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LSU football has always been a family affair for me, and a fanhood that I knew long before I ever truly understood it.
But when I think about the Genesis of my modern experience as an LSU fan. When I think about the true beginning of the Golden Era of LSU football that we’ve enjoyed this century, I always think back to one game. The game where it all started for me, and the game that I always think back to when I think about everything I want for us, as fans. I’ve written about it before, but I thought refresh might be in order.
When it comes to talking about my favorite LSU moments, I have the distinct advantage of my time as a student coinciding with the first four seasons of the Nick Saban era (2000-2003). Between school, and working as a student reporter for Tiger Rag magazine my junior and senior years, I was fortunate to be up close and personal with the best and worst teams of that period.
Those four seasons tend to get a whitewash as the years pass, as is the case with most of history. All people seem to remember is Saban walking in, waving a magic wand, winning the SEC in 2001 and *poof* elite program.
But in September of 2003, that wasn't exactly the case. Make no mistake, most LSU fans were pretty certain the program was headed in that direction, but there wasn't a sense of arrival yet. LSU had won a the conference title and racked up some exciting wins over ranked teams, but still felt like a team in the back half of the top-25 trying to work its way up. The 2002 season featured ugly losses to Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn. Then there was the Miracle on Markham against Arkansas, which felt like just another example of LSU just not being able to find a way to win when it really mattered (with a chance to go back to Atlanta on the line). The 2003 Cotton Bowl against Texas only further cemented the notion that the Tigers were just a step below the top 10, as Roy Williams all but beat LSU single-handedly with three touchdowns on four total offensive touches.
LSU just wasn't there yet. On equal footing with the heavy hitters of the game.
But that began to change on September 20, 2003. The day 11th-ranked LSU beat No. 7 Georgia, 17-10 in Tiger Stadium.
I remember every detail of that day. It was a balmy and overcast, but you never would have noticed that, or the 2:30 kickoff, from the crowd on campus. ESPN College Gameday was returning to campus for the first time since 1997, and we in the student body were ready, with a full-on block party raging Friday night on the steps of the PMAC. I was up at 6 a.m., out of my Tiger Plaza apartment and on my way, in order to secure parking for my family's traditional tailgating spot (my weekly custom in those days, a tradition my younger brother carried on as a student).
Family friends and relatives didn't take long to arrive, but my parents did, and I actually missed seeing them in my rush over to the PMAC to witness Gameday. The show was a huge formative part of my college football season through high school, son you could bet I was excited to see LSU finally be the campus in the background. Kirk Herbstreit went with the chalk and picked Georgia, with Lee Corso going against the grain and donning Mike the Tiger's headgear. Herbie took his boos, but it was hard to blame him. At that point in time, frankly, LSU hadn't shown they were ready for this stage.
I didn't waste time making it into the stadium early, snagging my spot in the press box and walking down to the field. The rest of the student section didn't waste much time either, and it was quickly filled. Standing next to then-Tiger Rag editor Matt DeVille, I can distinctly remember the roar that erupted as "Callin' Baton Rouge" came over the loudspeaker. If I close my eyes I can still feel the goosebumps. I turned, waved to a gang of my friends in the student section and hoofed it back up into the press box.
In the press box, somewhere around halftime, I turned around to see none other than the Gameday crew themselves, Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit walking by. It may seem weird to be star-struck, but at 21 years old? You’re damn right. And then Corso, grabbing a plate of food, sat down right next to me. I don't remember that I ever introduced myself aside from "a fan of the show," but I actually did manage to get some words out.
The game itself was a brutal defensive slog. Georgia moved the ball, but two turnovers and three missed field goals from star kicker Billy Bennett held them to three points for the first 55 minutes of the game. LSU couldn't do much either, but Shyrone Carey managed to squirt through a tough Bulldog defense for a 21-yard touchdown, that had the Tigers clinging to a 10-3 lead for dear life. As he got up to head back to the ESPN set Corso, who was very friendly, warned that LSU would need another score if they were going to hold on. And he'd be right.
With seven or eight minutes left, all reporters who will be heading to the locker rooms after the game scramble down onto the field. You squeeze together on the sidelines, trying to stay out of the way of the football staff and the television crew. So there I was, inside the 20-yard line as the Tiger offense was preparing to put the game away. LSU faced a third and two at the Georgia 18, well in range for a game-icing field goal. Things didn't feel over, but victory appeared close.
And then Matt Mauck coughed up the ball after what would have been a three-yard gain.
Georgia ball, 4:52 seconds left, 85 yards from tying the game. David Greene flips the ball out to Tyson Browning on a screen pass. He's got a convoy of blockers and there are not many defenders in front of him. He's running. He's still running. He's in the endzone after a play that seemed absurd compared to the rest of the game, Georgia has tied it up and my jaw is in the grass. The loudest thing in Tiger Stadium at that second was the Georgia fan section, and all I could think is "How can this happen again?" Sure, it was just a tied ball game with 4:25 to go, it felt like another game the other team would find a way to win instead of LSU.
And then something happened that I'd never seen before in Tiger Stadium. At least not in the daylight.
“L-S-U! L-S-U! L-S-U!”
As that chant arose in the stadium, Devery Henderson egged it on as he dropped back for the kickoff. And then he broke that kickoff to midfield, hopping up and down and adding to the exuberance. The roar got louder. And at that moment, the Tigers weren't going to let this game slip by without a fight. Five plays later, LSU was facing third and four at the UGA 34. Mauck rolled to his left on a called pass. He was clearly looking to just scramble for the first, and Saban would later admit the call was designed to at least pick up enough yardage to make for a reasonable fourth down, due to LSU’s shaky kickers. Georgia’s Odell Thurman closed fast, and there was no way Mauck could avoid losing yards. My eyes were couldn't have been wider as he turned his shoulders, leapt and fired the ball off, just as Thurman drilled him in the chest.
The image has stuck in my mind in vivid slow motion, as my eyes followed the ball through the air from the sideline. The pass drifted down field, and as my eyes moved towards the endzone, I could see No. 5 breaking free. Skyler Green had dropped two or three passes earlier in the game, so in the moment my brain screamed "oh crap" on a loop. But he caught it. 93,000 people jumped for joy, but all my nerves allowed me to do was drop to my knees, head in hands, in relief. Corey Webster intercepted Greene a few plays later to seal the win, a win that proved to be the first real step in a journey that ended with LSU's first national title of my lifetime.
And that's why this game is my most memorable moment. I was fortunate enough to have actually been at the Bluegrass Miracle, but that was one play. This was different. There had been big wins before, but this was a breakthrough. LSU would not only crack the top 10, but it felt like they really belonged there. As if the entire program stood up and said "We WIN these types of games." And when I think about calling LSU an elite program, I think of this day as the first time that saying it felt right.
In the ensuing years, we, as LSU fans, have come to take these games for granted. These amazing moments. It’s become about the destination, and not the journey, and I think that’s unfortunate.
But it’s the moments like this that you live for. And the moments that explain why I am an LSU fan.
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