Editor's note: As No. 11 Georgia readies for its last home game of the year against No. 22 Georgia Tech on Saturday, we take a Pilgrimage to Sanford Stadium -- the storied football
home of the Bulldogs -- and profile its history, traditions and remarkably popular canine
mascot via our earlier travels to Athens, Ga., for UGA's opening game of the 2008 season.
It was what you would call a dog day. An oppressive humidity had shrouded this college town, turning Sanford Stadium into the world's largest outdoor sauna.
Everyone in town must have gotten the memo, because all in the crowd seemed to dress alike. The men had an affinity for red coach's shirts and khaki cargo shorts, while the women favored sundresses, often accompanied by pearl strings.
On another day those outfits would probably present the very picture of genteel Southern sophistication. But on this steamy afternoon the sweat-soaked faithful looked more like extras in a remake of "Body Heat."
"The hottest game I can ever remember in Sanford Stadium," said Sonny Seiler, who has been a fixture here for more than a half-century. "One hundred degrees on the field and muggy."
Georgia and Georgia Southern wouldn't tee it up "between the hedges" for another 20 minutes on this last weekend in August, but most of the 92,746 fans had already settled into their seats, and there wasn't a dry shirt in the house.
Given the day's poignant subtext, it's a wonder there was a dry eye.
It was a somber offseason in Athens, and not just because eight football players were arrested. More moving -- and more unexpected -- was the June 27 death of Uga VI, the English bulldog who passed away from heart failure after serving as the school's mascot for nine years and 114 games -- a longer tenure than any of his predecessors.
"It was emotional for all of us," said Seiler, the Savannah attorney who has been the guardian of Uga -- and one of college football's best traditions -- since 1956. "We're still thinking about Uga VI, but we had to get Uga VII ready."
On this day, under a pale-blue sky swirled with creamy clouds, the Bulldogs would put their gloomy summer in the past, assuming their place as the nation's No. 1 ranked team.
But before they could do so, another transfer of power was necessary. The Bulldog family couldn't say hello to their new place atop the college football world -- however fleeting it would be -- until they said goodbye to Uga VI, the old friend who kept it grounded over most of the past decade.
Many of those in attendance had already paid their respects, visiting the mausoleum where Uga VI is interred, along with his five predecessors, in the southwest corner of Sanford Stadium.
At 9 a.m., Seiler and his son, Charles, stopped by the memorial, as they do before every game, for a moment of reflection. They stood silently, read the inscriptions on each vault and left red chrysanthemums. It's there that people sometimes ask Seiler which of the bulldogs was his favorite; when they do, his answer is always the same: "The one we have now."
"Kind with a big heart that finally played out," reads Uga VI's epitaph on a gold plaque set against a marble vault.
At noon, a 10-year-old boy stood in front of the monument, showing his respect for the bloodline by wearing a T-shirt with a photo of Uga V's famous 1996 lunge toward Auburn receiver Robert Baker emblazoned on the back.
Others would pat a bronze bulldog statue on the head, then slowly pass memorials for six generations of Georgia mascots. Some left flowers; some commemorated the occasion with pictures. This is serious stuff in Athens. When UGA VI passed away, the university flew its flag at half-staff.
At 12:15 p.m., a video tribute to UGA VI was played on the big screen and the crowd erupted. In the front row, nine shirtless Georgia students spelled out "Thanks UGA" on their chests in red and black, à la David Puddy.
So Georgia's season begins with an ending.
Moments later, Georgia's new top dog -- who does wear a shirt -- was chauffeured onto the field in a golf cart. Uga VII himself appears to be the strong, silent type, but fans barked their approval and serenaded him with the traditional chant of "Damn good dog." (See sidebar for more on the installation of Uga VII and the Uga tradition.)
When the canine saunters off the field, it's time for football or, as PA announcer Brook Whitmire said, "It's Saturday afternoon in Athens, and it's time to tee it up between the hedges."
Six other SEC schools now have hedges at their football stadiums, but there's still only one place where teams play between them. Grantland Rice first coined the phrase when the legendary sportswriter was working for the Atlanta Constitution.
Wrigley Field has its ivy, AT&T Park has its impeccable view of the San Francisco Bay and Sanford Stadium has its incomparable shrubbery.
Officially, the hedges are of the English privet variety, and they have encircled the field since Georgia took on Yale in the first game played there in 1929. The hedges were removed and later replaced so soccer could be played at Sanford Stadium during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Sanford is built into the side of a hill and blends seamlessly with the rural splendor of Georgia's campus. The stadium is named for Steadman Sanford, the university president who was the force behind the $360,000 construction of the stadium.
Sanford could not have found a more idyllic setting for a college stadium; it sits squarely in the middle of Georgia's campus, as if it were the university's beating heart.
That heartbeat extends beyond those famous privet hedges. Behind them, along a field-level promenade, freaks, Greeks and football geeks meander before and during games, getting an up-close feel for the game. Strolling behind the hedges is practically like having a sideline pass to Bulldog football.