It’s a long drive from Indianapolis to St. Simons Island, Ga. Total, it’s roughly 14.5 hours, give or take with pitstops. Candler Cook made that trip — with a pitstop to pick up some things from home in Atlanta — the day after his Georgia Bulldogs won their first national championship since 1980.

Not only did he graduate from UGA with 2 degrees after growing up as a diehard fan, but he also gained over 100 pounds so that he could earn a spot on the team as a walk-on for Mark Richt’s squad. The Cook family became even more frequent spectators of Georgia football.

Candler’s dad, Gregg, was supposed to be with his son during Georgia’s Playoff run. Under normal circumstances, Candler, who is a season-ticket holder, would’ve brought his dad to Miami for the Orange Bowl and then up to Indianapolis for the title game against Alabama.

But the last game they attended together was the Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville. In the weeks that followed that picturesque day in late October, Gregg’s health deteriorated. By the time the SEC Championship rolled around, Gregg had decided not to travel and to instead set up a doctors appointment.

On Dec. 14, the Cook family got devastating news. Gregg had pancreatic cancer, and it was terminal.

Instead of having his dad by his side when the clock hit zero on Georgia’s drought-ending victory against Alabama, Candler settled for a phone call to his sister, who was able to put Gregg on the phone to reminisce about the game. Gregg was exactly 1 week from dying, but on that night, he mustered enough energy to stay awake for the second half.

“Part of me wonders as his health was deteriorating if he was holding out wanting that to be one last hurrah,” Candler said.

Little did Gregg know that there was 1 more Georgia hurrah waiting for him after the title game.

When Candler got to St. Simons Island, he and his 3 sisters (Carsen, Courtlyn and Cayden) stayed with their dad in hospice care. “There’s really not much you can do,” he said. Non-family visitors were about to be few and far between in the 10-by-10 foot room, so Candler came up with a shot-in-the-dark idea to try and lift his dad’s spirits.

“Time was very short. I thought, what could I do that would just be a nice touch that he could hear from some people that he knew?” Cook said.

There was a text thread that Candler was on with a bunch of his former Georgia teammates and coaches. Some were All-Americans, some were assistants who moved on to other programs. Since 2012, the only time that someone texted in that specific group was when a couple of guys sent well wishes to Richt after his Parkinson’s diagnosis in July 2021.

A few days before Candler arrived in St. Simons, he had actually run into Richt at a pre-national championship tailgate in Indianapolis. Richt had contributed to Candler’s 2019 autobiographical book “From Underdog to Bulldog,” so they had communicated since they were in Athens together, but it wasn’t your typical conversation between former player and coach. Candler told Richt that he was praying for him, and that led to a discussion about Gregg’s recent cancer diagnosis.

Fast forward to Candler and his sisters waiting with their dad in hospice care. Why not see if Richt and a few former teammates and coaches could share some kind words with Gregg, Candler thought. Within 3 minutes of informing the dormant text thread about his dad’s declining health, Richt responded with a 1-minute video for Gregg. Even more remarkable was that Richt’s video was recorded while he was getting Parkinson’s treatment.

“He obviously could’ve waited until he was home,” Cook said. “But it was that important to him to get it done right that second.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Gregg only had another day or 2 with his vision. But he saw perfectly clear who was on the other end of Candler’s phone.

“His eyes lit up,” Candler said. “And it was sort of like, once Coach Richt replied, everyone had to reply.”

In all, 3 coaches and 6 former Georgia teammates responded with a personalized video for Gregg. Former teammates like offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and punter Drew Butler sent videos, as did former Georgia assistants Rodney Garner (now at Tennessee) and Todd Grantham (most recently at Florida).

Grantham and Gregg actually used to chat at Parents Weekend or during the weekend of the Georgia spring game. Gregg remembered that Grantham loved tomatoes so he started bringing him tomatoes from the family garden.

When Candler sent the initial text, Grantham called him within minutes (he remembered the tomatoes). Grantham followed that up by sending a video for Gregg, wherein he told him to stay strong and that he was happy that he got to watch Georgia win it all.

It didn’t matter that Grantham was more recently on the other sideline with Florida, or that Garner had moved on to Tennessee. Everyone in that text thread had moved on since 2012.

“One thing that the videos emphasized,” Candler said, “was that no one is ever really alone even if it feels like it.”

Candler was alongside family when his died exactly 1 week after the national championship. The Cooks got to attend a play at the local theater that Gregg was supposed to be a part of. But once the cancer diagnosis came and he couldn’t act in the show, Gregg shifted his role in the production to a starter on a golf course so that they could pre-record his lines and play them over the theater’s PA system. In addition to Gregg’s family, his college buddies and his St. Simons friends all got one more chance to at least hear him in action.

Those are the memories that Candler will hold on to. Of course, he had plenty of them related to Georgia football.

There were plenty of times in the pre-SEC Network days when Gregg and Candler would chow down on wings at a sports bar to watch Georgia in a non-national TV game. Gregg got to witness Candler live out his lifelong dream of suiting up and appearing in a Georgia game for the first time as a 5th-year senior. Candler will always appreciate the little moments, like when his dad somehow snuck into the postgame press conference after the 2011 season-opener in Atlanta, or when he ended up on the sideline during a Georgia game at Arkansas in War Memorial Stadium.

It was only fitting that in Gregg’s final week, he got 1 more unique Georgia experience.

“It was just amazing to see how much a part of your life it stays,” Cook said. “It’s always just a community and a team.”