ROCKINGHAM — As he watched his alma mater prepare for the College Football Playoff National Championship game against Alabama on Monday night, Bryan Till realized how long he and the Georgia fanbase had been waiting for that moment.
Seeing former running back Herschel Walker, who served as the team’s honorary captain, on the sideline brought back memories of him as a young Bulldog fan watching the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner “leap over lines and run over guys.”
Till wasn’t even 2 years old when Walker and former head coach Vince Dooley, also in attendance, helped the program win its first and only national championship in 1980, but those were the years that shaped his love for the University of Georgia — where he eventually spent his undergraduate years — and the game of football.
“I remember the first time I saw Georgia lose on TV. I was crying because I wasn’t used to seeing them lose,” Till said with a laugh. “It was really refreshing, and neat, to see those guys back. Seeing that was really nostalgic in a lot of ways.
“That’s kind of a (once in a) lifetime thing,” he continued. “I’ve got a feeling now of how (Chicago) Cubs fans and Boston Red Sox fans felt waiting for stuff to come back for a while.”
Georgia seemed to be on its way to ending the 28-year drought after freshman quarterback Jake Fromm hooked up with sophomore wideout Mecole Hardmon for an 80-yard touchdown, which put the Bulldogs ahead 20-7 in the third quarter of Monday’s game.
Alabama, however, would not be denied in its quest to win its fifth national title in nine years, putting together one of the more classic title-game comebacks behind the play of freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — who replaced sophomore Jalen Hurts at the beginning of the second half.
Tagovailoa hadn’t played many significant minutes all season but was able to calmly lead a Crimson Tide offensive unit — that didn’t score any points in the first half — on college football’s biggest stage, finishing with 166 passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
His 14th and final completion, coming right after he was sacked for a loss of 16 yards on first down, was a 41-yard toss to freshman receiver DeVonta Smith for the game-winning touchdown in a thrilling 26-23 overtime victory.
“As a football fan, you can’t ask for much more than that,” Till said of the game’s finish. “Hats off to Coach (Nick) Saban for just the fortitude to make that decision on what he thought was best to put that freshman in. As a coach and as a fan, that’s just impressive to me.
“He wasn’t worried about any of the noise. He knew that was what was best for his football team and that’s what they did,” he continued. “I have a ton of respect for that decision and how they played out.”
With both the Bulldogs and the Tide ending Monday’s matchup with a true freshman under center, Till was reminded of his decision to start ninth grader Caleb Hood at quarterback this past season as a first-year head varsity coach at Richmond Senior High.
The fearlessness of both Fromm and Tagovailoa is something that Till saw, and still sees, in Hood as he develops his talents. And that’s what’s most important to Till: a player’s ability to produce at a high level when his number is called.
It’s never about the age.
“It wasn’t just the kid Tua (for Alabama), their leading receiver and rusher were true freshmen (in that game). That’s what you’re seeing in college football now,” Till said. “It speaks to how much better high school football has gotten around the country. Guys are being developed, not just physically but mentally, to be able to handle the load when stepping on that stage.”
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. by phone at 910-817-2673 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For stories, scores and updates, follow the Daily Journal’s sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.