Sports

‘The Weird Takes Over’: Why Watching Florida-Georgia From Athens Is One Of Football’s Best Kept Secrets

ATHENS, GEORGIA – It’s 2:40 p.m. on Halloween, and a woman in a nun costume is irate that the Pandora station at the Georgia Bar stopped playing “Hey Ya!”

But The Cranberries’ “Zombie” just came on, and a guy in a UGA Hawaiian shirt and a black afro wig starts singing. Suddenly everything is okay.

His name is Brian. And he soon gets up on the bar to sing Ween’s “Voodoo Lady.”

“This is the best weekend in the fall,” he says. “There’s no students. We can go out and do whatever we want.”

Welcome to the cocktail party before the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. This is what happens when a place typically overrun by football fans gets its one weekend to breathe during the fall. And after being denied a credential to the actual game in Jacksonville, I felt lucky to see something that far more people should make the decision to experience on their own.

***

There isn’t one easy way to explain Athens. It’s here where musicians campaigned to save a steeple that was part of a church which was the site of R.E.M.’s first show. It’s here where a tree (yes, a tree) “owns itself” and technically possesses more land than most millennials. And it’s here where people are so passionate about football that even the BB&T downtown forgoes its original logo hues in favor of a more recognizable red and black.

Which is to say that Athens, like many other college towns, is special.

“Athens just has its own vibe,” former Sugar and Mercyland member David Barbe said.

Barbe currently is the director of UGA’s music business certificate program and still plays shows in town, along with producing records by bands like the Drive-By Truckers.

“The music scene has always been a really supportive one,” Barbe says. “The more established bands have always welcomed the newer ones rather than viewing them as competition. It’s like we all buy into the concept that someone else winning doesn’t mean that I lose. We’re just sort of on our own trip here.”

Austin, a server at a restaurant called Mama’s Boy, has as good a spin on why he prefers to stay home rather than make the five and a half-hour drive down to Jacksonville for the annual Florida-Georgia game.

“It’s too much underaged drinking and too much saliva swapping and too much dizzy bat,” Austin says. “It’s one of those things you absolutely have to do once, and you decide you either love it or hate it. I hate it. This weekend is a lot more slow with everyone gone. It’s nice.”

Not everyone wants slow, and for good reason. Saturdays in the fall are for tailgating, and early mornings, and long nights, and lots and lots of libations. Nothing better represents the finite qualities of youth than a college football season. It’s a 14-week (15, if you count Championship Week and Army-Navy) sprint where everything is explained through hyperbole and overreaction. At the end, everything disappears, many players move on, and a new group takes their place. It’s only fitting and understandable that people would want to gravitate toward this as they’re getting older.

For those who stick around the weekend of the WLOCP, Athens relaxes. You can almost feel the city exhaling and settling back in for a couple days. People bring their infants and dogs everywhere. Professors hit the dive bars they’re petrified to visit during the school year, even though they love them just as much as the students do.

Tim Kelly and his wife Carrie opened a board game café called The Rook & Pawn right downtown near the Creature Comforts brewery just a couple months ago and have seen Athens change a lot over the past few years. Bars like Gator Haters are long gone, replaced with other bars. There’s a J Crew Mercantile store right downtown, and additions to buildings are altering the skyline. Like most cities in the South, there’s that constant push and pull of wanting to grow, but wanting to maintain history and a sense of place. (Some spots do a better job than others.)

The Rook & Pawn is distinctively Athens. It has food, coffee, alcoholic drinks, and sweets, but the crown jewel is an enormous bookshelf filled with games, some of which you need a librarian’s ladder to get to. People pay to rent the games – well more to rent a table, and play any games they want – and they come and go as they please. It’s quickly become a popular alternative spot at night to visit, and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe has been known to stop by.

Kelly thinks the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is one of the best weekends to visit Athens, and it only made it better that Halloween also fell on Saturday this year.

After the game is over, the Wild Rumpus takes over, a parade downtown ending at City Hall in which a dance party follows. Everyone’s in costume, from a dad in full “Cat Lady” attire with his baby dressed like a cat to a full Adams Family, complete with Cousin It.

Nobody seems to react to the football – although the Miami-Duke and Notre Dame-Temple games are playing at the Allgood Lounge after the parade – and everyone’s just excited to be downtown for Halloween. One guy in a full Ninja Turtle getup is flirting with three girls at once, as if he can’t make up his mind who to actually key in on, instead failing to realize he’s not actually helping his odds by talking to three people at the same time. A guy in a light-up R2D2 helmet tries to keep it from falling off while simultaneously taking a Fireball shot.

“Honestly, this weekend in Athens is one of the best-kept secrets in the fall,” Kelly says. “The weird takes over.”

***

There’s 3:29 left in the first quarter, and we have our first ironic “Heyyyyyyyy, Georgia Gators” chant in lieu of the traditional “Heyyyyyyyy, Georgia Bulldogs.” The group at the Georgia Bar has seen this script before. While some react in stride, others can’t help themselves from getting upset. This game still means an awful lot, regardless of whether you can tell the end result from how the first quarter plays out or not.

And it’s a first quarter that fits right in with the absurdity of many other Georgia-Florida games. There’s a missed field goal, a bunch of punts, an interception, and a muffed punt resulting in a Florida touchdown (complete with a missed extra point).

With Georgia down 6-0, there’s a mad dash of folks digging through a plastic pumpkin sitting on the bar looking for Laffy Taffys.

“I hate you, Dawgs,” one woman says to the TV behind the bar. “I hate you. I’m tired of you. I’m done with you. I’m done with being a loser. I need some Jell-O shots.”

***

The plan initially was to go to the Georgia Theater to watch the rest of the game there, as they sometimes put it up on the big screen in the theater itself. But not for road games. Instead, it’s being shown on the roof, and the congregated group at the Georgia Bar simply won’t stand to have me do that by myself. So they invite me to tag along. At halftime, we make our way to the Flicker Bar. Although the change of scenery doesn’t seem to help the Bulldogs much.

Georgia has just gotten a meaningless field goal to cut the Florida lead to 20-3. Brian and The Nun are doing their best to cheer everyone up, getting up on the small stage in the back room of the Flicker Bar to dance. It’s not working, not for everyone anyway.

“This always happens,” one guy remarks.

After a brief pause, that guy’s friend looks over and takes a sip of his beer.

“That’s really sad,” the second guy responds.

The final score of 27-3 gives Georgia its third loss of the season, which of course drums up whispers of needing to make a change at head coach. This is the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, with the appropriate level of hangover to follow. This is something Mark Richt will never escape, regardless of how many 10-win seasons he has with the Bulldogs.

In a series like this, though, there’s always a chance at redemption next year.

“That’s the thing about this game,” Brian says to me. “You always get another shot at it. You can always get payback. It kind of always works out that way.”

Come Monday, Athens sheds its costume and returns to normal. But the weird will never go away.

×