Athens’ gameday atmosphere overshadows Columbia’s

As one Uber driver put it, Athens is “a drinking town with a football problem.”
Georgia Bulldogs football fans cheer for their team at the Missouri vs. Georgia game Oct. 17, 2015, at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.

Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness” blared on the Sanford Stadium speakers Saturday night as dramatic graphics of the Georgia football team popped up on the jumbotron.

“It’s Saturday night in Athens,” the announcer declared.

The sound of the crowd’s response was enough to cause temporary hearing loss to a pair of reporters from Columbia who has foolishly forgotten their earmuffs at home.

“It was pretty crazy,” Missouri quarterback Drew Lock said after the Tigers’ 9-6 loss to the Bulldogs. “It was a cool experience to say the least. Very loud. I think I yelled my loudest tonight to say the least, but it was cool. I’m glad I got to play here early in my career and see kinda how it feels.”

Regardless of its close win to a likewise struggling Mizzou, Georgia has been floundering for the last few years. A perennially ranked team that contends for the divisional title on a yearly basis, the Bulldogs haven’t won a national championship in 35 years, despite being a blue chip Southeastern Conference football institution.

One of the Uber drivers, Josh, an Athens native, got sick and tired of it early on.

“It’s just pretty much the same thing,” Josh said. “You know what to expect every season. I expect them to lose, just like they’ve done. Big games, they lose.”

In 2009, Josh travelled to Gainesville, Florida, with his girlfriend and a few buddies to watch the Bulldogs take on the Gators. The No. 1 team in the country, led by superstar senior quarterback Tim Tebow and coach Urban Meyer, demolished the Bulldogs, 41-17.

The loss instilled in Josh a deep hatred for the Gators. He hates the team, the coach and the quarterback, “the f--ing virgin,” as Josh put it.

Tebow threw for two touchdowns and ran for another pair. But the loss wasn’t the only reason Josh decided to wander off from his UGA roots right then and there.

“I got tired of losing,” Josh said. “In 2009, I gave up. Florida beat the shit out of them. I was down there. It was awful. And then my girlfriend left me in front of everyone.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt and his untimely losses had put the Athens native over the edge, always losing when it mattered most. So Josh decided to go down a more unconventional road for someone who has grown up around Sanford Stadium.

“What team do you root for then?” we asked our driver — the obvious question after hearing of his hatred for the Bulldogs.

“Roll Tide,” he replied with dominance. “I love the tradition of the program, and I like Nick Saban as a coach. I just got tired of Georgia, and I never disliked Alabama.”

But the love for Georgia’s football program isn’t something to take lightly. Just look at the 92,000-plus seating capacity at Sanford. It’s no joke.

They’ve got passionate fans madly waving red pom-poms all over the Georgia air. They’ve got hype videos for every possible situation, filled with blaring music and editing that makes a Missouri video on the big screen at Faurot Field look like child’s work.

They’ve got Uga, the English bulldog that sits on the sideline in his comfortable 68-degree doghouse, calmly watching the football team and university his lineage has represented for nine generations. They’ve got the hallowed hedges, 5,000 square feet of Georgia’s most prestigious weed, which has grown around the playing pitch since first being planted in 1929.

Tradition is Georgia football and Georgia football is tradition.

In recent years, the new tradition has been defeat. Before Saturday’s game, the Bulldogs had lost two consecutive games to Alabama and Tennessee. This isn’t what’s expected out of a Mark Richt-coached Georgia football team.

“Now we’ve lost the last two games so people are feeling pretty bummed,” our other Uber driver, Hal, told us Friday night. “They don’t know really what to make of the team at this point.”

The Bulldogs’ Saturday night meeting with the Tigers fell on homecoming weekend, but unless someone told you upfront, you wouldn’t know it.

The enthusiasm wasn’t high downtown. Homecoming is traditionally a time when alumni should return to their alma mater and bars should charge absurdly high cover. But downtown wasn’t filled with alumni. Downtown was filled with innocent undergraduates, excited to take advantage of the fact that bars never charged cover, except for big games.

Homecoming is surely a big game, right?

Not here.

“Just Alabama and South Carolina,” UGA freshman Jack D’Alessio told us. “This isn’t as big of a deal.”

It’s not homecoming as MU students know it.

There’s a striking difference between the homecoming experiences at Georgia and Mizzou — the school that prides itself on inventing the celebration. Besides a small parade Friday afternoon, homecoming is just another home football weekend in Athens.

On Saturday, giant tailgates took over campus. Untamed fans covered themselves in red paint and threw on wigs. Mimosas and Bud Light were served in downtown retail stores. But this was all typical of a game day in Athens. It was nothing like it would have been just one week before, when the Bulldogs took on Alabama.

Hal, who has lived in Athens for 30 years, considers himself a big Georgia fan, though he’s noticed how drinking has taken over Saturdays.

“It’s a drinking town with a football problem,” he said. “Normally, you would say it’s a football town with a drinking problem, but this is this is the opposite.”

This new tendency for fans to get a little too rowdy is nothing new, though. Hal told us stories about Playboy Magazine’s party school rankings from back in the day.

Georgia wasn’t listed, but don’t be fooled.

“The University of Georgia and University of Florida are not ranked because we only consider amateur schools,” the magazine would read next to an asterisk.

There’s no doubt about it — Athens, Georgia, is a drinking town. Whether it’s a Wednesday or a Saturday, the drunken UGA undergraduates take over downtown as a sea of alcohol-fueled libertines, hopping from bar to bar, infesting the streets with the kind of innocent inebriated enthusiasm only seen on college campuses.

The cops stand and watch. They don’t ask for IDs. But if a jaywalker pops into sight — and what a mistake to make — it’s game over. Stumbling down the street in an intoxicated manner is just fine, but walking across the middle of Broad Street — even without traffic — will land you a nice conversation with the Athens Police Department.

It’s hard to imagine downtown Athens in a state of solace. The 15 or so square blocks of bars and restaurants make way for this kind of degenerate college behavior. It’s the kind of town where even the sheer number of bars is a cause worth arguing about.

“There’s 80 bars here,” D’Alessio told us proudly.

His friend interjected.

“No, I think there are 100.”

On Saturday during a fraternity tailgate, Wallace, a UGA sophomore, blew both estimates out of the water. Bending the rules as to what qualifies as a bar, the sophomore managed to one-up his counterparts.

“There are actually 200 bars,” he said sternly. “Because if you count separate bar areas, there are multiple bars within the bar. If the building is two stories tall, there will be at least two bars in there.”

Georgia’s next game will be on Halloween, when it takes on No. 13 Florida. You can expect it to get a little out of control.

Hal, who’s already frustrated with drunks’ incompetence when it comes to picking them up during game days, knows what to expect.

“Two weeks from now, when we play Florida, it’ll be the World’s Largest Cocktail Party,” he said. “I think we’ve slipped down to No. 4 in the party school rankings. It is pretty hard academically, so students have to take one or two days off (from partying). Usually Monday or Tuesday.”

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