23 September 2014

Since I'm in the area ... My first college football game at an SEC stadium

My fall work in the SEC means I will occasionally get to drop in on extra sporting events, and I had the chance to take in my first college football game in an SEC stadium (although I have been to midnight yell practice at Texas A&M) at the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium on Saturday.

While I have no special ties to Georgia, I've always had a soft spot for Sanford Stadium because of its distinctive hedges. When you see a lot of the big stadiums on TV, they're mostly distinguishable only by the colors painted in the end zones and worn by the fans. With Georgia, however, you see the hedges and instantly know where the game is taking place. It always makes me think of watching football with my grandfather as a kid.

Georgia's game on Saturday was a noon kickoff against Troy, a school I called twice in 2012 but was definitely going to be overmatched in this game. After a wake-up call around 5:30 am CT in Mississippi, I flew to Atlanta, got my rental car, and set out for Athens, Georgia (only a little more than a year after my first trip to Athens, Greece).

I had to battle a lot of traffic to get there, which made the drive take much longer than it could have been. I even found our group of cars held up by a police escort for some sort of motorcycle procession crossing our highway. Luckily, my phone let me detour around the last of the game traffic to get to my hotel.

Fortunately, we were booked in downtown Athens, which was convenient because I did not have to worry about game-day parking. I just had to walk about a mile to get to the stadium. Of course, that mile was filled with Georgia fans in red and black, women in some kind of boots, and men talking about SEC football recruits.

I wasn't sure where to walk in, so I walked two-thirds of the way around the stadium and went in through a gate in one of the end zones. I usually get to games very early, but this was in the last 30 minutes before kickoff, so several gates had masses of people at them. The stadium seats more than 92,000, so it's understandable.

Once inside, I was reminded that it is definitely not a modern stadium. The dark concourse and long ramps definitely had history and character, but I do wonder if schools that build fancy new stadiums will be able to gain some ground in recruiting. Georgia's athletic facilities are first-rate across the board, though, so I don't think they're going to suffer any time soon.

I walked up two ramps to the 300 level, only to realize that I could have entered there quite easily, because that's ground level for part of the hill the stadium is built into. So you can enter at either level. My seats (purchased via StubHub, a much more successful transaction than my failed bid to go to an Ohio State game five years ago) were 300-level, in the shade of the press box, 50-yard line. So almost perfect, in my opinion, although much farther away than they would be at my own Rice Stadium.

The entire stadium, at least that I could see, consists of bleacher seating, but if you have a season ticket (I think that's the rule), they lock a red chairback seat onto the bleachers in your spot. So you can tell which seats are clearly reserved for the season.

Georgia definitely has some cool rituals. They have a video based around the phrase, "It's Saturday in ATHENS," and, of course, "Time to tee it up between the hedges." The hedges were, not surprisingly, my favorite part of the stadium. They basically make two giant arcs behind each sideline, so they're curved to the corners. They also run across the back of each end zone, leaving openings in the corners and in one end zone for access to the field. The hedges are large enough to serve as their own barrier, augmented by a chain-link fence in the gaps. Unfortunately, I did not go down and take a selfie with the hedges. Just couldn't pull the trigger.

My favorite Sanford Stadium tradition is the way they begin the battle hymn. The PA announcer asks for everyone's attention, and then the video board shows a single trumpet player standing at one end of the stadium, and that person plays a seven-note solo to start the battle hymn. You have to imagine that's a big honor, but also extremely nerve-racking. bet the soloist gets really nervous! I looked it up afterward. Might be a slightly manufactured tradition, but I still like it. Here's a blog sort of on the topic.

Other traditions are yelling, "Sic'em!" and barking on every kickoff (and in a 66-0 game, there were a lot of kickoffs), revering the live bulldog mascot, UGa (pronounced 'Ugga,' more details in this excellent read), and honoring the ridiculously successful non-revenue sports programs at timeouts. We got the equestrian team, the swimming and diving individual stars, and the twirling team, which stayed on for halftime and twirled batons that were on fire at both ends!Other moments that stuck out to me were a long introduction of former Georgia star Terrell Davis and the Garth Brooks Karaoke segment. Oh, and the PA announcer having the honesty to say, "Timeout for television," instead of pretending there was a legitimate reason for an extended break with 1:30 left in a blowout.

And a blowout it was. Georgia won 66-0. It was 45-0 in the second quarter! Star running back Todd Gurley didn't even carry after the opening possession. There was a really impressive punt return by this freshman nicknamed 'the Human Joystick," Isaiah McKenzie. Apparently he was high school teammates with the running back who filled in for Gurley, whose name is Sony Michel, who had a big day himself. There was also a play where one of the Georgia lineman basically lifted Michel out of a pile and threw him into the end zone. Refs allowed it, and the lineman got huge props from the crowd and the videoboard, so that was pretty entertaining.

So that's my first SEC football game, although I think a league contest is definitely in order. It's entered on  one of my new favorite sites, fbpassport.com, and I certainly hope to add to my list!

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