It was Oct. 6, 2001, a month into my first season covering the religion that is known as Southeastern Conference football. Not wishing to get off on the wrong foot with the staff writers who had been covering these parts for a while, I regularly deferred first choice of the weekend slate to incumbent college beat writer Larry Williams.
This particular Saturday, the arrangement wasn’t working out too well. The South Carolina Gamecocks were 4-0, so somebody had to be in Columbia for a 1 p.m. kickoff against Kentucky. Having never covered a game in Williams-Brice, Williams suggested I go there while he sacrificed himself to the hassle of taking the corporate jet to Knoxville, Tenn., to see Georgia play Tennessee.
Inching around the fairgrounds for more than an hour to reach the parking lot, it was obvious I’d been had. By the time whatever prose a routine 42-6 rout of the Wildcats inspired was sent, I was seething. The Bulldogs and Volunteers were engaged in a lively affair tied at halftime when I left the press box.
It wasn’t until I reached cruising speed heading west on I-20 that a decent radio signal from a Georgia station emerged through the static. The Bulldogs were leading the Vols by three with a little more than a minute remaining and I was cursing my colleague for sending me to a slaughter while he presided over a prizefight.
It was then that this voice pierced through the jealousy and captured an alien’s attention.
Until that moment, Larry Munson was to me just a curious, gravelly voice that would send Bulldog fans into a frenzy during the pregame video at Sanford Stadium. Having covered three Georgia home games already that season, I’d never heard a Bulldogs broadcast to understand what all the fuss was about.
Suddenly, as if on cue, strains of unbridled anguish that I’d never heard before came hurtling out of the dashboard. Tennessee had converted a 62-yard screen pass to take a 24-20 lead with 44 seconds to play. Munson was grieving over top of 100,000 voices in full throat.
It was mesmerizing to listen to for the very first time. Having grown up a sports junkie listening to radio broadcasts as long as I can remember, the occasional homer hollering “we” once in a while was familiar. But never anything like this.
And while every fiber of journalistic integrity was primed to cringe, the truth is it was beautiful. This un-radio-like voice had taken the angst of an entire fan base and turned it into
poetry. You couldn’t take your ears off it.
Georgia and its first-year head coach Mark Richt and freshman quarterback David Greene were trying to answer Tennessee’s knockout punch, and Munson was weaving a tapestry like nothing I’ve ever heard before or since. He was speaking of “saving ourselves” and leaving “our hearts” at the other end of the field and spending “our last timeout” with 10 seconds left “like gold bullion.”
Then of course came the play that the coaches called “P44 Haynes,” but every Georgia fan knows as the “hobnailed boot.”
“A touchdown! My God a touchdown! We threw it ... we threw it to Haynes. We just stomped ’em with five seconds left. My God a-mighty did you see what he did? David Greene just straightened up and we snuck the fullback over. Haynes is keeping the ball. Haynes has come running all the way across to the bench. We just dumped it over to 26-24. We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose. We just crushed their face.”
Maybe that was old hat to folks who had devoutly listened to Munson for 35 years and heard “My God, a freshman!” and “Run, Lindsay!” and “Sugar falling from the sky!” But if you can imagine for a second that the first call you ever heard Munson make was the hobnailed boot that crushed Tennessee’s face you can picture a newcomer to deep Southern football careening down I-20 with mouth agape.
This was a truly unique thing on sports radio – a gifted homer. Having grown up in the world before 24-hour sports television, the coolest thing in the world was to be the “voice of” anything. In Richmond, Va., the voice of everything was Frank Soden, whose smooth and gentlemanly delivery brought to life every Spiders football and basketball game and every Richmond Braves game in what was almost a constant soundtrack in the background of our house and car.
But as important as Soden was to me as I hid under blankets listening to a transistor radio past bedtime, I can’t remember a single catch phrase or epic call. When Soden died last year, his obituaries raved about his wonderful radio life that earned him numerous awards and enshrinement into half a dozen halls of fame and how he never said no to anyone. But it never quoted a single moment when his voice elevated play-by-play calling to art form.
Georgia fans were blessed with a rare treat in Munson for 42 seasons. He was a genius who spoke directly to his listeners with an empathy that can never be duplicated.
Wes Durham, the voice of Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Falcons, is in my opinion the best play-by-play announcer in football. Durham never misses a step on the air by delivering an informative picture of the events that is pitch perfect and professional in every way.
Munson was something else entirely. What he brought through the ether was more abstract. He was as much a part of Georgia as the games he was relaying. As the late, great unabashed Bulldog fan Lewis Grizzard said of his fellow homer, “Larry Munson is to Georgia football what fried chicken is to a tailgate party. You can’t enjoy one without the other.”
Munson died Sunday night, hunkering down with Grizzard, Erk, Ugas I-VIII and other Bulldog icons. But his unmistakable voice will echo between the hedges long after the rest of us are gone as well.
There was nothing else like him. And nobody could ever pull it off again.