ATLANTA — Even before the last of the confetti fell from the sky — hell, even before Tua Tagovailoa’s final pass arced through the night into a wide-open DeVonta Smith’s hands, giving Alabama a 26-23 overtime national championship win over the University of Georgia — the question was there:
How many more of these heartbreaks can the state of Georgia take? Seriously, is this entire state (expletive)ing cursed?
Let’s run through the nightmares. The Braves spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s looking across the field as other teams danced on their grave in October. The Hawks have spent the better part of four decades playing the role of first henchman iced by great teams, from Bird’s Celtics to LeBron’s Cavs. The Thrashers never even won a damn playoff game before vanishing into the Canadian night. And all that heartbreak — hundreds of seasons, few enough championships to fit into a shoebox — was nothing compared to what’s hit this city in the past 11 months.
You know what’s next. The Atlanta Falcons, the team that owns the joint where Monday’s national championship unfolded, blew a lead — say it with us, 28-3 — to the New England Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl. And now this: The University of Georgia, leading by 13 points at halftime, by 10 points with less than 10 minutes remaining, by seven points with less than four minutes remaining … only to watch in horror as a national championship fluttered through its fingers. It’s not just the fact of losing, it’s the manner: having the Last Boss on the ropes, staggering, only to let it all slip away. There’s nothing more cruel than a loss that tramples your heart and your hopes to shards.
Just to make sure that knife was good and twisted, just to ensure that no internal organs went unsliced, the football gods didn’t allow Georgia to expire in regulation time; no, the gods kept the Dawgs alive to torture them just a little … bit … longer. When Alabama’s Alex Pappanastos hooked a 34-yard would-be game-winner as time expired, the entire Georgia fanbase — which seemed to comprise three-quarters of the Mercedes-Benz audience — exhaled loud enough to crack open the dome on the still-new stadium. Overtime! Georgia had been here before, just last week against Oklahoma! The Dawgs could still win this one too!
As it turned out, overtime only prolonged the agony from wrenching to unimaginable levels. When the end came, it came quickly, Tagovailoa rebounding from a near-catastrophic sack to spot Smith wide open in the end zone. Boom, touchdown, fireworks, confetti, Alabama band exploding in delirium, Georgia players plodding toward the tunnel … all within a space of 60 seconds. Hope to terror to agony in the time it takes you to read this sentence.
As crews assembled a championship stage at midfield and “Sweet Home Alabama” piped through the MBS speakers, Georgia players slowly filed off the field, their cleats ankle-deep in confetti and streamers. Cornerback Deandre Baker waved to the Georgia band still playing, the cheerleaders still cheering, the Bulldog faithful applauding with vacant eyes. Linebacker Monty Rice just stared over at the far sideline as Alabama players and alumni exulted in the cascade of confetti.
Fans gathered outside the Georgia locker room, many crying openly. Just inside the Georgia locker room door, tight end Jeb Blazevich spoke to reporters, his eyes rimmed with tears. “I’m going to miss Georgia,” the senior said, his voice cracking.
At the other end of the locker room, linebacker Davin Bellamy — still only a few minutes removed from the overtime sack of Tagovailoa that pushed Alabama to the edge of the precipice — worked over what could have been, a conversation he’ll likely have with himself a lot over the next few weeks, months and years.
“You stop them [on second down], it’s third-and-26, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game,” he said. “You try to play the ball and … damn,” he finished after a long pause.
Most players spoke in voices barely above a whisper. The one exception? Quarterback Jake Fromm, all of 19 years old, standing up in front of the largest crescent of lights and mics in the locker room. He looked into every lens, he answered every question, crediting Alabama, sticking up for his defense, paying respect to the running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel that brought him right to the edge of triumph.
“It’s terrible,” Fromm said of the pain of loss. “It’s not where I want to be, but I have to trust in God’s plan.” If there’s any hope to be taken from this miserable night, it’s this: Fromm, a true freshman, proved himself a capable leader for the foreseeable future in Athens.
He’ll be back, and with him, the redshirt freshmen who waited outside the locker room. They sat silently on the floor or leaned against the wall, some checking their phones, some staring into space. As Bulldogs fans walked silently past, O-lineman Daniel Gothard pressed his forehead against a doorframe and sobbed, his 300-plus-pound frame wracked with sorrow.
“Y’all a bunch of Damn! Good! Dawgs!” one fan yelled, summoning a classic Georgia call-to-arms that echoed through the halls. It was the right thing to say. It was a nice sentiment. But it wasn’t enough. On this night, in this state, it wasn’t anywhere close to enough.
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