Football can mean a lot to people for many reasons. In the South, some say it’s a religion, because where else are you going to find thousands of people, all believing in the same thing — and believing in it passionately — other than at a church?
And why else would a family delay a funeral because it fell on a Saturday during the fall?
Well, for football fans like the Phillips family, that’s exactly what happened in 2010.
“My granddad who went to Georgia, he was a cheerleader in the early 40s and he was actually a member of the 1942 National Championship team,” said Ryan Phillips, youth pastor at Hopewell Baptist Church.
But when his grandfather, Robert Harrison, died decades after attending the university, the funeral was planned on a Saturday. But as the family was standing around, they knew that wouldn’t do.
“You could see we were all kind of looking around at each other, catching each others' eyes,” Phillips said. “We were like, ‘Grandmama, Georgia plays a big game on Saturday. And I can tell you if Grandaddy were here right now, he would be really mad that we did a memorial service for him when Georgia was playing.’”
They ended up having the service on Sunday, but took along Harrison’s cap to the game and set it in one of their chairs “in his memory because that was a big deal to him.”
And Georgia football is a big deal to John Lilly III, too. So much so, that over the years he’s shed tears for his team.
“I cried at every loss,” Lilly remembered of his childhood. “It drove dad crazy. I’d just cry and cry.”
He may be a little older now, but Lilly, member of the Dominguez & Jones Wealth Management Group in Gainesville, still cries at some of the losses.
“I will admit, when we lost the National Championship on the last play, yeah I cried,” Lilly said despondently. “That hurt. That hurt. And it's still tough because it hurt bad. All of the losses do.”
For many, football games evoke all sorts of emotions and memories, and those memories usually can be traced back to family.
Lilly’s parents went to Marshall University, so when they moved to the Atlanta area, Lilly’s father wanted to pick a local team to root for. He watched the Georgia-Georgia Tech game, expecting to become a Yellow Jackets fan because they lived in Atlanta, but the Bulldogs won and so the family fandom began.
But the Lilly family fandom isn’t just like any family.
“In 1978, Georgia Tech was playing Miami and I went with my youth group,” Lilly said. “Everyone was pulling for Georgia Tech, so I went along. I got home and my dad asked how it went and I said this, that and the other and, ‘We all pulled for Georgia Tech.’ He spanked me and said, ‘This is a bulldog house, period.’ So that's where it began.”
While Lilly was a fan who came into it because of the move, Phillips was almost bred into being a Bulldogs fan.
After his grandparents went to Georgia, his parents went to Georgia and one of his brothers went to Georgia, too. Even though Phillips didn’t attend himself, he’s always known who he has to root for on Saturdays.
“The early 90s is when I remember going to tailgates and going to games with my mom and dad and my family,” Phillips said. “You just make a whole day of it. The game may not be until seven at night, but you're parking at seven o’clock in the morning. And really, as life has gone on and we've all grown up and life gets busier, you begin to treasure those times a lot more.”
That’s because no matter what happens and how busy the family’s life gets, they know on Saturdays in the fall, they’ll all be together at Georgia football games, meeting up in section 119, row four.
“We've been sitting in the same section for 25-plus years,” Phillips said.
They have season tickets and so does the Lilly family.
And every time Lilly watches a game, he’s thinking about his father. They’re good memories and sometimes, memories of his father’s not-so-good moments.
“I heard my dad cuss two times my entire life,” Lillly said. “Once in 1980 when we beat the Russians in the Olympics, and once in 1978. I was 8 and Scott Woerner called for a fair catch against Tech. They hit him anyway and he was bleeding and dad jumped up and pointed and said, ‘That’s why we hate them.’ I've never seen him so angry.”
And for Phillips, Georgia games also bring back memories of time spent with his father — who hasn’t missed a home game since 1978. His first memory of Georgia football is watching the team warm up with his father by his side. And still to this day, he feels the same things he did back then.
“It’s a big deal to my family,” Phillips said. “Football is family. Georgia football is family to us.”
It’s the same for Lilly. He said if you get the chance to build memories with family, football is the way to do it. And if you have to choose, he’d recommend the Georgia Bulldogs.
“If you see one game in Sanford Stadium, it's in your heart forever,” Lilly said. “There’s no way around it.”