If Georgia State never wins another game or scores another point, the Panthers and their fans can say this: On Sept. 2, 2010, a start-up college-football program outdrew a first-place big-league baseball club head to head. On its first time out of the box, GSU served notice that there’s enthusiasm in this city for this brand new team.
And that wasn’t always a given. Indeed, there were those — that’s my hand you see raised — who feared GSU would unveil its football team to an intimate gathering of friends and family beneath the cavernous Georgia Dome. But there was nothing small about the crowd Thursday night, and there was nothing intimate about the setting.
The Dome’s lower bowl was full, and the overflow spilled upward into the second tier. Cheryl Levick, GSU’s athletic director, reported that there were 11,000 students on hand, and certainly her estimate didn’t seem fanciful. The students arrived early and yelled all night — they even shrieked after a successful Panthers fair catch — and they roared their approval when the school president took a pregame walk in front of their end zone.
Said Mark Becker, the president in question, recalling his promenade: “Our student section was already full; their bodies were painted. I’ll never forget the excitement of those kids. … To see the student excitement and to see them fill the student section straight away will be with me forever.”
Someone asked Becker if he could have imagined such a crowd. “Two months ago, no,” he said. “A week ago, yes. Just the buzz around the city has been electric. … In the last couple of days, I predicted at least 25,000.”
He got it, plus 5K. Attendance was announced as 30,237. (The Braves, by way of contrast, drew 24,895 for their game against the Mets.)
Said Levick: “I am shocked and excited to do 30,000.”
About the game: The Panthers beat Shorter 41-7. They scored on their first drive and scored on their last, eight seconds from the end. They stopped themselves with some penalties, but this was, after all, the first time they had done this. (And it’s not as if established programs can’t be penalized. Ask the folks in Athens.)
Bill Curry, who had coached at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky, was so moved by this Opening Night that he gathered his family for photos before the game in front of the GSU students, who already were roaring. And his players were so stoked that they nearly injured themselves taking the field for warmups, so furiously were they leaping and smacking one another and waving to the crowd.
On the field for the coin flip — for history buffs: GSU won the toss and took the ball — and the kickoff, Levick said she looked into the expectant eyes of her players and “felt chills.” And it wasn’t, she noted, just the players. Walking the concourse, she kept being stopped by gray-haired alums who wanted to say thanks.
And then there were the folks who actually attend GSU. Said Levick: “[The students] are electric down there. They finally have a team, and they’re proud of it.”
When it was done, GSU was a 41-7 winner. The Panthers sprinted to the end zone and sang with the band — to go with a new team, Georgia State had to assemble a marching band — and celebrated with those wearing blue body paint, and it felt like a real football game had just been played and won.
“When you come to the moment of truth, you don’t know what’s going to happen when the lights come on,” Curry said. Then, pointing to the “incredible turnout,” he said: “I wondered if [the crowd] would unglue us. It did not.”
If anything, the crowd emboldened the new team. Forty-five minutes before kickoff, a cluster of Panthers gathered in the tunnel, and one shouted, “This is our house!”
Fancy that. The Georgia Dome — not Deion Sanders’ house, and not Arthur Blank’s, either. Instead it belonged, at least on this night, to a team that had never played, and darned if the Panthers didn’t make themselves at home.