Bulldogs and fans make up for lost time with celebration more than four decades in making

Marc Weiszer
Athens Banner-Herald
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) celebrates after winning the College Football Playoff National Championship game in Indianapolis, on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

INDIANAPOLIS — A sign outside the Westin Indianapolis in the wee hours of Tuesday morning: Registered Guests Only.

That’s probably a good thing considering it served as the Georgia football team hotel for its four-night stay.

A city filled with Bulldog fans would certainly have liked to take their party inside where players, coaches and their families soaked up a national championship after coming from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Alabama 33-18.

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Quarterback Stetson Bennett, who completed all four of his passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter when Georgia scored 20 straight points, kissed the national championship trophy a few hours earlier in nearby Lucas Oil Stadium.

He was asked about how he will celebrate back in Athens.

“Well, I think we might celebrate a little bit tonight here in Indy first,” Bennett said.

“If we can ever get out of here,” coach Kirby Smart said.

Georgia wide receiver Kearis Jackson walked outside the Westin at about 3:20 a.m.

“It’s been exciting, honestly, to be able to shoot, win a national championship, not only for this team but for the community all of the Dawg fans,” Jackson said.

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A car drove by with a man yelling: “Who’s that coming down the track?”

Another man walked out of the Westin carrying two beers. A group of men staying at the Westin walked in barking.

 "Everywhere we went in Indianapolis we saw our people," Smart said. "Somebody told me it would be 60-40; it felt like 70-30. I just hope they remember this feeling and understand they don't need to get spoiled, they need to stay hungry like these players."

Bennett had a cigar in his mouth on the field in the postgame scene. Defensive back Latavious Brini posted a photo on Instagram with a stogie in his hand as well in the locker room.

“It’s chaos,” said Michael Rochester, father of Georgia sixth-year defensive tackle Julian Rochester, said outside the Westin. “You can only imagine what we’re going through in there. Forty-one years, everyone’s having fun.”

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Seeing an emotional Rochester, who came back from two knee injuries, is a moment linebacker Nakobe Dean said stood out from the postgame scene.

“Part of me wanted to cry, part of me wanted to get excited, part of me wanted to feel a lot of different things,” offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer said. “So just that rush of emotion when that clock hit triple zeroes and just kind of processing, Wow, we're national champions. That's what guys kept saying. Wow, we just won a National Championship for the first time in 40-something years. It was a special moment for me and a lot of my teammates. …I can't really compare anything to that feeling. Maybe I'll feel it again at some point in the future when I have a child or something like that, but for now, that'll do.”

Among those that Smart hugged — and there were many — was offensive coordinator Todd Monken, former Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and cornerback Derion Kendrick.

“I'm so happy for the Georgia people,” Smart said. “I'm happy for the people that get this for so many years they've been without it. But I told the guys in the locker room, just take a picture of this, because I think back to the '80 championship picture and seeing all those players and the Frank Ros and the Herschel Walkers and all these people that have reached out and said things. Our guys have accomplished that, something special, and as they say, they've become legendary.”

Smart made mention of a moment that he thought might have been a sign of something telling when he was getting off the elevator on the 15th floor of the Westin and Vince Dooley, the coach who won that last UGA national title in 1980, was sitting on a bench locked out of his room.

“I thought, God put him there for me to see him the night before his game, and he was waiting on his key to come up to his room,” Smart said.

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It’s not just about the current players either, Smart said, but about that 2017 team. Guys like Nick Chubb, Richard LeCounte and D’Andre Swift who were on the sideline Monday.

“That was the group that was crying in the locker room, and this group made it right for them,” Smart said.

There were some tears this time, too, but of joy through the red and white confetti that fell.

“It still ain't all the way hit me yet,” Dean said. “I'm pretty sure later on or tomorrow I'll wake up, it'll be like, did I just win the national championship?