Football team's turnaround revives Bulldogs' fans

 

ATHENS, Ga. — Dexter Weaver was elbow-deep in chitlins as customers walked through the front door.

“We’ve got catfish, whitefish, steak and gravy, and fried chicken,” was his repeated greeting at Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods.

The lunch traffic was steady for a rainy Monday, and Weaver said the University of Georgia football team deserves a little bit of thanks for that.

Turns out, “downright depressed” fans lose their appetite and make for depressed business.

“It was down at first, and all of the sudden it kept going up, and each week it’s getting better and better,” Weaver said of the Bulldogs’ rebound from an 0-2 start and his restaurant’s bottom line. “Sales were beginning to reflect it, because when they don’t win they don’t buy a whole lot. When they do win, they return a lot.”

Weaver D’s – made famous by R.E.M.’s use of the soul food restaurant’s slogan “Automatic For The People” on their eighth album – is a regular downtown gathering spot for Bulldogs fans of every shape, color and size. Coach Mark Richt is an occasional customer, but Weaver said he is more frequently a topic of conversation among those who pack the two long tables inside his cinder-block eatery, located at the bottom of Broad Street where it meets the North Oconee River.

“They were just wondering and thinking he might get fired,” Weaver said. “Some of them really like him.”

Few will say a discouraging word these days about Richt, who will lead the Bulldogs against No. 1 and undefeated Louisiana State University on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Richt and the Bulldogs have turned around a melancholy stretch over two seasons and changed the mood around town entirely.

After 10 consecutive wins, “It’s a great season to be a Bulldog,” said Johnny Maxey, a 51-year-old Athens resident who has been following Georgia football since his uncle took him to games as a kid. “I was pulling for the coach because I didn’t want the coach to lose his job. There were fans who wanted him to go. After things turned around and after they beat Florida, he can get a raise now.”

Thorarinn Bjornsson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UGA, agrees. The Iceland native attended John S. Davidson Fine Arts School in Augusta from fifth through 10th grade before his family moved to Kentucky in 1991. He said he is proud of what Richt has done with the team.

“We had a bad year last year and everybody was down on Richt, but he’s a good man and he’s good for the program,” Bjornsson said.

Charlie and Charlotte Sacre were decked out in their Georgia attire when they stopped for lunch before heading back home to Bluefield, Va. Charlie Sacre, 77, said “they had cars then,” when his unyielding allegiance to his home-state school started more than 70 years ago.

“We root for Georgia no matter what,” said Charlotte Sacre, though they both admitted this season has been more relaxing and enjoyable to watch than last year’s 6-7 campaign.

The general consensus of everyone talking about the Bulldogs at Weaver D’s is that the 2011 season is already an unqualified success no matter what happens Saturday. While many – including the bookies who installed LSU as a 14-point favorite – don’t give Georgia much of a chance to claim the title, Bulldogs fans aren’t willing to surrender just yet.

“I think they might give LSU a run,” said Bjornsson. “LSU is awfully good, but I don’t think we’re going to get destroyed by them.”

Said Maxey: “My impression is they’ve got a good group of young players and they are trying to learn. That’s working out for them. They have the time to grow with one another. I hope they go out and win. It will be great for the university.”

Weaver said the people’s sentiment has turned 180 degrees since September.

“If it was judging from the beginning, they probably wouldn’t think they’d have a chance,” he said. “They think they do now because they’ve been doing so well lately.”

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

GEORGIA BULLDOGS VS. LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY TIGERS

WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

ON TV: CBS-Ch. 12

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