ATHENS, Ga. — Drivers heading into downtown Athens this summer and fall might notice the public display of appreciation for Georgia’s fifth-year senior quarterback.
A billboard that proclaims “Thanks Aaron for finishing the drill. We appreciate our seniors!” celebrates Aaron Murray’s decision to bypass the NFL draft to play a final season for the Bulldogs. It came about with the cooperation of the Augusta, Columbus and Savannah Bulldog Clubs.
Sid Gates, the chaplain for the Augusta club, came up with the idea while driving with former club president Bob Evans to the Georgia-South Carolina basketball game in February, weeks after Murray revealed that he was coming back.
“These days you don’t get many fifth-year seniors sticking around for a senior year,” said Evans, a 1981 Georgia graduate who is the chief financial officer of an industrial supply company in Augusta. “It’s a big endorsement for the coaches and your teammates. We thought it would be nice for us to show our appreciation for him coming back.”
Gates remembered seeing a billboard in Knoxville in 1997 that said simply: “Thank you Peyton,” when Tennessee’s Peyton Manning returned for his senior season.
“That was kind of the prototype, if you will,” said Gates, a licensed marriage and family therapist who graduated from Georgia in 1978.
Gates got the Bulldog Clubs in Columbus and Savannah to help pay for the billboard on the side of a building. It can be seen to travelers entering downtown on U.S. Highway 78 past the Hodgson Oil building on the left.
Murray said he was “excited” to hear about the billboard.
“It is a great feeling to see the dedication to our team and the excitement everyone has for this season,” Murray said. “It’s a special group of seniors, and we are ready to go out on top. Coming back was a tough decision, but things like those billboards make it that much more rewarding to be back in Athens for another year and trying to lead Georgia to a championship season.”
Gates and Evans spoke to Mark Slonaker, the executive director of the Bulldog Club, who got clearance from Georgia compliance director Jim Booz that no NCAA rules were being violated.
“It just shows you how passionate Bulldog Nation is,” Slonaker said. “They love the team and obviously for Aaron to come back and try to lead us to a championship, they just wanted to honor him. I thought it was pretty cool.”
When Gates and Evans e-mailed Slonaker last week to let him know the billboard was up, Slonaker caught up with Murray after a workout to let him know what the three Bulldog Clubs had done.
The clubs are paying about $1,500 or $1,700 each for the billboard. There’s a six-month contract for the billboard to stay up, meaning it will be there all football season. It will even be illuminated at night.
Consider it a big counter response to the toilet paper rolling of a house Murray shared with teammates after the South Carolina loss last year.
“We wanted to show Bulldog Nation and the country that this is what Georgia fans are really about, doing something like this,” Gates said. “Not the few knuckleheads that acted out after the Carolina game.”