The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is presenting a series of columns from our staff detailing the five most memorable games they have covered in their careers.
Jacksonville, Florida. Statesboro. Heredia, Costa Rica. Atlanta.
They don’t have much in common except they are some of the sites of the most memorable games I’ve covered during my short time as a reporter.
With apologies to my son Will, whose grand slam in youth baseball I didn’t include but will always remain my No. 1 memory, and to former Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who made one of the more amazing plays I have ever seen in the famous lightning game at FSU, here is my list of my top five memorable games I have covered as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Ground rules: These are the five. Borrowing from Mark Bradley’s criteria: I had to be there in person, and it had to involve a local entity:
No. 5: Feb. 21, 2019: Herediano 3, Atlanta United 1. Really, this makes the list not because of the game but because of the stadium and the environment the game was played in as well as the fact that it was my first foray into international sports reporting.
Obviously, it is a trip that I’ll never forget.
Herediano plays in Heredia, Costa Rica.
Herediano’s stadium is, to be kind, not what you would expect to see at a Class A high school in the South.
Driving past, if not for a few banks of lights rising above the walls of the venue’s perimeter, you wouldn’t know it was a soccer stadium. In America, it would be more akin to what you see driving past a salvage yard. That’s not a description of the stadium, only the impression it gave me based upon my western familiarities.
Inside the stadium, red paint on the concrete stands was faded and peeling. Cats roamed the bleachers.
The turf was more like green concrete. It was bumpy and had a pitch.
Media were asked to sit at the far end of the stadium, on the top of the bleachers, where there was one power outlet. I made sure to get there early to plug in to cover Atlanta United in its first game in the Champions League.
It was cold. The wind was howling. One of Atlanta United’s communications people didn’t bring a heavy coat. Sitting next to me, he was shivering within a few minutes.
The men’s bathroom, I think there was more than one but don’t know for a fact, featured a trench with a wooden plank across. Holes were cut into the wooden plank. There were one or two traditional stalls.
It was eye-opening and made one grateful for what we have in the U.S.
As the game neared its end, the wireless signal, which held on throughout, gave up the ghost with four minutes left. Luckily, I had emailed a copy of my story to my boss just before then, just in case.
But, here’s the thing about the experience: It was awesome. It was enriching.
Herediano’s supporters were passionate and gracious. The country beautiful. The food amazing. The culture uplifting.
Though old, the stadium still had life, and it showed it that night, proving that the quality of a stadium doesn’t indicate the quality of the supporters.
I would gladly cover more games there.
No. 4: Dec. 5, 2015: Georgia State 34, Georgia Southern 7. Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen.
This was the second meeting in football between the universities.
Georgia Southern won the first, and won is putting it politely because it would be more fair to describe it as a program-crushing defeat of a program that seemed to be on its last legs, 69-31 in the Georgia Dome (remember that building?) the year before in the first meeting.
But something felt different in 2015 as the teams prepared to play in Statesboro.
The Eagles were dealing with rumors that their coach was going to leave for Tulane. (Something odd about that, eh, Georgia State folks?)
Though it started the season 1-4, Georgia State rallied behind seniors and a speech from then-coach Trent Miles, who asked the players to ask themselves who they were playing for.
Four wins later, the Panthers needed a win to become bowl-eligible for the first time in their short history.
Still, Georgia Southern was a 20-point favorite. At home, the Eagles had won 11 consecutive games, 29 of 31 and were 186-33, the third-best in history among FBS teams.
The Panthers dominated the Eagles, causing the stands to begin to grow empty near the start of the fourth quarter.
My most vivid recollection came in the fourth quarter. The Panthers led 27-7 when Kyler Neal took a handoff, ran up the middle and cut to his left.
No one was there.
Neal, not the quickest of cats, kept running.
Georgia State’s coaches were seated in a suite next to the press box. The wall separating them from me was paper-thin.
As Neal found the hole , I could hear Luke Huard, the offensive coordinator, and other coaches screaming “Go, go, go, go.”
Neal did. Touchdown, 28 yards and a 34-7 lead with 8:31 remaining.
As Neal crossed into the end zone, the coaches erupted in yells of jubilation. They were there for 69-31.
It sounded almost like cheers of vindication. Cheers of relief.
No. 3: March 5, 2017: New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1. Time for a confession: when I’m covering a game, there are times that, because I’m taking notes, tweeting, writing, etc., I sometimes miss things during a game. It’s an unfortunate result of working while watching.
I saw all of the goals during this game. I almost always see all of the goals live. I can think of just two that I missed.
Atlanta United’s first goal, Tyrone Mears to Yamil Asad, was obviously memorable because it was the first.
But that’s not why this game is on my list.
» Photos: Historic day for Atlanta United
Nothing about the 90 minutes is why this game is on the list.
This makes it because of what was going on before the game.
I’ve told this story many times, and will many more, but I’m going to tell it again.
Before the game, I had scheduled an interview with Alexi Lalas at a hotel in downtown Atlanta. I went ahead and parked at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta United’s first home while Mercedes-Benz Stadium was under construction, and took a ride-share to the hotel.
After the interview, I tried to get another ride back to the stadium.
There were none available. I couldn’t figure out why.
So I decided to hobble my broken self to the stadium.
As I neared The Varsity, I saw hundreds, possibly thousands, of people tailgating. Most were wearing some sort of Atlanta United merchandise: a kit, a scarf, a hat … or all three.
They were waving flags.
Music was blasting from all corners.
Beers were being drunk, spilled or both at the same time.
There were spontaneous cheers and chants.
You couldn’t get through the crowd without tucking your elbows into your sides because it was so packed.
“This Atlanta United might be a bit bigger than I expected,” I thought.
No. 2: Dec. 8, 2018: Atlanta United 2, Portland 0 in MLS Cup. There’s really not too much that needs to be said about this one.
It was the first championship for an Atlanta-based sports team since 1995. It was the second championship in soccer for a team from Atlanta, joining the Chiefs’ 1968 NASL title.
It was a crazy week with the newspaper churning out story after story across all departments.
The event was treated with respect, effort and integrity.
Trying to pick moments out of my addled mind is difficult because everything kind of bleeds together.
But here are three:
The opening goal, from Michael Parkhurst’s tackle to Josef Martinez’s awareness, looked as if the result of good fortune but actually was the result of film study. Parkhurst knew that Jeremy Ebobisse would likely turn to his right with the ball. Parkhurst slid as Ebobisse did just that. The deflection went to Martinez.
After a spectacular save by Brad Guzan near the end of the first half, Franco Escobar did what he does in the postseason: score.
That was it.
No 1: March 19, 2015: Georgia State 57, Baylor 56 in NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Get me the rewrite desk.
Georgia State was done.
The Panthers trailed Baylor, the third seed, by 12 points with 2:53 left.
R.J. Hunter, Georgia State’s standout player, was having trouble getting open against the Bears’ zone defense. Just a couple of baskets through the first 30-plus minutes.
Ryan Harrow, the team’s other standout, could barely play because of a limited hamstring.
I had my story written, ready to hit send as soon as the final whistle blew.
And then Hunter got hot, and Baylor began to play stupidly.
Switching tenses to add drama:
Hunter makes two free throws. Then, after oddly left open, a 3-pointer.
“Hmmm, I better make sure I get the final score right. The loss won’t be as bad as it could be.”
Proving once again, I’m an idiot.
Hunter hits a running bank shot. Then a layup.
A 12-point gap is cut to three in 90 seconds.
Baylor misses a dunk.
Georgia State makes a free throw.
Baylor misses a free throw.
“What the … what?”
Georgia State trails by two.
And then ... Hunter buries the 30-foot shot with 2.8 seconds remaining with help from T.J. Shipes.
Coach Ron Hunter falls off his chair, adding another dollop of magic to the scene.
A magical moment.
A story rewritten in the final seconds.
Reading it now for the first time in a long time, I wish that I had written a better game story. Everything happened so quickly, I don’t feel like I did the game justice.
Still, the moment was memorable.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.