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Yeah, well, the Olympics—that was fine, as far as it went. But did anybody stop to think what effect the Olympics had on sports? You know good and well that's what a lot of people in and around Atlanta were thinking. People who are real Georgians. People who, when they say "sports," mean the one major sport that will probably never be Olympic: football.
And when Georgians say "football," they most likely mean what takes place in Athens. Athens, Ga., that is. Georgians love the Georgia Bulldogs, even when they have an off year, as they are likely to have this year. Some Georgians die hard for Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, or for Clemson, just over the South Carolina line. There are also a great many Tennessee fans in north Georgia. And although the Atlanta Falcons have never won Georgian hearts and minds the way the college teams have, a football fan's got to keep an eye on the local pros. A person owes it to himself, his family and his community to testify feelingly as to how much he just ain't ever going to like Falcons quarterback Jeff George.
But to hear people talk, the hard-core sports fans of Georgia took right kindly to the Olympics. "I've been surprised how many football fans—people who don't even like the Atlanta Braves, just see them as time-fillers between football seasons—have admitted, 'This Olympics is kind of interesting stuff,' " said Matt Edgar, the producer of a call-in sports talk show on WCNN radio in Atlanta. "Some of these Bubbas thought the opening ceremonies were pretty impressive. Of course if somebody was playing college football during the Olympics, it'd be different."
If Georgia had played football during the Olympics, it would have competed with soccer, a game that did something to the Athens of football for which vandals would have been tarred and feathered: The field looked nekkid! They took down the hedges!
Since 1929, Georgia football has been played "between the hedges." From Lookout Mountain to the Okefenokee Swamp, that phrase has the force of "from sea to shining sea." Ligustrum sinense, or common privet, grows wild along half the creeks in Georgia, but as it manifests itself in the carefully tended shrubbery surrounding the field in Sanford Stadium in Athens, it is as mythic as the Green Monster in Fenway Park, and more natural. The hedges have framed 236 Georgia victories, 80 losses and nine ties. They have closed in on teams coached by Bear Bryant of Alabama and Shug Jordan of Auburn. They have bolstered Bulldog teams coached by Wally Butts and Vince Dooley, teams starring Fran Tarkenton and Herschel Walker. One would have assumed the hedges to be as immovable as Stone Mountain.
The Games uprooted the hedges. (O.K., they would have been uprooted anyway, because they were old and needed to be replaced, but the Olympics paid to have them dug up.) Soccer, that hyperpedallic import, required a field 50 feet wider than your standard U.S. gridiron. But Billy Payne, who headed up the Olympics, is an old Georgia football star, and, well, whatever Billy wanted....
"Time it was announced, it was a done deal," said Leroy Dukes, a Dawg linebacker in the early 1960s and current president of the Georgia football Lettermen's Club, who co-owns and presides with eminent affability over the Ramada Inn in Athens. "Then some of the old Dawgs got upset: 'What? Move the hedges? Are you crazy?' " In Dukes's office hangs a photograph of Dukes, Payne, former Dawg All-America defensive end Bill Stanfill and Dooley, now the school's athletic director, together at Georgia football's Centennial Celebration, which took place in 1992. (Bulldogs football, note, is four years older than the modern Olympics.) The photograph is inscribed by Dooley: "With appreciation to my most loyal player."
"I guess that's what I am," says Dukes. "I'm the only one who can call him Hitler, which is what he is." Dukes chuckles, as only a 5'9", 248-pound Georgia motelier can chuckle.
The hedges were pulled out after last year's final home game, against Auburn. Fans were allowed to break off bits of history for souvenirs. "For the old Dawgs, it was just a broken heart for them," Dukes told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Some said, 'What the hell are we doing? This is Sanford Stadium!' " And it wasn't enough that they took the hedges. They stole the field's crown!