Even if you hate college football, if you live in this town, you have to put a big red “X” on your calendar for game day in Athens. Even if your passion in life is studying the fashion accessories of the bubonic plague, playing the mandolin under a drooping tree to seduce enthralled dewy maidens or full-contact origami, you can’t live in Athens and not feel the ripple effects of a home game at Sanford Stadium. Statues know when it’s game day in Athens. Chickens know when it’s game day in Athens. Parasites tailgate on game day. They just have a different flavor of barbecue sauce.
Have you ever driven around this town when there’s a home game? I’d recommend trying this to even the most jaded teenage rebel hipster.
1. Drive around before the game.
The tents are up, the college girls are dressed like upper-middle-class porn stars in the first two minutes of the movie, the people who own stock in the company that makes Adirondack chairs are smiling, the boys are still hours away from vomiting, the sausages are almost cooked, and the alumni have firmly taken control of their nostalgia-fueled time warps. Tailgating is a beautiful sight. The aftermath may be tragic and sad and less environmentally friendly than styrofoam diapers, but when it’s in full swing, tailgating is a thing to behold. (The rest of the country may still call us the Bible Belt, and with some good reason, but they don’t realize that college football is the South’s true religion. That’s not just some throw-away euphemism. Dawg fans know the players’ origin stories, their physical attributes, their girlfriends’ names, their dates of birth and, thanks to the insidious effects of social media, their ridiculous adolescent thoughts about life. Our feelings about college football aren’t nearly as far removed from the story of Moses and John the Baptist as the unlearned might assume. The fact that college football players have a shorter shelf-life than even professional players only makes it more endearing to the congregants/fans, too. Methuselah had 969 years to cement his legacy. Herschel Walker got three. You tell me which one is more impressive.)
Watching a tailgate party is inspirational, even for people who prefer The Weather Channel to ESPN.
2. Drive around during the game.
Athens is a damn ghost town during a home game. When tens of thousands of people are crammed into the stadium, this town is like a recently deserted carnival spot, a large dot in a littered field, where the circus tents had been housing elephants, the otherwise unemployable unwashed masses and multiple displays of prize-winning tomatoes just days ago. I went to Target once during a home game and saw double the number of Target employees to Target customers, the inverse of the usual ratio. The checkout girls were talking to each other. There was no line. I was one of the only two male Target shoppers who wasn’t, at the time, in a papoose strapped to the torso of a new mother. On the other hand, I’ve also been to Earth Fare during a home game. It’s not as packed as it usually is, but Earth Fare has a hippie magnetism that attracts Athenians who care more about organic gardening and the legalization of same-sex dog marriage than they do football, and so there were actual lines at the registers.
Drive around during a home game. You can pretty much get away with anything. You can drag-race up and down Milledge Avenue. You can knock over a liquor store. You can go streaking at the mall. Athens feels more like an abandoned silver mining Nevada boomtown than a thriving college town during a home game.
3. Drive around a little after a game.
I’d approach this one a little more gingerly. Yes, it’s important to see the after-effects of our town’s biggest party/industry/barbecue/nostalgia binge/cultural happening/mock war-game, but it’s also important not to let all the assembled garbage get you down. Drunks are messy. That’s just the way it is. Drunks are messy, but when they’re wasted, money also means less to them than it does when they’re sober. If I were an economist, I’d figure out how much money we make annually from the post-home-game spending spree. It’s probably Athens’ third most profitable industry. We should just create a giant, buried, moving sidewalk from the stadium to downtown that rises up from the ground halfway into the fourth quarter. We do everything we can to funnel people there after a game, anyway. Let’s drop the pretense and just get people to the bars faster. One-third of our local economy is loosely based on the hazy idea of middle-aged alums reliving their college years. We just don’t come out and say it. Maybe we should.
I’m not actually advising you to go to a game. Go, if you want, or don’t. I don’t care. It’s Athens, so you probably should do it at least once, even if you hate football, but I’m not talking about the game itself. I’m talking about the nearly magical way that our little town transforms itself on game day. It’s an incredible transformative process. It’s enough to make Optimus Prime defect to the Decepticons.
Mark your calendars ahead of time. Cordon off at least one Saturday a year in your mental calendar, and take my advice. All you need is an open mind, a working car, two functioning eyes and a quarter of a tank of gas.