When you haven't tasted a winning season or a bowl game since 1982, and have stubbed your toe against Middle Tennessees and Kentuckys while coming oh-so-close against the Bamas and Floridas of the world, it's painful to run up against failure time and time again.
But just when a loss to Ole Miss suggested they had exhausted their will to win, the 2006 edition of the Vanderbilt Commodores suddenly found all the things they've been missing for so long. This discovery of football virtue--the biggest archaeological find of the Bobby Johnson era--was made on the grounds of Sanford Stadium, particularly the spots of sod where Sean Walker made a man's catch, and Brian Hahnfeldt nailed a pressure kick that no gust of wind could have blown off course. There have been many times in Vandy's snake-bitten football history when the first 57 minutes of a football game have been played at a high level; there have been very few games in which this team has closed the 'Dore in the final three. This time, on a sun-drenched afternoon in Athens, a Vandy football team did the deed in a landmark upset of Georgia, all because it stayed strong between the ears when placed Between the Hedges.
There were so many things the Dores did well in the game's first 57 minutes: forcing turnovers, getting red zone stops, scoring red zone touchdowns, developing great tempo and rhythm on offense (after a very sluggish start), and playing great sudden-change defense after some of Chris Nickson's huge mistakes. But all those attributes--as in so many other agonizing Vandy defeats over the years--would have meant nothing if Bobby Johnson's boys couldn't seal the deal down the stretch. College football teams such as Vanderbilt stopped having moral victories a long time ago; the only solution--the only road to real, long-term improvement as a program for the oppressed members in this sport--is to summon up the will and find a way to pull a close one out of the fire against a name opponent (if on the road, so much the better) in the final pressure-packed minutes. Vanderbilt finally achieved that against Georgia, basking in the sunshine of victory because it willfully ignored the bla ck clouds of its often luckless past.
How numerous were the times on Saturday when a Vandy fan groaned and said, "there we go again"? For some, it was the interception Chris Nickson threw in the end zone with Vandy leading 14-13. For others, it was Nickson's pick-six, which put UGA up 22-21 in the fourth quarter. For still others, it was Brett Upson's shanked punt, and for those who kept the faith longer than most, Earl Bennett's drop of a bubble screen on 3rd and 5 at the UGA 35 in the final minutes--and on a play when Bennett naturally had a big gain ahead of him--might have finally broken a Commodore fan's heart.
Every time in the past, those kinds of events would have doomed the Dores. The fact that Bennett--a reliable and dynamic playmaker--dropped that late pass seemed to be an especially big sign that Bobby Johnson's team was going to be dumped at the altar yet again.
But that was then. Against Georgia, a new "now" of Vanderbilt football emerged, and it's the kind of transformed mentality that will hopefully become entrenched in the minds of every Commodore player for a long, long time to come.
It was striking and significant that it was someone other than Bennett redeemed Vanderbilt on this memorable afternoon in Georgia. Teams with go-to guys will often give that feature player a second chance after he makes a mistake in the late going. But Vanderbilt's new identity as a team--at least on this afternoon; Bobby Johnson can only hope it will come to define his program for many years--was reflected in the coaching staff's willingness to trust a role player... and in that young man's ability to play that role with distinction.
Sean Walker had already caught a touchdown pass against Georgia, but no one would have considered the receiver a primary option on Vandy's 4th and 5 snap from the UGA 35, one play after Bennett almost burst his team's bubble with that bubble-screen drop. And given the stick Walker received from a Bulldog defender after catching that six-yard pass from his quarterback's right arm, not everyone in Sanford Stadium would have expected the young man to hold on.
But Sean Walker showed that where there's a will, there's a new way and a new day for Vanderbilt football. A few plays later, Brian Hahnfeldt dismissed the ghosts of placekicks past for the Commodores, as he displayed the ice veins past Vandy kickers have been unable to bring to the dance on final-play, do-or-die occasions.
There are favorites and underdogs, upsets and expected outcomes, but there are never any guarantees about the outcome of one football game on one afternoon. College football is played by human beings, not robots, and Vanderbilt has always had the ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But until you do it, you don't know what hope--and courage, and victory--truly feel, sound and look like.
Now, Vandy has achieved something substantial. Brian Hahnfeldt won a game with a steady leg, and Sean Walker's fourth-down conversion has given this team a meaningful manhood-making motivational moment.
Everyone in the Commodore program will now try to ensure that this glorious moment Between the Hedges becomes the start of something really big, not a brief flicker of hope that gets extinguished in subsequent seasons.
Vanderbilt fans, you now know what hope looks like. One can only hope that more pictures will continue to emerge as the Saturdays and the seasons go by in Nashville.