Georgia vs. Florida: Reckoning with a very COVID Cocktail Party
In my 20-plus years of making late October/early November pilgrimages to Jacksonville to see a college football game, I’ve seen some strange Cocktail Parties.
I’ve seen Rex Grossman, playing with a sprained knee, take a 4-3 Florida team and throw for 339 yards to beat a top 5 Georgia team in 2002.
I’ve seen Urban Meyer and his offensive coordinator, some guy named Dan Mullen, tweak their offense in a bye week to get just enough out of a young Chris Leak to beat another top 5 Georgia team in 2005.
I’ve seen a whole football team in red and black go full flash mob in an end zone after scoring a first-quarter touchdown.
As you’d expect from a game named for its tailgating parties, the zaniness begins away from the football field.
I’ve been invited to eat game day brunch with Georgia coeds in cocktail dresses beneath elaborate party tents equipped with candelabras and served on what looked like wedding china. I’ve seen a Gators fan with a makeshift tiki bar serving bloody marys to any Georgia fan willing to bark like a dog on video. I’ve seen a young police officer peer over a struggling fan on the ground and after dutifully calling for help, announce loudly that she’s “going to chalk this one up to alcohol.” I’ve seen a jort-clad Gators fan with a foghorn hurl profanities while standing in the bed of a moving pickup truck. I’ve seen a Georgia fan walk a live alligator on a leash. And regrettably, I’ve seen couples regardless of collegiate allegiance disappear to talk big business together in a solitary port-a-potty.
I wrote about my late Uncle Chuck last year, and how he made the Cocktail Party his masterpiece. I’ve seen him offer a handkerchief to Georgia coeds so distraught over defeat their mascara was running from thick tears.
I’ve seen more than my fair share of wack-a-doodle fans on both sides in tailgate lots before games over the years, but I’ll never forget one boisterous Georgia fan who approached me and my Uncle Chuck before the 2008 game. He wore red pants with black suspenders and was making animal noises and when he reached Uncle Chuck, he leaned in close and made a sniffing sound.
“Just as I suspected,” the man sneered, as Uncle Chuck smiled. “Mothballs.”
We laughed and laughed and quickly offered the man a bourbon, because if there was one thing he seemed to need, it was another drink.
Somewhere, as you read this, some Georgia fan had a similar interaction with a well-lubricated Gator.
The Georgia-Florida game (it’s rightfully called Georgia-Florida or Florida-Georgia depending on who won the prior year, and no other explanation is correct or fair) is often weird.
It’s so weird a Florida punter once kicked a game-winning field goal. It’s so weird that Georgia forced 6 turnovers in 2012 but didn’t seal the game until Florida’s All-American tight end, Jordan Reed, fumbled at the goal line late. Heck, this game is so weird that Treon Harris not only started this game twice but beat Georgia twice, including one game where he attempted only 6 passes (it turns out it’s easy to win when you have 418 yards rushing).
Strange things are often afoot on the banks of the St. John’s.
I’ve seen a Florida head coach who couldn’t wait to resign coach the game and get humiliated, 42-7. I’ve seen Florida blame wristbands for a slow start on offense. And lately, I’ve seen Georgia hire their version of Steve Spurrier, a guy in Kirby Smart who understands how meaningful this rivalry is because he played in it and more often than not, lost in it. He refuses to do that as a head coach.
Come to enough Cocktail Parties and eventually, you’ll about see it all.
This year’s socially-distanced, tailgate-free Cocktail Party may be, at least away from the football field, the strangest yet. Certainly this very COVID Cocktail Party will be the most surreal.
Is it really a Georgia-Florida game without the Cocktail Party? How strange will the whole thing feel with only 18,000 fans?
A morning Saturday stroll through the JAX Fairgrounds lot will probably feel eerie and apocalyptic without the usual flood of RVs, Dawgs and Gators flags, grills cooking burgers and green eggs smoking briskets.
A few events pressed on.
As they have for four decades, Jekyll Island Golf Club hosted a Georgia-Florida golf tournament this week. A Florida-Georgia classic redfish tournament held annually near Green Cove Springs will go forward Friday morning. But too many events, from the Hall of Fame Luncheon, the Bold City Bash to the opening of RV City have all been shut down this season, all sober reminders of a year full of absence and far too much loss.
Will that make losing the Cocktail Party even harder on the team that fails this season? It may.
Someone will lose, of course. When they do, they and the select few fans fortunate enough to see it in person will trudge out of TIAA Bank Field and march sadly toward their socially-distanced parked cars. They will feel the heaviness of the humid, river autumn air in their bones. The night sky will feel darker and the landscape grayer, a grim cocktail of 2020’s general sadness and the specific pain of crushing Cocktail Party defeat. The loss will linger, a melancholy malaise that feels a bit like the 2nd day of January.
Maybe that’s why, more than ever, it’s the football game itself that matters so much this season.
Everyone knows the game’s likely stakes. Yet again, a top-10 matchuip. For both teams, a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game and with it, a shot at the College Football Playoff. For Georgia, the chance to beat the hated Gators for a fourth consecutive time, which would mark the longest Georgia winning streak since the Dawgs won 6 in a row under Vince Dooley from 1978-1983. For Florida and Mullen, a chance to show that while Georgia may win recruiting national championships, the Gators will be a consistent foil to the seemingly inevitable march to an eventual national championship for the Dawgs under Smart.
The Cocktail Party has always been about more than football. It’s a part of the fabric of plenty of well-lived lives, on either side of this heated, magnificent rivalry. It’s forged friendships and fueled plenty of memorable family moments. We won’t forget that stuff even if it’s socially-distanced and subdued this week. We’ll just remember the football game a little more.