5 career moments: Great victories, agonizing defeats both memorable

Sony Michel takes in the cheering Georgia fans as he scores his first touchdown run against Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, Calif.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Sony Michel takes in the cheering Georgia fans as he scores his first touchdown run against Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, Calif.

Editor's note: 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.

Contrary to popular belief, I have not been covering Georgia "forever." So, no, I wasn't there to cover the historic Buck Belue-to-Lindsay Scott play in 1980. If I was, I'm certain that would be the greatest sports moment I've chronicled.

As it was, I was on a camping trip in the northeast Georgia mountains and heard Larry Munson’s famous call of the play as I’d driven out of the woods under the guise of replenishing supplies, but really just to find out how that game was going.

But I have been around for a good long time and have had the good fortune of covering the Bulldogs for much of my career. But not all. Between the Athens Banner-Herald and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I have worn a lot of hats over 32 years. That has allowed me to cover a lot of different sports.

Today my assignment was to recount the five greatest events that I’ve covered over that span. In doing that, I’m reminded me of what a privilege it has been to do something I love for so long. It also reminded me that 1996 and 2017 were very good years for me in the business. Four of my notable “moments” occurred in those two years or seasons.

No. 5: Nov. 16, 1996: Georgia 56, Auburn 49 (4 OTs). We had heard about the new overtime format adopted by the SEC, but none of us had ever seen it employed. And we darn sure weren't expecting to see it used on this night.

“We” refers to me and fellow scribes covering the Georgia-Auburn game on a ridiculously cold night in 1996. There was nothing to indicate any of us would be in for anything special that evening. The No. 20-ranked Tigers (7-2) were big favorites over the 3-5 Bulldogs, who were in the midst of rebuilding under first-year coach Jim Donnan.

The Bulldogs trailed by seven points with six seconds remaining in regulation. That’s when quarterback Mike Bobo, who’d been benched in favor of Brian Smith to start the game, connected with Corey Allen for a 30-yard touchdown as time expired. Allen crossed the goal line by a whisker.

After the point-after was kicked the score was knotted at 28-28, and previously that would have been it. But instead the contest was headed into overtime – a new invention for the college game that year. I remembered from the preseason discussions that each team would get the ball at the opponents’ 25-yard line with the opportunity to score. But I could recall nothing of the details, like how it’s determined which team gets the ball, whether first downs were awarded and so on.

By the end of it, I was an expert.

The teams traded four possessions each and that resulted in seven touchdowns, four by the Bulldogs. Tailback Torin Kirtsey registered the game-winner on a 1-yard plunge, but I’ll always remember Robert Edwards running for three TDs and most of his 72 yards during the overtime. He, too, did not start the game.

This game also is famous for another iconic moment. Georgia mascot Uga V tried to take a bite out of the leg of Auburn receiver Robert Baker, who made the mistake of running toward the bulldog after one of his two first-half touchdowns.

No. 4: April 14, 1996: Greg Norman folds in Masters. I've never been a "golf writer," per se, but it's a sport I love to play and to watch and have written about a lot over the years. I've been fortunate to be assigned to cover great Masters tournaments often in a secondary role, about 16 times, I think.

I have to say it’s my favorite event of all to cover. There is no organization that treats the media better than the membership of Augusta National. And, as we all know, the competition almost always is resplendent with drama.

That was unexpectedly the case in 1996 when I was dispatched to follow Greg Norman in the final round. It was expected to be a coronation for the dynamic Aussie known as the "The Great White Shark" as he was the dominant force in golf at the time despite never winning this particular major. He entered the day with a six-stroke lead. The thinking was to gather some background and color as Norman secured the first of what surely would be several green jackets.

Instead, I ended up chronicling one of the colossal collapses in the history of major championship golf.

By the time Norman reached the ninth hole, his lead over Nick Faldo was reduced to only three strokes. After his 100-yard approach spun back off the No. 9 green, it was down to two. When he three-putted the No. 11 green, it was gone altogether.

I don’t revel in another man’s failings, and I certainly didn’t then. In fact, witnessing the collapse unfold was excruciating. I noted every grimace on Norman’s face and contortion of his body. He was dying out there, and it was evident.

Conversely, I remember almost nothing about Faldo other than he seemed almost robotic that day. Well, at least until the final hole. You could tell Faldo felt compassion for his slain competitor. Surely, Faldo deserves much credit for turning a six-stroke deficit into a five-stroke win. But it’s Norman that I’ll always remember.

» MORE: Michael Cunningham's 5Mark Bradley's 5

No. 3: April 10, 2005: Tiger chips in on No. 16 at Augusta. I wasn't standing anywhere near the No. 16 green in 2005 when Tiger Woods executed one of the greatest golf shots of all time. I was up by the Augusta National clubhouse, underneath the "Big Oak," as we call it. That's where many reporters camp out toward the end of each round of the Masters. It puts us behind the ropes from fans and between the players and their locker room after they complete their rounds. In short, they can't avoid us.

I can’t even recall now who I was stationed there to intercept. The major players in the final outcome are always escorted to the media building for post-tournament interviews. Meanwhile, being under the Oak is probably the worst place to follow the action that’s taking place out on the course, other than to watch the scores going up on the giant scoreboard by the 18th green.

Everyone around me was straining to follow what was going on that late afternoon. It looked as though Chris DiMarco might be pulling off a great upsets. DiMarco had drawn within a single stroke and was in birdie range on the 16th green while Woods had pulled his tee shot left and was “in jail” in the rough below the hole.

Everybody knows what happened next.

After prowling around the green from seemingly every angle, Woods finally stood over his chip shot and aimed considerably left of the pin. My vantage point for what we were about to witness was a tiny viewing monitor provided by a TV crew from China, who was kind enough to let a half-dozen reporters, maybe more, lean all over each other and crane our necks every which-way to get a look.

Alas, we heard it before we saw it. The roar that followed the teetering drop of Woods’ ball into the cup literally shook the ground we were standing on several hundred yards away from the 16 green. We knew Woods made it a couple of seconds before we saw how it happened on that miniature screen.

People forget that it wasn’t over then. Woods bogeyed 17 and 18 and had to win the title in a playoff, which he did with a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 18.

A while later, after the excitement had subsided and we all were feverishly recounting what we’d witnessed on our laptops, I got a first look at the shot then-AJC photographer Brant Sanderlin had gotten of the moment. It was an all-timer, with that Nike swoosh just starting its descent on the cup’s lip with Tiger his caddy and hundreds astonished faces in the background.

No. 2: Sept. 9, 2017: Georgia 20, Notre Dame 19. I had been writing about Georgia's foray into South Bend for its historic trip to Notre Dame for months. In fact, I'd made my first excursion to the area the preceding spring. I spent four days on the campus in April getting familiar with the program and the people and letting Georgia fans know what they were in for.

The Bulldogs hadn't played the Fighting Irish since their national championship in the Sugar Bowl in 1980 and never in South Bend. So the excitement was palpable by the time the second week of September arrived. There was such great fervor that my bosses didn't mind sending me to South Bend for the whole week of the game.

One of the storylines I’d reported over the summer was the tremendous demand for tickets by the Bulldog Nation. Rumor had it that it might be the greatest migration of opposing fans in the history of Notre Dame football. Record sums were being paid for tickets on the secondary market and at least one Georgia ticket broker was jailed for misdealing with people’s money. But nobody could say for sure how many of the Bulldogs’ fans were going to show up.

Turns out, more than Notre Dame’s esteemed program had ever seen. An exact number was never revealed, but judging from the scene I witnessed from the press box just moments before the 8 p.m. prime-time kickoff, fully half of the 80,000-seat facility was occupied by red-and-black fans.

The competition that ensued was worthy all the attention the game garnered both locally and nationally. It featured an incredible performance by a freshman quarterback named Jake Fromm, the greatest touchdown reception I've ever witnessed in the one-handed, finger-tip grab of Terry Godwin and a come-from-behind victory secured on the game-winning field goal of a walk-on place-kicker who was anointed a scholarship during the locker-room celebration.

Georgia won 20-19 in a game that would foreshadow the great things to come that season.

No. 1: Jan. 1, 2018: Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48 (2OT). The Bulldogs just playing in the Rose Bowl was qualification enough to make this a special event. Georgia had been there only once before, Jan. 1, 1943. Viewing the San Gabriel Mountains from the press box as they reflected indescribable colors from a setting sun validated that this would be for me a memorable experience.

Then the competition unfolded.

I’ve often told people that the contest between No. 2 Oklahoma and the No. 3 Bulldogs featured almost everything one would want to see in a football game. Sure, it had high stakes as a College Football Playoff semifinal. But there were long runs, long passes, long field goals and lots of scoring. There were interceptions and fumbles. There were defensive stands and a blocked field-goal attempt. There were two overtimes and a Georgia victory on the sweetest of play-calls to a much-deserving senior named Sony Michel.

In the end, the scoreboard read Bulldogs 54, Sooners 48. I wouldn't have bet against Georgia as the Bulldogs and their adoring throng left Pasadena for what seemed like a date with destiny at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Had that next one turned out differently, this game would be No. 2 on my list. But the Rose Bowl won't soon forget the visit from the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs, and I won't either.

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