It was an undeniable blessing when I, a college kid and part-time sports writer, was given the assignment to cover a University of Georgia football game. What I didn’t know at the time is that that one assignment would provide a springboard to bigger opportunities as well as giving me friendships that remain many years later.
Back in those days of the 1980s, Georgia had recently won a national championship under legendary coach Vince Dooley as well as produced a Heisman winner in Herschel Walker. Alabama’s Bear Bryant had retired – then up and died four weeks later – before I arrived on the scene. In his place had come Ray Perkins, a tough, non-smiling man who, at times, could make Nick Saban look like Mr. Congeniality.
Within a year, I became a full-time beat reporter for the Bulldogs thus making me the first woman to cover an SEC football team full-time, which meant Tuesday afternoon practices and press conferences and Saturday games both in Sanford Stadium and on the road. Like Saban, who was knocked to the ground during the Clemson game, I was once accidentally tumbled by a Georgia player. The difference is that I was in a skirt and heels and was picked up and dusted off by Atlanta television broadcaster, Bill Hartman, whose father Bill Sr., was a former All-American and assistant Georgia coach.
It was the only rough encounter I had while covering SEC football. A petite girl in the presence of athletic giants. They all, particularly Coach Dooley, treated me with respect and courtliness. Only twice can I recall another female reporter in the press box of a SEC football game I was covering. One was a reporter who normally covered ACC but had been called into duty for the day. Another was a features reporter who was assigned a tailgating story.
Claude Felton was the Sports Information Director at Georgia back then and, to this very day, my heart softens at the mere mention of his name. He treated me with kindness and steadfastly saw that I was given equal treatment with the experienced, cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking guys who were my counterparts.
To eliminate any problem with “locker room” interviews, Claude would query each reporter in the press box during the end of the third quarter and ask which football players we wished to interview post-game. Halfway through the fourth quarter, Claude assembled us and marched us down to the sidelines to see the final few moments of the game, then into a common area outside the locker room where the requested players waited.
It was so easy. So fair. So without controversy.
It was from the Georgia sideline that I stood close by to Kevin Butler as he kicked a record-breaking field goal — a stunning 60-yarder — to beat the No. 2-ranked Clemson Tigers in the final second of the game.
I followed the Bulldogs to Dallas, Texas, where they met the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the Cotton Bowl. All week, I had been the only female to attend the daily press conferences of Dooley and Texas’ Fred Akers. It wasn’t being the only woman there that made me proud. I was proud of the entire week’s wardrobe of new wool suits and silk blouses that Mama had sewn for me, all with matching high heels.
Since Georgia was picked to lose by no less than 10 points, I wanted at least to look good. But that day, I learned a great lesson: that, on any given day, an underdog can win. The Bulldogs thrilled their fans with a 10-9 win and upset the entire national championship rankings.
Vince and Barbara Dooley remain two of my dearest friends. I still adore Claude Felton. And once I even saw Ray Perkins smile when he opened the door for me at a SEC gathering in Birmingham and asked, “How are you, young lady?”
It was all such a blessing.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.