ATLANTA -- When Parris Lee and his Georgia State teammates trotted onto the field and saw all those blue-clad fans -- nearly 5,000 more than turned out for a major league baseball game a couple of miles away -- they knew that all those dreary practices, all those lonely workouts over past two years had been worth it.
"I was so surprised at how it looked. It was beautiful," said Lee, a redshirt freshman running back. "The football team has definitely brought a new spirit to Georgia State athletics."
Lee felt even better when he scored the first touchdown in school history Thursday night, sparking the Panthers to a 41-7 rout of Shorter in an inaugural game that also marked Bill Curry's return to coaching after a 14-year absence.
Everyone was amazed by the crowd of 30,237 at the Georgia Dome, nearly all of them decked out in Panther blue. The student turnout was so large they opened up sections of the club level in the mammoth stadium, best known as home of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
This from a school that averaged barely over 1,000 a game for its men's basketball team last season.
"I hope they all come back," Curry said, "and bring their friends."
Lee scored another touchdown in the third quarter, and Drew Little tossed a pair of TD passes to lead the Panthers, who are playing this season as an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision independent. They had no trouble against Shorter (0-2), a tiny NAIA school from northwest Georgia that lost its opening game to West Alabama 37-7.
Still, Curry was pleased with the way his fledgling program, comprised mostly of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen, performed in its debut.
"I knew we had some pretty good talent," he said. "Still, you don't know how they're going to perform when the lights come on."
The Panthers did just fine, at least against an overmatched opponent.
Lee scored on a 4-yard run with 9:07 left in the first quarter for the historic first TD in school history. He wasn't even sure he scored, thinking he might have been stopped about a foot short. But an official came running in with his arms in the air, ruling that Lee stuck the nose of the ball over the line.
"Drew ran up to me and said, 'You scored!' I was like, 'I scored?" Lee said, breaking into a big smile. "Then it hit me. All the linemen jumped on me. That was a great experience that will live with me for the rest of my life."
He added a 10-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
Little threw a 4-yard scoring pass to Emmanuel Ogbuehi and a 16-yarder to Jordan Giles. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt freshman won the starting quarterback job that many expected to go to Star Jackson, who had transferred to Georgia State after backing up Greg McElroy on Alabama's national championship team last season.
Jackson was going to be benched for the first half anyway for what was described as a minor violation of team rules, but Little had already claimed the No. 1 spot. He completed 13 of 17 for 135 yards.
"We had four quarterbacks we knew we could win with," Curry said. "We told them that the first one who masters our system will be the one who plays. It's a complicated system. We've for a lot of formations, a lot of combinations. Drew was the one who mastered it."
Wearing a white shirt, tan pants and a headset, the 67-year-old coach watched much of the game pacing between the 45-yard lines, occasionally barking out a call or lecturing a player with his arms wrapped around the shoulder pads. After the clock ran out, Curry walked off the field with his grandson, Elliott.
The former coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky figured he was back where he belonged -- on the sidelines, coaching a group of young men for the first time since he was forced out by the Wildcats in 1996.
"People say he's too old. He must be nuts," Curry quipped. "Yeah, he's nuts."
Georgia State had only planned to sell seats in the lower bowl of the 71,000-seat Georgia Dome, but the large turnout forced a quick audible.
The Panthers actually outdrew the Atlanta Braves, who played about 2 miles away at Turner Field. They lost to the New York Mets 4-2 before an announced crowd of 24,893.
Georgia State scored on its very first possession, taking advantage of two crucial penalties on the Hawks. The Panthers were stopped on third down around midfield and punted the ball away, but Shorter was penalized for too many men on the field.
An interference penalty cost them another 15 yards, and Lee took it on in to send the big, largely blue-clad crowd into a frenzy.
"I love Georgia State football!" a fan sitting near the end zone screamed, throwing his arms in the air.
That's just what this school, located in the heart of downtown Atlanta, was hoping for when it launched a football program more than two years ago -- something to fire up an increasingly large number of traditional students who now live on a campus that used to cater mainly to commuters.
"The team was shocked by what they saw," defensive captain Brandon Jones said. "The team really came together when we saw all that fan support."