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Chris Gay: Twenty years ago, Georgia beat Florida on a trip to remember

Posted: October 25, 2017 - 12:31am

With farmland flanking both sides of the road, the two-car caravan streaked through the middle of Nowhere, Ga.

As the black car in front continued its rapid pace, Bambi jumped out, crashed into the car and performed a few backflips, never to be seen again. Tommy, the driver, got out and assessed the damage to the front passenger side. Hugh could still open the door - despite the large dent making the door creak.

Bill and I saw the accident unfold in front of us in a flash. After everyone got out of their vehicles and wondered what happened to the deer, the question was asked. Should we continued driving to Florida? Unflappable as ever, Tommy didn't hesitate. Let's go, he said. He called his insurance agent from the car as we kept booking it toward I-95 and then to Jacksonville.

Twenty years ago, a five-hour road trip began with an ominous start. Hitting a deer three days before the Georgia-Florida football game surely was a bad sign our beloved Bulldogs would lose again, extending the losing streak to eight games to the Gators. The rivalry had become one-sided, with Florida - the defending national champion - a 20-point favorite entering the 1997 contest.

I attended the previous two Georgia-Florida contests, staying till the end of each one. In 1995, the Gators came to Athens; the "Gator Bowl," the stadium in Jacksonville, underwent a two-year renovation in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Georgia traveled to Gainesville, Fla., aka "The Swamp." After dominating the rivalry during the Vince Dooley era, the Bulldogs couldn't solve the Gators since the arrival of Florida coach Steve Spurrier in 1990. After losing a pair of competitive contests in 1992 and ‘93, Georgia suffered its worst defeat in the rivalry - 52-14 - in 1994.

One year later, Florida traveled north. The Bulldogs would get their revenge between the hedges, right? Wrong. Florida led by a million late in the contest. The Gators didn't try to run the clock out. Instead, they marched into Georgia territory and ran a trick play to move inside the 10. Then, Florida's backup quarterback threw a touchdown pass with 1:10 remaining. Final score: Gators 52, Bulldogs 17.

Spurrier was asked about running up the score after the game. Ever smug, he responded he wanted to hang "half a hundred" on Georgia in Athens, because it had never been done before. This wasn't just gloating. This was rubbing it in the Bulldogs' faces.

Some things you never forget.

The next year, I embarked upon my first trip to Jacksonville with Bill, Tommy and Hugh. We met our friend, Randall, a Florida fan, who lived there. We played golf for two days, went to the dog tracks a few nights. That Saturday, we arrived at the stadium before 10 a.m. to tailgate on fried chicken and other food - and to participate in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party - before the contest. Inside the stadium, Georgia suffered another embarrassing defeat. Final: Gators 47, Bulldogs 7.

In 1997, I again made the trip to Florida with the regular crew. I was about to graduate from college. It was one last trip before I got a degree and a real job.

Then an hour outside of Augusta, Tommy crashed into the deer. Would we have to alter our plans, return to Augusta? Tommy wasn't shaken by the accident, wasn't worried. Let's go, he said. And we did.

Some things you never forget.

That year - like the one before - we played a few unremarkable rounds of golf in the mornings before heading over to the Orange Park Kennel Club in the evenings. The group of us put a few dollars down on the races, hoping to win some money to offset the expense of our trip. The first night was so-so. The next night - Halloween - it was all treats. We hit several trifectas, winning several hundreds of dollars on an unforgettable evening. The party continued.

On Saturday, we again got to the stadium early for another tailgating session. When the game began, we stood in the middle section around the 20-yard line. Georgia scored first. We continued standing. The Bulldogs went into halftime with a lead. We continued standing. Florida took the lead in the third quarter. We finally sat for a brief moment. Then, Georgia jumped back out in the lead. In the fourth quarter, Robert Edwards took a pitch around the left corner - and with seemingly no room left - he tight-roped it down the sideline. My God, we thought. Georgia's going to win this thing. And thanks to the likes of Mike Bobo, Hines Ward and Kirby Smart, the current Bulldogs coach who made two interceptions that day, Georgia finally defeated Spurrier and his Gators. Final: Dawgs 37, Jean Shorts 17.

Sadly, it was the lone win in a 14-year span for Georgia in the rivalry. I was also there in Jacksonville when the Bulldogs lost in 1998, ‘99, ‘00, and ‘01. I missed 2002 and ‘03, but I returned for the win in 2004. My triplets were born the following year. I haven't been back since.

It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since the ‘97 win, a week filled with good times. Six years later, Tommy unexpectedly died. A decade afterward, Bill died.

This week, I've been thinking about my good friends and the experiences we had. I learned a lot from them - and not just about football. For instance, sometimes you hit the deer; sometimes, the deer hits you. How you react makes all the difference.

Some of you are probably headed to Florida for this year's game. Georgia opened Sunday as a two-touchdown favorite. I hope the Bulldogs hang "half a hundred" on the Gators.

Remember, though, life is more than just about a football contest. For me, the Georgia-Florida trip was about golf, food, plenty of laughs and so much more. If you're headed to Jacksonville, watch out for deer. Enjoy your mini-vacation. Soak in everything outside of the stadium. And if you head to Orange Park Kennel Club and need some advice, give me a shout.

Some things you never forget.

 

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