When reds clash: Friendships, marriages, all manner of family ties tested by UGA-Alabama game

jkovac@macon.comNovember 30, 2012 

The big game was unfolding on TV -- Georgia vs. Alabama -- but John Steiner, at least on occasion, caught himself checking out the blue-eyed freshman coed. She had long blond hair. She was, as he would later put it, “Southern good-looking.”

He had never seen her before.

It was the night of Oct. 5, 2002. The Bulldogs, his favorite team, were on the road against the Crimson Tide in what has since become known in red-and-black lore as the “Man Enough” game.

An ex-Auburn coach had, in the run-up to the game, said Georgia wasn’t equipped to go toe-to-toe with the hosses from Tuscaloosa.

“Alabama is gonna line up and run the football and they’re gonna play defense and I don’t believe Georgia is man enough to beat that,” the old coach, Pat Dye, a Georgia native and former UGA standout, had said.

As the game wore on, even though the Dawgs were leading most of the night, the blonde coed who’d caught Steiner’s eye became more and more distant. Steiner, then a sophomore history major from Ringgold, couldn’t figure it.

Later on, the Bulldogs, trailing after a fourth-quarter interception was run back for a touchdown, kicked a field goal to secure a 27-25 win.

While he was celebrating, Steiner, still at a friend’s house in Athens where some of his buddies had gathered to watch the game, noticed that the blonde didn’t look so thrilled.

Here the Bulldogs had won, but she seemed downright depressed.

“What’s her problem?” Steiner wondered.

* * *

Days like today can become where-were-you moments in these parts.

Millions will flip on the tube for what amounts to a Rooseveltian fireside chat on a flat-screen. Millions. They will scream and holler at the action in the Georgia Dome, the SEC’s end-of-season bounce house as it were, where the winner balloons toward greatness and the loser goes poof.

Some will cuss Alabama and all it stands for. Others will cheer their Crimson Tide. Still others will hate the living daylights out of those Georgia Bulldogs, while most on this side of the Eastern-Central time zone will root for the Dawgs like there is no tomorrow.

For there may not be.

Seriously.

Oh, sure, the sun will rise and life will go on, but for the losers it will hurt. It will, maybe weeks from now, cease throbbing and go forever numb.

For the losers, there will be no monthlong magic-carpet ride of a buildup to college football’s championship, and no license to gloat, no SEC Championship T-shirts and no reading the next day’s sports pages to relive a contest they’d just as soon forget.

Now you might ask, “All this for football? A game?”

Yes and no. This Georgia-Alabama face-off is about more than hard-nosed recreation, more even than regional pride. This isn’t some jock version of Election Day, a red state against a crimson one. No, there is something more -- far more, mind you -- than victory or defeat at stake.

Glory is on the line.

Around here, glory won on the gridiron can sustain generations.

* * *

In 2006, a year or so after he graduated from UGA, John Steiner was at a concert in Athens. The alt-rock band Wilco was playing.

Steiner bumped into the pretty blonde from the night of the “Man Enough” game.

Her name was Beatrice Somerville, an art history major.

Steiner had seen her on occasion over the years through mutual friends, but they weren’t close. He got her phone number and by fall they were dating.

Beatrice, or Bea as she prefers, was from Birmingham.

She was born and raised an Alabama fan.

Worlds would collide on her wedding day.

* * *

It is no surprise that husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and all kinds of kin lend their hearts to rival college football teams.

Geography almost demands it. Take this year’s SEC championship showdown. The UGA and Alabama campuses lie but 250 or so miles apart. The schools’ home state’s largest cities are even cozier. Birmingham and Atlanta are more or less neighbors along Interstate 20.

Yet while hugs and kisses and holy matrimony may lead to the crossing of rival bounds and fork into the untidiest of bloodlines, two-team households have a way of carving out their own borders, at times straining, shall we say, interpersonal relations.

* * *

Last weekend, Misty Simpson was riding home to Winder with her Milledge­ville-born husband, Eric, after visiting his folks in Baldwin County for Thanksgiving.

She’s a Georgia grad, a devoted Bulldogs fan. Eric went to Georgia Southern and pulls for Alabama.

On their way home, Misty made a proposal. She said the Tide has won enough lately. She asked if Eric, just this once, pretty please, would join her in supporting her Dawgs.

“No way,” he said.

Then he added, “You’re crazy.”

In recent days, Bridget and Darin McDowell of Warner Robins have had friends, half joking, offer one of them their guest room as a safe haven.

Darin, who hails from the Yellowhammer State, is a Bama zealot. He has unfriended people on Facebook for bad-mouthing Alabama.

Bridget, his wife, lives and breathes Bulldogs. As a child, she and the Herschel Walker doll her Aunt Julie made her were inseparable.

So it’s complicated.

And, yes, divorce has been mentioned -- but only by those kidding them about their unswerving allegiances. The McDowells are pretty sure they’ll weather the weekend. Maybe. Four years ago, the last time their teams squared off, they didn’t speak to each until the following Monday.

The past week they’ve gotten along by avoiding talk of the showdown in Atlanta. “We don’t really egg each other on,” Bridget said.

But it isn’t like the McDowells can’t agree on anything. A while back they were friendly enough when they negotiated a name for their year-old black Lab. Darin insisted on Bryant, after the Tide’s legendary coach. Bridget vetoed that. She invoked Herschel. The pup’s name became Bryant Walker.

Meanwhile, Gena O’Shaughnessey of Macon refers to her own “little mixed-up family.”

She attended UGA in the Herschel era. Her youngest son is now on the tennis team at Alabama. Her husband, John, went to Tulane and roots for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

“He’s kind of the Switzerland in the whole ordeal,” Gena said.

She said she’ll be pulling for the Dogs against the Crimson Tide, but isn’t sure “what shade of red I’ll wear. But I’ll definitely have my silver britches on.”

Stafford Gudenrath of Macon and her husband, Field, grew up across the street from one another on Vista Circle.

After they graduated from Stratford Academy in the late ’90s, she went off to school in Athens. He headed for Tuscaloosa.

Stafford’s mom was a UGA girl. Stafford’s father went to Georgia Tech. Her brother graduated from Auburn. Field’s parents went to Georgia. Somehow, they all still claim one another.

Stafford and Field have a 15-month-old daughter named Maggie. The other day while her husband was at work, Stafford taught Maggie the UGA kickoff cheer: “Gooooo, Dawgs! Sic ’em! Woof-woof-woof!”

Maggie mastered the woofing part by the time her daddy got home. He was not pleased. He whispered “Roll Tide” in her ear.

No matter who wins, Field and Stafford are considering traveling to the national championship game in Miami.

“I’ll either be going with my husband,” Stafford said, “or my husband will be going with me.”

* * *

John Steiner, the Georgia boy, and Beatrice Somerville, the Alabama girl, were married Sept. 27, 2008.

He and Bea set the date a year in advance. When they went to schedule their reception at the Birmingham Country Club and asked if there were any openings, they were informed that they could have their choice of fall weekends.

“It’s football season,” a wedding planner said. “Nobody gets married during football season around here.”

John and Bea, who now live in Colorado, knew there might be football conflicts. Still, they went ahead and booked it.

Theirs would be an afternoon wedding with a dinner-hour reception.

When the big day arrived, they hosted a pre-wedding brunch. Some of the people on Bea’s side, Bama backers, attended the brunch and then flew to Athens for the game.

At the time, Georgia was ranked third in the country. Alabama was eighth. In the teams’ nine previous meetings dating back to 1984, Alabama had won four times to Georgia’s five. But the Dogs had taken three in a row.

By the time the reception got rolling, it was halftime.

There was a television set up and the game was on.

But John was busy being a good groom, caught up in the matrimonial blur.

In the back of his mind, though, he was thinking, “I really hope we win tonight.”

Then one of John’s groomsmen -- a Georgia fellow who was none too pleased to be at his buddy’s wedding, in enemy territory no less, while the Dawgs had their hands full with Bama back in Athens -- broke the news.

“Hey, man, it’s 31-0,” the groomsman said. “Alabama’s winning.”

It was a few days shy of six years that John had first laid eyes on Bea from Alabama. She had been upset that night in 2002.

Her school had won, but her team had lost.

On her wedding night, the tables turned.

Bea’s Crimson Tide triumphed 41-30.

But as John prefers to remember it, that night he and Bea were “celebrating something bigger than football.”

His bride was beautiful even if his Bulldogs were not.

And John had never seen her happier.

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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