That Hometown Buzz
It had been more than five years since I was last in Atlanta. As my plane flew over downtown on a Friday night, I gazed at the river of illuminated buildings and highways snaking their way through the Georgia clay. As it is every time I return, much of what I saw below looked different than it had been the last time I have arrived.
I like to take an extra moment to soak in what hasn’t changed much. The airport trams that take you from terminal to terminal for instance. Peering onto the tracks of the dingy tunnel floor as they disappeared beneath me, I felt at home, which is a strange thing to feel in the bowels of an airport. I drug my feet through Centennial Park the next morning, looking at the statues and trying to remember where the pavilions had been positioned during the Summer Games of 96’. This is my relationship with my hometown. I walk through it, my memories struggling to augment the reality of the everchanging city.
My rose-colored glasses work best when I’m at Georgia Tech. Tech Tower, Bobby Dodd Stadium, Campanile Fountain, it all seems timeless. I never attended a single class at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but it feels like home. There are always freshmen wearing their yellow rat caps and there will always be graduates strolling the campus, holding hands with their old college sweethearts. It is truly my favorite place to spend a Saturday.
As game time approached, my mother and I followed the band down Techwood lane, exchanging a few “To Hell with Georgia” chants with fellow Yellow Jackets faithful as we made our way to the stadium. Our opponents for the evening were the Virginia Tech Hokies.
I can’t speak for all Tech fans (both Virginia & Georgia) but I’ve always felt that this particular rivalry is held together by mutual respect rather than by real animosity. For the past 15 years or so, the road to the ACC Championship game for the Coastal Division generally ran through one of these two teams. The Hokies traveled well and their Maroon and Orange took up a substantial bit of the south-east end of the stands. The Hokies were still fighting for the Coastal title. The Jackets, on the other hand, had won two games to date and were dead last in the division. No matter, I thought, as we took our seats overlooking the north end zone. It’ll still be a good game.
From the first moment the Yellow Jacks took to the field, it was, in fact, the opposite of a good game. And I do mean the very first moment.
As the band played the fight song and the Ramblin’ Wreck (a 1930 Ford Model A dream machine) led the team onto the field, the Georgia Tech Mascot, Buzz popped out of the tunnel as well. Normally, Buzz is perched atop the Wreck, but for this game, he sprinted alongside the team behind the car, waving to the cheering crowd. As Buzz turned to wave back towards my end of the stadium he began to backpedal, drifting off course and directly into a defensive lineman, who was waving an enormous American flag.
Buzz bounced off the player like he was made of springs. The player hit the deck as well and the flag followed suit. The other players in the vicinity of this wreck jumped and swerved around Buzz & their fallen teammate, trying to avoid a Talladega-like big one. A number of them had nowhere to go but on top of the flag, driving it into the dirt. Did I mention that this was the Veteran’s appreciation game? The crowd around me was in hysterics.
“Look Out for Buzz!” “Oh No!” “Get the flag up, GET THE FLAG UP!!”
When that video was taken, anything was possible. But just seconds after I could feel it in my bones. This game was not going to go well. “I think Buzz just jinxed us,” my mom said with a chuckle.
On the first play of the game from scrimmage, the Jackets drew a delay of game penalty. Apparently, a week was not enough time to let everyone know what play was coming. The man sitting next to me threw his hands up and said to no one in particular, “How the hell do you mess up your own snap count on the first play of the game?”
Without taking my eyes off the field I replied, “You know who threw them off? Buzz.”
My rare showcase of comedic timing paid off. Both he and his father laughed. His father then looked over to us and said wryly, “Who had money on the mascot being the worst performer of the game?”
From that point on, the three of us did our best Statler and Waldorf impressions. When an egregious turnover happened only seconds after I stupidly said “What can go wrong” out loud led to the easiest touchdown of the Hokie’s season, the collective group I found myself in didn’t boo or scream. They laughed. It was as if we had unconsciously decided the only justified reaction to the burgeoning circus on the field was to do what you do at any circus; smile and laugh.
Entirely fictitious narratives were quickly created. Buzz went from being a lovable mascot to an Anti-American menace. As various veterans were brought onto the field to be welcomed, we would yell warnings when Buzz got too close. When Buzz would throw paper money on “Money” 3rd downs, we would accuse him of bribery. By halftime, the game was already over. The Hokies took a 31-0 lead into the locker room as the crowd started to thin. When the game resumed, much of the section appeared to be on a permanent bathroom break.
Eventually, my new friends would do the same. Before they did though, we got a few more good-natured ribs in at Buzz, at the team’s play and even at Nick Saban, a coach an entire state away who had left Tua Tagovailoa in too long while trying to run up the score against Mississippi State, severely injuring his golden goose. We eventually exchanged names, which I almost immediately forgot while we watched the special teams players keep warm on the sidelines.
Turns out they were fans and not alumni, just like me. The son, a man not much older than I am, had recently moved back to Atlanta after attending the University of Chicago. We had the obligatory “We both lived in Chicago!” moment and talked about going to college in the city. His father was originally from California and eagerly talked about how UCLA had a real chance in their primetime game later that night (they lost to Utah 49-3). We talked about Atlanta, the things that had changed for the better and for the worse. We lamented our acquired fondness for the triple-option offense that used to be run at Georgia Tech and our measured excitement for what might be possible from the new regime once they finally had the team they wanted. As we talked, Buzz was stopped by a couple of Hokie fans dressed in turkey costumes. As he posed with them for a picture, the son shouted down “Look who’s fraternizing with the enemy!”
About midway through the third quarter, they both stood up. “Well, Mason, I think we’ve watched as much of this Anti-American display as we can take.” We all laughed, shook hands one last time and they departed. Mom and I stuck it out until the bitter end, cheering loudly as Georgia Tech finally broke the 50- yard-line late in the 4th. That promising drive was snuffed out by, you guessed it, a delay of game penalty. By this point, my gaze was more focused on the Atlanta skyline to the south of the stadium, shining brightly in the twilight of a November sky. I leaned back and put my feet up on the railing, soaking it all in.
Georgia Tech lost 45-0. It was the best game of my life.