A lot of kids dream of one day playing with the Georgia Bulldogs. Thanks to a trio of former Georgia greats, those kids don’t have to wait to grow up to do that; from 3 to 6 p.m. on July 18 they can join Jeff Owens and other current members of the Dogs in running drills, throwing passes and even playing flag football at the UGA practice fields in Athens as part of the fourth annual Countdown to Kickoff fan festival, a fund-raiser for four child-oriented charities.
That’s one of the new wrinkles cooked up for this year’s fest, says Matt Stinchcomb, who organizes Countdown to Kickoff along with brother Jon and David Greene. “The past couple of years, Jeff Owens, who’s a special guy, and some of the other players haven’t just signed autographs, they’ve actually played with the kids for three hours, with them following Jeff around like the Pied Piper,” Stinchcomb said when we talked today. “So this year we’re going to give Jeff a chunk of field where he and the other players can do stuff with the young kids. We’ve gotten input from Jeff and the players on what they want to do, like playing flag football with the kids. Whatever Jeff wants to do.”
And for the grown-up fans who want to meet the players as well as past Georgia greats and get photos and autographs, Stinchcomb said, this year they’re going to try to lessen the long lines by “moving the guys around and have them more decentralized. We’ll also have some giveaways while folks are in line. We want to make it fun for everyone.” For the kids there’ll also be the usual moonscape, swings and other activities.
Tickets to the fan day are $25 (or $75 for a family pack of four). There’s also a golf tournament and sponsor party the day before the fan fest. You can buy tickets and get more information here.
Stinchcomb couldn’t say for sure which former players will be on hand at this year’s festival, but last year’s attendees included Bill Stanfill, Scott Woerner, Randall Godfrey, Robert Edwards, George Foster, Charles Grant, Verron Haynes, Mitch Davis and Corey Allen. Vince Dooley’s been known to show up, too. Plus former quarterback and current offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and some of the other coaches.
“We like to change up the quarterbacks on hand,” Stinchcomb said, “and this year we’ve invited John Lastinger,” beloved among UGA fans as the “all he could do is win” engineer of the 1984 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas.
A new photo op for fans will be provided courtesy of the Dawg House Grill in Savannah, which is bringing a mobile version of its bigger-than-life fiberglass statue of Uga the bulldog mascot, Matt said, adding that the real Uga VII hopefully will be on hand, too, along with the UGA cheerleaders, majorettes and Redcoat Band.
The Stinchcombs and Greene run Countdown to Kickoff along with a committee that includes representatives from the charities involved and professional event organizers. Attendance has grown from about 1,100 the first year to nearly 2,000 last year, Matt said, “and last year we raised $198,000.” A third of that goes to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, another third to the Georgia Transplant Foundation and the final third is split between the Children’s Tumor Foundation and the Pediatric Exercise and Motor Development Clinic in Athens run by Dr. Michael Horvat of UGA. Matt said he knows times are tough, but because of that “organizations like this need support more than ever. And every little bit is appreciated.”
The work the Countdown to Kickoff guys do is should make every Bulldog fan proud, but Stinchcomb said his own charitable work was inspired by that of Robert Miles of the 1980 national championship team, and he and Jon and Greenie are working with a Feed the Children food distribution event coming up May 26 in Athens that Miles has put together.
Talking Dawgs: While I had Matt on the line, I couldn’t resist asking him about the upcoming season. The always gregarious former NFL player, who now works in risk management and financial services and dabbles in sports broadcasting (he co-hosted WSB’s post-game call-in show a couple of times last season), says that despite the loss of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, he’s encouraged. “I think this year there’s a chance we’re going to have as deep and experienced an offensive line as we’ve seen. And the defensive front will be really good if they can get some help on the edges. Especially with Jeff [Owens], Geno [Atkins] and Kade Weston, who I think is going to end up one day anchoring someone’s line” in the pros.
“They say games are won or lost in the trenches, and that’s true,” the former offensive lineman said. “Look at Alabama last year. John Parker Wilson wasn’t a great quarterback. It was a great offensive line that took them as far as they went. I know I’m biased, but you can go a long way with a good offensive front, and I think that’s an area where we’ll see vast improvement.”
As for Joe Cox at quarterback, Matt said, “he doesn’t have the arm Matthew Stafford had, but nobody really does. That’s a luxury, not a necessity. Joe Cox can get the job done. It’s the same as with guys like John Lastinger and [former Alabama QB] Jay Barker, who just keep you in the ball game. I think that’s all you want out of your quarterback.”
Georgia’s schedule, opening with a trip to Stillwater to meet Oklahoma State, “will be a challenge,” Stinchcomb said, “but if we can keep from having an all-SEC caliber team in the training room [with injuries] like we had last year, I think we can put something together. A lot of what happened last year can be attributed to the injury situation. It changes what you do and how you prepare. One key injury can change everything.”
Football, he said, “is a war of attrition. It’s who can survive the longest with the best talent they started out the season with. At the end, it’s who has hung on most effectively.”