sizable leads over the likes of Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Mercer. His regular season numbers, while decent, were hardly anything MVP worthy. In seven games, he managed to rack up eight touchdowns and just 470 passing yards.

Needless to say, subbing him in for Jalen Hurts - who had 25 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards passing and running the ball over the season - was one of the biggest gambles of Alabama head coach Nick Sabin's career.

But the payoff was almost immediate. Tagovailoa hit Henry Ruggs III for Alabama's first touchdown of the game at around the nine minute mark of the third quarter. While Georgia would make it a 20-7 lead via an 80-yard Mecole Hardman pick up on the ensuing drive, from there on out it was all Alabama.

Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos hit two field goals to make it 20-14, Georgia. And then, with 3:49 left in regulation, Tagovailoa struck again, this time nailing Calvin Ridley for a 7-yard touchdown strike. The follow-up kick tied the game 20-20. 

Georgia couldn't get their offense going on their next drive and punted the ball away. Alabama's offense managed to creep down field, with Pappanastos lined up for a game-winning 36-yard field goal with just 0:03 left in regulation.

The looks on the faces of the stunned and silenced crowd said it all. After building up a 20-7 lead, the Bulldogs had choked yet again. And Alabama - the veritable Goliath of the college football world - was just seconds away from squashing David in his own backyard.

Still, a loud, proud and steady chorus rose up from the Centennial Park crowd. Hoping against hope, thousands of Bulldogs fans began chanting "block that kick" over and over again. And when Pappanastos finally went for that game-clinching kick - he Ray Finkled it wide right

The crowd exploded into a cacophony of cheers. Somehow, someway, the game was headed to overtime. And victory - if but for a few fleeting moments - simply felt inevitable.

CRIMSON REIGN Alabama defeated Georgia 26-23 in overtime to claim their fifth National Championship since 2009; Centennial Park attendees were showered in crimson streamers just moments after the Tide scored the game-winning touchdown. (Photo Credit James Swift)

Everybody Hurts

The coalesced scent of barbecue chicken, cigar smoke, marijuana and spilled whiskey hung in the air as the ceremonial overtime coin toss commenced. Alabama won and elected to defer, meaning Georgia would get the ball first.

For those unfamiliar with the NCAA's overtime rules, it can get a bit convoluted. Unlike the O.T. regulations in other sports organizations, it's not exactly sudden death per se. Indeed, both teams get at least one chance to put points on the scoreboard. In this scenario, Georgia would start the drive at their opponent's 25 yard-line. If they scored a touchdown or made a field goal - and Alabama couldn't on their subsequent possession - then the Bulldogs would be National Champions. But if Georgia didn't walk away with any points, and Alabama recorded a touchdown or a field goal on their first overtime possession, then the Tide would win the whole she-bang.

Nick Chubb collected four yards on Georgia's first two plays. And then, Jake Fromm got sacked for a 13-yard-loss - pushing Georgia all the way back to the Alabama 34. That meant bespectacled kicker Blankenship was on deck to boot a 51-yard field goal. 

The crowd took a collective sigh as Blankenship whacked the pigskin. And they erupted in cheers as soon as the referees raised their arms in the air, signalling the field goal was good

Georgia had the lead, 23-20. If the defense could stop Alabama on the next drive, the Championship was theirs. But if the Tide scored a touchdown? Then Alabama would become kings of the NCAA world yet again.

Alabama's offense lined up at the Georgia 25. Tagovailoa dropped back in the pocket. He scanned downfield for an open receiver, and he got drilled by Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy for a 16-yard loss.

The crowd roared. Three more outs, and the 37-year drought is over

It's second and 26 at the Alabama 41 - damn near midfield. Tagovailoa gets the ball, he peers down the sideline and he targets an open man, receiver DeVonta Smith. Smith catches the pitch and he breaks free. He's still running at the 20. The 10. The five. 

He just sauntered into the end zone. Alabama wins the game, 26-23.

Bright red fireworks explode in the sky. And a shower of crimson streamers rain down on the crestfallen Centennial Park attendees.

Not only did they lose the National Championship (in the process, squandering a 20-7 lead), they lost in overtime in their home state, just 72 miles west of Samford Stadium in Athens, Ga.

And if that wasn't bad enough? As the devastated Bulldogs' faithful began filing out of the park with their heads hung low, the P.A. system started blaring the ultimate insult to injury.

Deep in the bustling heart of the financial and cultural capital of the entire Southeast - not to mention the Bulldogs' own backyard - "Sweet Home Alabama" echoed throughout Downtown Atlanta.

BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR? Although stunned by Alabama's come from behind victory, many UGA fans have no hard feelings against the Tide or the school's supporters. "I have nothing I will say bad about Alabama," Doyle said,  "because they're our boys and guys, too." (Photo Credit James Swift)

It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

It's a cliche, but for once, it's actually an apt description. Heading down Techwood Drive, one literally could hear a pin drop.

Red and black bedecked fans marched down the streets, totally silent. They either didn't notice the AR-15-toting police officers doing traffic detail or were too dejected to care. There was the occasional jawing between opposing tribes - more than one "we'll kick your ass next year!" was overheard - but for the most part, the beaten and battered Bulldogs fans were still stunned and speechless. In a blink of an eye, 37 years' worth of penned-up joy vanished into thin air. Instead of exorcising the demons of seasons' past, the UGA faithful experienced the most demoralizing loss in the 126-year history of the school's football program. 

As it turns out, "their year" ended the same way it has for the last 37 seasons - with dashed dreams, and a dire, desperate yearning for an end to the misery.

As crushed as they may be, however, some Bulldogs fans foster no ill will towards the triumphant Tide. Jacob, for one, says he has no hard feelings against Alabama, nor their fans.

"It's all love with football," he said. "It's just a game where you get to have fun."

The sentiment is echoed by Doyle. 

"I have nothing I will say bad about Alabama, because they're our boys and guys, too," he said. "And when I say my prayers, I ask my Heavenly Father to bless all the guys who play that contact sport."

While Doyle may not have had the opportunity to crack open those two bottles of celebratory champagne like he hoped, he still says he is grateful to see UGA make it this far

"I'm still going to feel good because they were there," he said. "They have earned their spot tremendously. It has shown all over Georgia, and other states as well."

With more than 30 seniors exiting the team in the offseason, the odds of Georgia returning to the Championship Game in 2019 may seem a tad too ambitious. But, then again, the know-it-alls at ESPN said UGA didn't have a prayer of making it to the SEC Championship Game this past season, let alone all the way to the NCAA title game.

Only time will tell if the Bulldogs rebound or regress. Despite the loss, however, at least UGA fans can say they were there to witness one of the most thrilling college football championship games in history. And you better believe they're already anxiously counting down the days until Sept. 1 and the first game of the 2018 campaign. 

Hope springs eternal everywhere else, but in UGA country? Hope doesn't even bother showing up until fall.

Uncommon Journalism, 2018

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