Thousands of football fans still headed south for Georgia-Florida

John Branyan (R) and his wife Mary have attended the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville for 41 years in a row, not including 1994 and '95 when the game was played on the school's respective campus. Most of those trips were made with their friends Dale and Marilyn Lamb of Moreland (left), who posed with them Wednesday at the rental house on St. Simons Island they will share this week. (Photo provided)
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John Branyan (R) and his wife Mary have attended the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville for 41 years in a row, not including 1994 and '95 when the game was played on the school's respective campus. Most of those trips were made with their friends Dale and Marilyn Lamb of Moreland (left), who posed with them Wednesday at the rental house on St. Simons Island they will share this week. (Photo provided)

ATHENS – John Branyan’s streak of attending Georgia-Florida games in Jacksonville would be even longer than 41 years if it hadn’t been for Richard Appleby-to-Gene Washington. That famous trick play – an 80-yard touchdown pass from the reversing tight end Appleby to the streaking wide receiver Washington – lifted the Bulldogs to a 10-7 win over Florida in 1975.

That was the second Georgia-Florida game that Branyan, a UGA graduate then in the Army, ever attended. To say he enjoyed it would be an understatement.

“I acted so bad that my wife put me on probation,” Branyan said with a laugh. “She wouldn’t let me go back for three years.”

Branyan, we’re happy to report, remains married to his wife, Mary. And they have been going to Jacksonville every year since that probation was lifted in 1979. In fact, they were headed back down that way again Wednesday afternoon.

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Like every year for the past four decades, the Branyans were meeting their friends Marilyn and Dale Lamb of Moreland and two other couples at a rented four-bedroom house on St. Simons Island. There will be a major difference this year, however.

They won’t be attending Saturday’s game at TIAA Bank Field.

“Being in our 70s now, we’re just thinking we didn’t want to take the chance of getting around a lot of people we really don’t know and all that,” said Branyan, now a 70-year-old retiree living in Athens. “So, we decided let’s just stay on St. Simons and enjoy it and watch the game on TV and have a good time that way.”

Actually, that’s a decision that hundreds of Georgia fans made this week as the Bulldogs and Gators renew their rivalry for the 99th time, No. 88 in the decidedly neutral northeast Florida city of Jacksonville.

Branyan has attended close to half of those games. Counted individually, he’s been to 39 of the games in the stadium that still resides next to the St. Johns River. He didn’t go to the two games that were played on the school’s respective campuses in 1994 and ’95 while the Gator Bowl was being razed and rebuilt into what it is today.

Count the Branyans among the majority of Georgia fans who like this game being played in Jacksonville.

“It’s just such a unique atmosphere,” Branyan said. “That’s what I’m gonna miss on Saturday. There aren’t hardly any of teams in the country that have anything like it, with all the carrying on, the RV Park and all the craziness around the stadium.”

Thanks to the unrelenting coronavirus pandemic, there will be none of that this year. While Georgia and Florida are being allowed to keep their game in Jacksonville, they’ll be doing so with limitations:

  1. The ticket allotments were reduced from 40,000 apiece to a little under 9,000 per school to allow for social distancing in the stadium.
  2. Once inside, spectators must wear masks the entire time, except for when eating or drinking.
  3. The famous RV Park to which Branyan refers has been shut down.
  4. Likewise tailgating and all other gatherings and events had been banned outside the stadium and on the fairgrounds.
  5. Alcohol has been banned from the beaches for the week.

“It should mirror the experiences in Athens and Gainesville, with parking lots opening three hours before the kickoff,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said. “The one thing that has always surrounded this game has been the ability to congregate, with RV City and all the tailgating, the Hall of Fame ceremony, the Friday night activities. None of that’s just not in play this year. The focus is on the game itself.”

There’s plenty of entertainment value in that alone. For the third year in a row, Georgia and Florida will be a top-10 matchup. The loser of the game between the fifth-ranked Bulldogs (4-1) and the No. 8 Gators (3-1) will be effectively eliminated from the SEC Eastern Division race, not to mention any chance at a College Football Playoff berth.

That’s why Robert Wolfe and his crew are planning to attend the game, as per usual. Wolfe, who has been going to Jacksonville every year since 1988, made that decision months ago.

“Well, it’s just what we do,” said Wolfe, a 49-year-old UGA graduate who resides in Charlotte. “It’s always been a tradition for me to go down with a group of friends, stay in St. Simons, go the game. Back when the COVID thing started, me and my friends just made the decision we were still going to go if we could. We know things are going to be different this year, but we still want to be there.”

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Georgia fan Robert Wolfe (far right) and his wife, J.J., will be unable to host their annual tailgate party on the fairgrounds outside TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville as they've done for the past 20 years. (Shared photo)

Georgia fan Robert Wolfe (far right) and his wife, J.J., will be unable to host their annual tailgate party on the fairgrounds outside TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville as they've done for the past 20 years. (Shared photo)
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Georgia fan Robert Wolfe (far right) and his wife, J.J., will be unable to host their annual tailgate party on the fairgrounds outside TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville as they've done for the past 20 years. (Shared photo)

There will be sacrifices. Wolfe and his wife, J.J., won’t be able to host their popular tailgate on stadium grounds, attended by 75 to 100 people every year. And there are no dinner-out plans on St. Simons or in Jacksonville. They’ve resolved that everything they eat is going to be either takeout or cook in.

But Wolfe said that’s a small price to pay.

“I mean, this is the path to the championship; the road to Atlanta runs through Jacksonville,” Wolfe said. “That’s the reason I’m going this weekend, to see the Dogs beat the Gators.”

McGarity said UGA had about the same percentage of opt-outs as it did for games at Sanford Stadium. That is, about 50 percent. But the Bulldogs were able to easily sell their entire allotment of tickets.

“What we’re seeing is consistent with what we’ve been seeing all year,” McGarity said. “You’ve for a segment of our fan base that wants to attend events and a segment that doesn’t have the desire.”

Count John and Mary Branyan among the latter. But they didn’t want miss the cool drinks and warm sunshine that have turned this game into a fall vacation.

“It’s just such a tradition and was so enjoy going down and just relaxing and having a good time,” Branyan said. “So we just said, 'why stop? Why not just go down and watch the game from our condo?”

Why not? It’s a plan being shared by many this year.

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