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Red and Black Ties That Bind

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by Chris Skates

No matter the Bulldogs record, this season was going to be special for me. During the odd, empty stadium season of 2020, I’d been fighting for my life. A UGA Alumni, class of ’86, I went to work in Washington DC. I hadn’t known I was sick until I collapsed coming up the Metro steps. The diagnosis was terrifying, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and not just any leukemia, the most rare and deadly form. It had a 2% survival rate. My immune system had been annihilated by the cancer. Two weeks later a global pandemic ensued. I vaguely remember watching a game in hospital isolation, terribly sick, clinging to life. I assumed I would never see Sanford Stadium again or attend a game as I had for 35 seasons in a row with my best friend, Taron, from our college days.

By 2022, my desire to be “Between the Hedges” once more was greater than the fear of germs. Taron came through with a ticket to the big Tennessee game via his sister’s fiancé John, who as fate would have it, I had worked with in my first post-college job. We all attended the DAWG walk where we cheered the Bulldogs into the stadium and even met SuperDawg, a gentleman who has attended over 400 Georgia games, including the 1980 National Championship with Herschel Walker.

Then I looked up and saw a three-year-old girl who reminded me of my granddaughter. She had on a little Georgia cheerleader outfit. She was sitting on her daddy’s shoulder and waving her red and black pompoms. I got a lump in my throat. I was back. I was home.

The band was there, and the Drum Major had them strike the first notes of the fight song, “Glory, Glory to Ol’ Georgia.” I sang with other members of Bulldog Nation to the top of my lungs. Beside me was a handsome young couple and they were singing to the top of their lungs too.

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Later we made our way to our seats. I struck up a conversation with two older men in the seats behind me. Both were in their seventies. We talked about the Bulldogs and what they might be this season, and whether or not we dared to get our hopes too high.

The band marched, the pomp and ceremony were unleashed, and the Bulldogs stormed out onto the field. As the Dawgs burst through the “G,” poster, all things seemed possible and there was no cancer. An SEC Title seemed in reach, a national championship just around the corner.

My friend and I cheered with great gusto, and I noticed the elderly gentlemen were giving it their all as well. We all knew all the same cheers.  Then the Bulldogs began to dominate, and the excitement built to a fever pitch. High fives were exchanged between Taron and me and the elderly gentlemen, and the two guys to my left and the father and son to Taron’s right, all of whom we had shared friendly conversation with during time outs.

That’s when it hit me. I knew why I did it and would likely keep doing it. All ninety-two thousand of us were unified for those hours. We are human. We are not intended to be all alone as COVID lockdowns intended. We seek unity in diversity. Our very national motto is E Pluribus Unum- out of many, one. On Saturdays in Athens, when the Red and Black is worn with pride, there are no racial divides, or political parties, or wedge issues. For that brief snapshot in time, we are all united. We are all one Bulldog nation.

Bulldogs young and old love Athens. We flock to it from literally every corner of the nation. From the three-year-old little girl with her pompoms, to the twenty-year-old couple, to Taron, me and our friends, to SuperDawg, we know the cheers. They are the cheers of our forbearers from football seasons going all the way back to the 1800’s. In a world of constant and overwhelming change, the cheers stay the same and that comforts us and warms us. When we learned the cheers, we were young and vibrant and cancer seemed impossible, the future was before us, and everything was possible…for the Bulldogs and for us.

The game ended with a decisive Bulldog victory. We shook hands with the newfound friends, not conscious of the fact that we will likely never see them again. There was a twinkle in our eyes as we departed because we knew that the dream of a national championship would live another week. It did live and a few weeks later became the most dominant national championship victory in the history of college football.

We walked, at first in a sea of red and black, towards our cars. Then as we branched out further from the stadium, our numbers dwindled, until finally Taron and I walked alone through the last dark parking lot. We drove off through the night tired but smiling. We rode silently down a dark Georgia highway barreling headlong back into reality, back to more cancer treatments, back to the fight. But we had been there, hadn’t we? What we’d felt was real, wasn’t it…just for a little while? That we were united, and there had been no cancer, and in our hearts we’d all been young again, and hope had overflowed, and all things had seemed possible…Go Dawgs!!

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