Georgia on My Mind
When the Southeastern Conference recently announced its revised 2020 football schedule, more than a few eyebrows were raised when Georgia appeared as Arkansas’ season opener. For many the addition of Florida and Georgia to the Razorbacks’ slate was akin to adding two additional heavyweights to college football’s version of the 1927 New York Yankees, a lineup more commonly known as “Murderer’s Row.”
In addition to the seismic boost in difficulty in schedule came the added intrigue of Coach Sam Pittman facing the Bulldogs in his first game as a Division I head football coach. As the Associate Head Coach in charge of the Bulldogs’ offensive line, Pittman was instrumental in Georgia’s rise to national prominence in recent years, including a squad that was an overtime possession away from a national championship.
By the time Georgia and Arkansas kick things off at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium later this fall, it will be only the 15th time the two teams have met on the football field. By conference foe standards, it is a somewhat limited body of work. However, in my personal series history, Georgia has always seemed to play a larger role than series records may indicate.
For me it all began before Arkansas was even a member of the SEC. I vividly remember watching games from Between the famed Hedges as part of the featured Saturday game on the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS). I was struck by pageantry of the scene. To a youngster growing up in Big 8 country and now invested in the Southwest Conference, Georgia represented what the SEC was all about.
Little did I know that within five years, Arkansas would be a member of the SEC and Georgia would appear on the Razorbacks’ schedule. A student assistant in the Arkansas sports information office at the time, I paid my own way to Athens in 1993 to watch the Razorbacks and Bulldogs. My rationale at the time was simple. Who in the world would still be around in 2001 when the Hogs next returned to Georgia?
At that point in my life, the idea that I would still be around as an answer to that question was as mind blowing as the notion that I would be the head sports information director by then. The year 2001 was more than a few spaces away in what would become my Razorback odyssey. Yet throughout my personal and professional journey Georgia has always provided a myriad of moments and memories.
The 1994 trip was memorable as was the legendary hospitality of Georgia sports information director Claude Felton. The game was incredible with Barry Lunney Jr. teaming up with J.J. Meadors for a 72-yard touchdown pass on the way to 20-10 Razorback victory. Almost lost in the shuffle was a spectacular 177-yard rushing performance by a Georgia running back who would go on to a celebrated NFL career – Terrell Davis. It was one of the first significant wins in Arkansas’ SEC history and one that I will not soon forget.
By the time the two teams got together again on the football field, Arkansas had established itself a little more in its new league. The Razorbacks had earned SEC Western Division titles in 1995 and 1998 and appeared to be on the move again at the turn of the new century.
The 2000 season started with a bang. Opening season wins over Missouri State and a feisty Boise State in Little Rock led into a national television date with Alabama. A late touchdown pass from Robby Hampton to tight end Marcellus Poydras gave Arkansas a 28-21 win in the league opener, even after the Hogs lost both Cedric Cobbs, Fred Talley and a freshman wide receiver, George Wilson, to injury.
Spirits were high when Georgia visited Razorback Stadium to following week. It was a bright sunny day. The windows of the press box were open and I had settled into my spot in the press box. About 90 minutes before the game, I was nursing a canned soft drink as I awaited the remaining moments before kickoff. As I lifted the can to my mouth and tipped it upward, suddenly my tongue experienced a sharp piercing pain. I quickly pulled the can down to see what had happened. Moments later, a flying villain emerged from the small, indented opening and buzzed into the open air of the press box. It took a moment to realize what had happened. I had been stung in the tongue by a bee.
After a few moments to relay the story to my colleagues, I decided to head to the Broyles Center. Fortunately, less than two hours before a game, on-site medical attention was not an issue. By the time I reached the athletic training room, my tongue had started to swell and my speech sounded like an inebriated acquaintance attempting to proclaim his sober innocence albeit undermined by slurring syllables. A quick exam by a team doctor and a shot moments later had me on my way back on the way to clear speech and back toward the press box.
Unfortunately, the pre-game pain was a precursor to sinister things to come. Georgia’s Jamie Henderson intercepted a pass on Arkansas’ first offensive possession and returned it for a touchdown. A physically and emotionally worn out Razorback team was in for a long day. By the final gun, Georgia handed Arkansas a 38-7 defeat in what was the first home loss of the Houston Nutt era.
My disappointment, while real, was short lived. On the Sunday after the game, my wife Ruth stung me with some other somewhat unexpected but much more pleasant news. She was pregnant and our daughter Emma was on the way.
Well, as foreshadowed, I was indeed on the team plane the next time the Razorbacks visited Athens in 2001. The road trip seemed promising when Marvin Jackson scampered free on a 74-yard touchdown punt return to tie the game at 20-20 with just more than minutes to go in the third quarter. However, the Bulldogs hunkered down from there and came away with a 34-23 victory.
Four years later in 2005, Arkansas returned to Athens. This time, the Razorbacks featured a freshman running back that would evoke early comparisons to a generational player who paved his legacy on the same field. No one was quite ready to anoint Darren McFadden as the next Herschel Walker seven games into his freshman season, but the it was impossible to avoid the mention. McFadden exploded for a UA freshman record 190 rushing yards against the No. 4 Bulldogs in what was one of the first breakout performance for the eventual two-time Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up.
I have been to Athens on numerous other occasions for various sports. It was at Georgia when Mike Nail came down with a cold and laryngitis and I found myself as the color analyst on the Razorback Radio Network with Rick Schaeffer calling all the frantic play by play of a men’s basketball win at Stegman Coliseum. On another trip for basketball, I returned to news from my wife that we were expecting child number two – a daughter Ellie.
Baseball trips have always been entertaining as well. On several occasions, we have been in town on the same weekend of the Athens Twilight Criterium, a professional cycling race. Imagine the Tour De France combined and contained with the Athens downtown square and you have the idea.
So, pardon me if Georgia evokes more than just a few memories – some good, some bad and some literally painful. Funny how sports and even certain opponents can serve as life landmarks along the way. I am confident that my wife and I will not be adding to the family depth chart in conjunction with this particular meeting. However, as the first game of the Sam Pittman era, in a season that will include an asterisk based on a common foe, perhaps Arkansas and Georgia on the football field can provide another memorable moment in our collective Razorback history. In reality, if we can even make it to kickoff, it will go down as one of the most improbable season openers in Razorback history.
Razorback Road is a column written by Senior Associate Athletic Director for Public Relations and Former Student-Athlete Engagement Kevin Trainor (@KTHogs). Trainor is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and has worked for Razorback Athletics for more than 25 years.