This time, Georgia moved the chains

January 22nd, 2021

Georgia USA

(published in The Daily Memphian)

Georgia scored again while I was throwing up.

Georgia and I had already done these things several times in the preceding three hours, but, like Tennessee, I didn’t think I had anything left to counter this time. Late, very late, in the fourth quarter, our offense had gone ice cold and we were down by eight – and my temperature was red hot, up by two. The governor, the first Senator Gore, a gaggle of congressmen … even the head tire kicker at Goodyear whose blimp hovered above … were watching from various swell box seats. Millions were watching on TV and even ABC’s saccharine Chris Schenkel (this guy makes Jim Nance sound like the grim reaper) thought Uga had this one all wrapped up.

I was watching from the couch in the ATO house tube room, alternating between teeth-rattling chills and wind sprints to the john, all wrapped up in a blanket.

It was 1968 and the first and only home game I would miss in my four years at UT. It was the first and only home game UT wouldn’t win during those four magic years. It was our first game played on artificial turf – dubbed Doug’s Rug for Coach Doug Dickey. It was the very first game and the very first catch for #85 in your Tennessee program, a shy sophomore from Nashville named Lester McClain.

It was a remarkable game.

Bubba Wyche (is that a good quarterback name, or what?) was staring at fourth down. Fans poured from Neyland Stadium, resigned to loss, and the clock ran faster than any of our backs had all day. He let the pass go and McClain pulled it in at the Georgia 48.

First and ten, Tennessee. First ever, SEC.

That pass gave us a chance, gave us hope. It changed the game, and the way the game is played. Lester McLain is Black. Two Black players had gone before him at Kentucky, but neither had lettered since you couldn’t play varsity as a freshman, and their careers were ended by injury and heartbreak. Lester’s roommate his freshman year, also Black, didn’t come back his sophomore year. So, with that catch, Lester McClain broke through the varsity football color line in the SEC and moved the chains.

It was an amazing game.

Later in the drive and facing another fourth down, Bubba moved the Vols to the line quickly and fired a touchdown pass to Gary Kreis as the clock rolled up all zeros – and I knocked over a pitcher and fell off the couch. Bubba then hit Ken DeLong for the two-point conversion and Tennessee tied Georgia – as Chris and I, and those few loyal, hopeful fans still in the stadium, all went insane.

I charged to the front porch, blanket flapping and heaves forgotten, and screamed at the throngs headed to their cars, completely unaware of the final result, and staring unbelievably at the leaping, ragged frat boy specter before them bearing the improbable news in boxers and blanket:

“We tied! We tied!”

It was a miraculous game.

1968 was the symbolic year of the tragedy of Martin Luther King in the spring, of Bobby Kennedy in the summer, and of the hope symbolized in one young man catching a ball in the fall. When Lester McClain caught that fourth down pass, he wasn’t Black or white. He was orange. And he was red, white and blue.

Right now, the whole football program at UT – just like the whole year of 2020 ­– is a train wreck, but the symbolism of that game has never left me.

Right now, to paraphrase Hoagy Carmichael and Willie Nelson, Georgia is on my mind.

This time around, I’m a Georgia fan. This time around, Georgia came from behind and was one of the key states to push Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over the electoral college line. This time around, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, Republican attorney general, Christopher Carr, and Republican state election official, Gabriel Sterling, courageously held the line against an unprecedented national assault – including threats to their families – by their own party and the President of the United States to overturn a fair and lawful election.

And this time around, the voters of Georgia against all odds gave control of the United States Senate to Democrats, flipping two Republican seats. Against all odds, they sent Raphael Warnock – a Black man from Martin Luther King’s own pulpit – and Jon Ossoff – a Jew and now the youngest senator – to the Senate.

Against all odds, the voters of Georgia gave Kamala Harris – the first woman vice president and the first Black vice president – the Senate’s deciding vote.

Georgia, people. Gone With The Wind’s home state. And the state’s color is no longer red, it’s blue. And a symbol of hope and courage for the red, white and blue.

This wasn’t a game; this was a national game changer.

Last night, my wife Nora had a great idea, “The entire state of Georgia ought to be Time’s Person Of The Year.”

I’m a Memphian, and you go Dawgs.

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