Over the years, some of my favorite Georgia Bulldog moments have involved outings with my kids.
Their enthusiasm and delight at simple things like petting Uga, meeting Hairy Dawg or seeing a favorite player up close brings me back in touch with the early days of my own Bulldogmania growing up in Athens, before I’d ever even heard of point spreads, recruiting rankings and such things.
One of my son’s prized possessions is a photo of him posing with Hines Ward on the turf at Sanford Stadium during a pre-scrimmage August fan session that the Athens Touchdown Club used to host back when my Dad was a member. We went to a number of those during the Ray Goff and Jim Donnan years and my son posed with and got autographs from quite a few players as well as getting to pet Uga. Another time, at the annual Picture Day, young Bill’s uncles had fun trying to coax him into having his picture taken with a group of pretty cheerleaders.
I remember at one Touchdown Club session, held outside Butts-Mehre instead of the stadium, a young fan approaching the incoming freshman tailback and asking him if he was going to win a Heisman. “Well,” Garrison Hearst said with a smile, “I’m gonna try.”
Seeing the players and coaches up close and getting to meet them gives you a different perspective once you’re watching them on the field. And sometimes a little insight, as at the 1995 meet-and-greet, when the normally affable Ray Goff game off as surly and impatient. “I think he’s feeling the pressure,” I told one of my brothers. That wound up being the last of those sessions for Goff. The next year, we had Donnan, who gave the impression he wished he was somewhere (anywhere) else. That proved illuminating, too.
Nowadays, probably the best opportunity for letting your kids meet the current players, as well as Bulldog greats from the recent and distant past, is the annual Countdown to Kickoff organized by Matt and Jon Stinchcomb and David Greene and held at the Woodruff Practice Fields. The 2009 edition of the charity event is scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. this Saturday.
For the kids, there are games (some led by UGA players), face painting, mock training camp drills and the Redcoat Band and cheerleaders, as well the chance to get in line for photos and autographs. I took my daughter to the first Countdown to Kickoff back in 2006, and I asked her recently what her favorite memory of it was. “Getting my picture taken with Uga VI,” she said. She did have to wait a little while for that, but nowhere near as long as at the more structured (and limited) Picture Day held during August drills.
Best of all, Countdown to Kickoff benefits Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Georgia Transplant Foundation, as well as the Children’s Tumor Foundation, the University of Georgia College of Education and UGA’s Pediatric Exercise and Motor Development Clinic.
I talked with Matt Stinchcomb about this year’s event back in May, and what he was most excited about was having Jeff Owens and some of the other players interacting with the kids in attendance. “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,” Matt told me. “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.”
Tickets are $25 each for the Saturday event, or you can get a Family Pack for $75, which includes four tickets and a special pennant for player autographs. You can place your order online and either print your tickets out at home or pick them up at “will call” at the Stegeman Coliseum ticket window on Saturday.
“It’s a fun event and it supports some very worthy and needed healthcare philanthropies,” Matt says. Plus it gives the current Dogs a chance to interact with some of the guys who played at UGA before them and it gives fans “a chance to meet the person, not just the athlete.”
It’s also a great chance to make some wonderful memories with the little Bulldogs in your family.