Yeah, well, the Olympics--that was fine, as far as it went. But
did anybody stop to think what effect the Olympics had on
sports? You know good and well that's what a lot of people in
and around Atlanta were thinking. People who are real Georgians.
People who, when they say "sports," mean the one major sport
that will probably never be Olympic: football.
And when Georgians say "football," they most likely mean what
takes place in Athens. Athens, Ga., that is. Georgians love the
Georgia Bulldogs, even when they have an off year, as they are
likely to have this year. Some Georgians die hard for Georgia
Tech, in Atlanta, or for Clemson, just over the South Carolina
line. There are also a great many Tennessee fans in north
Georgia. And although the Atlanta Falcons have never won
Georgian hearts and minds the way the college teams have, a
football fan's got to keep an eye on the local pros. A person
owes it to himself, his family and his community to testify
feelingly as to how much he just ain't ever going to like
Falcons quarterback Jeff George.
But to hear people talk, the hard-core sports fans of Georgia
took right kindly to the Olympics. "I've been surprised how many
football fans--people who don't even like the Atlanta Braves,
just see them as time-fillers between football seasons--have
admitted, 'This Olympics is kind of interesting stuff,'" said
Matt Edgar, the producer of a call-in sports talk show on WCNN
radio in Atlanta. "Some of these Bubbas thought the opening
ceremonies were pretty impressive. Of course if somebody was
playing college football during the Olympics, it'd be different."
If Georgia had played football during the Olympics, it would
have competed with soccer, a game that did something to the
Athens of football for which vandals would have been tarred and
feathered: The field looked nekkid! They took down the hedges!
Since 1929, Georgia football has been played "between the
hedges." From Lookout Mountain to the Okefenokee Swamp, that
phrase has the force of "from sea to shining sea." Ligustrum
sinense, or common privet, grows wild along half the creeks in
Georgia, but as it manifests itself in the carefully tended
shrubbery surrounding the field in Sanford Stadium in Athens, it
is as mythic as the Green Monster in Fenway Park, and more
natural. The hedges have framed 236 Georgia victories, 80 losses
and nine ties. They have closed in on teams coached by Bear
Bryant of Alabama and Shug Jordan of Auburn. They have bolstered
Bulldog teams coached by Wally Butts and Vince Dooley, teams
starring Fran Tarkenton and Herschel Walker. One would have
assumed the hedges to be as immovable as Stone Mountain.
The Games uprooted the hedges. (O.K., they would have been
uprooted anyway, because they were old and needed to be
replaced, but the Olympics paid to have them dug up.) Soccer,
that hyperpedallic import, required a field 50 feet wider than
your standard U.S. gridiron. But Billy Payne, who headed up the
Olympics, is an old Georgia football star, and, well, whatever
"Time it was announced, it was a done deal," said Leroy Dukes, a
Dawg linebacker in the early 1960s and current president of the
Georgia football Lettermen's Club, who co-owns and presides with
eminent affability over the Ramada Inn in Athens. "Then some of
the old Dawgs got upset: 'What? Move the hedges? Are you
crazy?'" In Dukes's office hangs a photograph of Dukes, Payne,
former Dawg All-America defensive end Bill Stanfill and Dooley,
now the school's athletic director, together at Georgia
football's Centennial Celebration, which took place in 1992.
(Bulldogs football, note, is four years older than the modern
Olympics.) The photograph is inscribed by Dooley: "With
appreciation to my most loyal player."
"I guess that's what I am," says Dukes. "I'm the only one who
can call him Hitler, which is what he is." Dukes chuckles, as
only a 5'9", 248-pound Georgia motelier can chuckle.
The hedges were pulled out after last year's final home game,
against Auburn. Fans were allowed to break off bits of history
for souvenirs. "For the old Dawgs, it was just a broken heart
for them," Dukes told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Some
said, 'What the hell are we doing? This is Sanford Stadium!'"
And it wasn't enough that they took the hedges. They stole the
Well, the 10 5/8" rise from the sidelines to the middle of the
field was lowered by an inch, and the 18-inch slope from the
sidelines to where the hedges once stood was pared down to a
flatness commensurate with running around kicking balls in all
directions. Many football fields are sloped for drainage.
("Coach Dooley used to say, when he looked across at the coach
on the other sideline, he couldn't see most of the guy's legs,"
says Dukes.) But the field was given an underground drainage
system several years back, so lowering the crown and flattening
the slopes probably won't matter one way or the other.
Dukes told the Journal-Constitution that soccer "is boring as
hell." But last weekend the motelier--as he rumbled through his
lobby hospitably urging tambourine-brandishing Brazilians to
"stop talking that crazy talk and talk English"--was saying that
the Olympics' descent upon the Athens of football "has been a
great experience, and it's gonna be a greater experience."
Indeed, although scalpers parted with tickets at half price, and
traffic jams were worse than on football weekends ("These people
don't know where they're going," said Dukes), soccer was
received with enthusiasm at Sanford Stadium.
After former Falcon Jeff Van Note said on WCNN early last week,
"Soccer couldn't sell out the stadium. Talk to me when they have
a sellout," he caught a lot of flak from soccer fans. The men's
final last Saturday sold out the 84,000 seats available at
Sanford for soccer, and you couldn't hear any outraged old Dawgs
howling over the hurrahs. Women's soccer attendance records also
were set at the stadium. (Before the Games, women had never done
anything but cheer or strut with batons on that hallowed ground.)
And it's not as though the hedges were allowed to die. There
were still hedges behind each end zone, and clumps of hedgery in
pots surrounded a utility box on the north sideline.
Furthermore, a new generation of privet, grown from four-inch
cuttings taken from the original hedges, was being nurtured at
R.A. Dudley Nurseries in Thomson, Ga., to be installed when the
field is restored to football width in time for the Bulldogs'
game on Aug. 31 against Southern Mississippi. A second crop of
properly pedigreed Ligustrum was standing by at an undisclosed
location in Florida. Was this in case Tech fans, say, resorted
to sabotage in Thomson? "You know," said Tommy Dudley at the
nursery, "anything can happen." They even disturbed the bodies
of the Ugas that had passed on to eternal peace!
That's right, the honored remains of mascot bulldogs Uga I
through Uga IV were disinterred from the concrete wall where
they had been resting and transferred to individual marble
vaults in a new granite enclosure when Sanford Stadium was
prepared for the Olympics. You'd think old Dawgs would be up in
arms over that.
But, no, "I was very much a part of that decision," said Sonny
Seiler of Savannah, who is president of the university's alumni
association and whose family has bred every Uga there has ever
been. "Water had been seeping through crevices in the cement
around the memorial tablets, we couldn't stop the bleeding, and
the tablets were constantly stained. So now we've replaced them
with bronze tablets, and they're set off beautifully against a
background of red Georgia marble. There's room for plenty more
Ugas in there, and for me too, some people say."
Seiler was disappointed to hear that the big granite bulldog
statue at the north end of the field had been covered by a
canopy with Olympic markings, so that not only was it hard to
see the granite bulldog, but the granite bulldog couldn't even
watch the game. But Seiler was delighted that the sprig he took
for himself from the old hedge, which he'd thought was dead, had
taken root in his yard in Savannah. "That hedge is
in-damn-destructible!" he said.
That's something to be proud of, but, well, let's face it,
pride--even Dawg pride--always involves a certain amount of
discretion. Bryant Mickler, the tattoo artist on duty at the
Midnight Iguana tattooing and piercing parlor in Athens last
week, said that instead of the usual bulldogs and Georgia G's,
people lately had been asking for Olympic rings and torches. But
however caught up in Bulldog or Olympic fervor Mickler's
customers may have been, most of them wanted their skin art
placed on shoulders or ankles, where clothes could cover it.
Mickler takes pride in his work, but he realizes that "when you
go home, you don't want Granny to see it and fall over dead."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Uga may be the only Bulldog football fan who greeted Olympic soccer with a cold, hard stare. [Statue of University of Georgia mascot Uga]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Soccer was played near some hedges, but this fall football will again be played between them. [Hedge in Sanford Stadium]