The color of greatness. A symbol of reaching the peak. The desired finish line for Georgia as it dreams of hoisting a championship trophy with such luster.
Before that coveted moment, gold carries a contrasting meaning. Pressure. Spotlight, but not in the prettiest of ways. Georgia saw it through a pair of track shoes. Ahead of its 24-17 win over Florida, the Bulldogs watched a special feature on famed Olympian sprinter Michael Johnson. He emerged as one of the world’s best at his craft. He knew it. Everyone else did, too, and expected nothing other than optimal performance.
Johnson didn’t tune it out, but instead wore it. Georgia players listened to this message and envisioned Johnson in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta — a mere hour-and-a-half drive from where the Bulldogs watched this story being retold. Johnson ran in the 200- and 400-meter races with the hard-to-miss footgear.
His act served as a bold reference. Embrace the circumstances, don’t dim them. Expect greatness, and be willing to pursue it internally.
“That really spoke a lot of volumes,” safety Richard LeCounte said. “All of the pressure he had, he put it on himself. He was the main attraction on that platform, and it touched me that he was able to do that.”
Georgia finds itself in a similar situation. For three years, the Bulldogs have grazed the apex of national prominence. They’ve had the sought-after No. 1 ranking next to the “Power G” logo on television broadcasts. The team’s path has been similar, although Georgia enters the ninth game of the season at No. 6, and linebacker Monty Rice puts it bluntly.
When Georgia won its first handful of games, sat at No. 3 with a favorable schedule, Rice remembers the perception: “Everybody told us how good we are.”
After walking out of Sanford Stadium with a loss to South Carolina (who is in danger of falling below .500), the narrative drastically shifted. “Georgia sucks. Georgia this, Georgia that. We ain’t good,” Rice recalled.
Georgia realizes all of its season-long goals, even despite an unexpected loss, and eliminates outside chatter in order to pursue them. Enter the actions of Johnson, again. Head coach Kirby Smart knew the stakes of playing the Gators, even if he and his players never fully admitted it — a win puts the Bulldogs in prime position for a third-straight trip to Atlanta for the conference title, a loss squashes most hopes. Georgia wanted to wear the gold like Johnson. Smart wanted to powerfully remind his players to place tension on themselves, rather than letting other voices dictate the path of pressure.
Just like the guy who saw it pay off with four gold medals in three Olympic Games (1992 Barcelona, 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney).
“The men in this room,” Smart said, “they are the ones who matter. They make the decisions that determine the outcome of the game, nobody else.”
For its two biggest games of the season, Georgia has used the motivational tactic of past sports events. One might never think that a team’s fuel can come from looking at an instance 23 years prior, but Smart takes those messages seriously. He has a source ready to go on speed dial (well, if that exists anymore), and calls up Trevor Moawad for advice on where to turn for a boost.
Moawad runs a consulting group out of Scottsdale, Ariz., as a mental conditioning expert. He works with some of the premier athletes, including extensive work with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Moawad advised Georgia toward the Johnson video, and its impact was resounding for a game that essentially served as a playoff matchup. The Bulldogs watched a video of a 2005 UFC fight between Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg as an inspiration before the Notre Dame game, and the result was similar — a 23-17 win over the Fighting Irish.
Throughout a closely-contested bout in Jacksonville, the game’s final moments had the tension of a tight Olympic track meet. When Georgia prevailed, the celebrations mimicked that of winning gold. This didn’t serve as the end of the Bulldogs’ quest, but undoubtedly a massive stepping stone. Most of the critics were hushed. Georgia showed its mettle against a premier opponent after not having many opportunities previously to do so.
Those moments when Smart affectionately grabbed his quarterback by the face to congratulate him, when music blared through the team locker room in the underbelly of TIAA Bank Field and Bulldogs scurried toward another for a big embrace had vivid significance. Georgia passed its first test of a end-of-season gauntlet, and beating this Florida team meant something.
“I feel like no team works as hard as we do at practice,” said linebacker Tae Crowder, who was named a Butkus Award semifinalist Monday. “It wasn’t a surprise, but very exciting to win that game.”
Georgia’s not done, though, and has to face gold-painted pressure for four more games. The Bulldogs’ schedule is rather back loaded with three conference games — Missouri, at Auburn and Texas A&M — without a so-called cupcake game before facing rival Georgia Tech. Two of those teams will face Georgia off of a bye week, but also get a rejuvenated group of Bulldogs who might be seeing glimpses of success in their eyes again.
Each of the players understand the necessity of finishing undefeated. They’ve experienced a similar path in the two previous seasons. No meeting was needed to understand that, nor was an extra plea for a team-wide buy in. But a victorious evening on the banks of the St. John’s River made it all-the-more tangible.
“Beating Florida said, ‘Hey, we’re still Georgia,’” tight end Charlie Woerner said. “We never doubted inside, but it told people that we’re ready to go to the SEC championship. End up at our goal of winning the national championship. We’re still here to do that.”