'I've never seen so many grown men crying at the same time': Local Georgia fans waited years to see Bulldogs break through for national championship

Jeffrey Vest/Tennessee Sports Photo

A young Georgia fan holds up a white board after Georgia defeated Alabama 33-18 Monday in Indianapolis in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Georgia previously won a national championship in 1980.

Dylan Bledsoe has waited his whole life to see his Georgia Bulldogs win a football national championship.

The Dalton native and 2011 Northwest Whitfield High School graduate was in attendance at the College Football Playoff national championship game Monday night in Indianapolis to finally see that happen.

"I was actually brought home from the hospital in a Georgia Bulldogs onesie," Bledsoe said. "It was a lifelong goal of mine to attend and graduate from UGA, and, on top of that, it was a lifelong goal to see them win a national championship."

Bledsoe accomplished that first goal, graduating from Georgia in 2015. Bledsoe lives in in Atlanta now, but it was with a group of his friends from Northwest Georgia that he saw Bulldogs cornerback Keelee Ringo's interception return for a touchdown that sealed Georgia's 33-18 win over Alabama in the title game.

It was the first national title for Georgia since 1980, a good decade before Bledsoe was welcomed into the world by that Bulldogs garment.

"It was non-stop anxiety and high heart rates. Multiple times during the game my Apple Watch asked me if I was exercising because of the heart rate," Bledsoe recalls.

When he saw Ringo's interception, his reaction resembled that of Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, the game's offensive MVP, who was caught by cameras crying and hugging his coaches on the sideline.

"At the interception, I just kind of broke down into immediate sobbing," Bledsoe said. "I don't even remember him scoring to be honest. I wasn't even looking at the field. I've never seen so many grown men crying at the same time. It was euphoric."

One of those sobbing grown men in Indianapolis, by his own admission, was Mark Thomas, a lifelong Whitfield County resident and local poultry and cattle farmer.

Thomas was in attendance when Georgia won that last national championship in 1980. A 17-10 Sugar Bowl victory in New Orleans over Notre Dame left Georgia with an undefeated record, not leaving much doubt for the Associated Press and other organizations that declared the Bulldogs national champs.

Thomas, who said he was "born a Bulldog fan," stormed the field after that victory at age 19 with a group of friends.

"It didn't really seem as special, because you just assumed that it would happen again soon," Thomas said.

It took 41 years to happen again, and Thomas knows that all to well. He was there for the heartbreakers, too.

"I just don't think I realized the enormity of how hard it was to win a national championship in 1980," Thomas said. "The 41 years just really highlighted how hard it is to break through."

He was in attendance for the close calls, like in 2018, when Georgia was turned back by the very same Alabama team that held a 4-0 record — prior to Monday night — over head coach Kirby Smart's Georgia teams since the former Alabama assistant took over in Athens.

Georgia had a 13-point lead in that national championship appearance in Atlanta before being stunned in overtime by Alabama. For that reason, Thomas was hesitant to begin celebrating when Georgia had a fourth-quarter lead Monday night.

When Bennett fumbled in the fourth quarter and the Crimson Tide took advantage of a short field and scored a go-ahead touchdown, those doubts that had marinated for 41 years began to creep back in.

"At that point, it was like, 'Oh no, this isn't going to happen again, is it?'" Thomas said.

It didn't. Bennett redeemed himself with a go-ahead touchdown pass on the Bulldogs' next drive, and Thomas instead got to celebrate.

He was at the game in Indianapolis with his college-aged son, David.

After the two celebrated, Thomas told his son that the younger Thomas would never forget that day for the rest of his life.

He knows that from experience.

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