SMITH COLUMN: Traveling with the nation’s No. 1 team
Published 12:30 pm Friday, September 23, 2022
There are at least seven power five conference football teams within 270 miles of Athens, which means that traveling to those sites for the Bulldogs has often been by bus.
For the South Carolina game in Columbia, five chartered busses took the team and administrative staff to the capital city of the Palmetto State. It took less than three hours one way. The chosen route was U.S. 78 East until the traveling party connected with I-20 at Thomson, which became the interstate thoroughfare to Columbia.
It was about as smooth of a trip as you could expect, mainly because three state trooper cars and one South Carolina trooper, who met up with the traveling party deep into the trip, escorted the Bulldogs with the greatest of alacrity.
This is a behind the scenes routine that takes place across the country throughout the college football world. Everything was organized, checked and rechecked right down to the number of Powerade bottles required for the trip.
Athletic staffers Neyland Raper and Vince Thomas are efficient and hospitable trail bosses who are detail-oriented, the best troubleshooters you could have for a mission such as theirs.
Once the busses were loaded up on Friday, three state trooper cars were waiting to escort the team all the way to the Columbia Marriott, downtown.
You would have to travel with the team to appreciate the job the troopers do. First, they are congenial and bent on getting the team to its destination the fastest and safest manner possible. They always dress smart and have a warm and engaging smile for all in the traveling party.
They get to an intersection quicker than Nolan Smith can meet up with a running back trying to advance past the line of scrimmage. With the lead trooper’s car and its flashing lights out front, cars traveling in the direction with the team give way, pulling off to the side of the road and allowing room for the traveling party to pass. Oncoming traffic does the same. There is a lot of hand waving from those vehicles and the honking of horns, a salute to the nation’s No. 1 football team.
O’Neal Saddler, Mat Miles and Greg Cumming are experienced and dedicated. Damn Good Troopers, Damn Good Dawgs.
East of Augusta, I-20 had a construction bottleneck with three lanes segueing down to two. The “Damn Good Troopers” didn’t bat an eye, they turned on their sirens and blue lights, bringing about a seam in the traffic for the team busses to keep moving. Like Moses parting the Red Sea in Old Testament lore.
From the Butts-Mehre complex to Thomson, there was a nostalgic reflection on that stretch of highway. The residents and onlookers were happily seeing the No. 1 college football team in the country wheeling by.
Some knew what was taking place, others had a delayed reaction. It was a reminder of how much of a Georgia state this is. You see signs, pennants, and the “G” everywhere.
It was also a reminder that so many of the nation’s leading universities are in small towns across the country. A barefoot country boy can enroll at his state university and become a Saturday hero. That would be apropos with Stetson Bennett. Even Brock Bowers. Napa, California is not a country town but it’s not a metropolis either. There was nothing more sensational for Wrightsville than to have Herschel Walker become a household name and bring national headlines to a school, which played in the lowest classification in the state.
He was like the comic strip character of yesteryear, Ozark Ike, who was the greatest of athletic performers. He ran over everybody in football, scoring sensationally from any spot on the field; he made baskets from center court and slugged grand slam homers in baseball with regularity. Herschel didn’t play basketball and baseball, but he became legendary in football and track.
College football, what a game! I never thought there would be anything that could kill it. Now I worry that greed might destroy it. Some of those folk along 78 — from Crawford to Lexington to Rayle to Washington to Thomson — may have a son who might be the next Herschel. Let’s find a way to preserve the game for the next generation. Let’s keep the perspective you get from traveling country roads on splendidly escorted busses to a big-time campus venue for a game that will be televised nationally.