One Dog's Predicament: The Story of Russ the Mercenary
As sports fans, we find the smallest fractions of information, maximize its value in our minds, and eventually buy into the concept that this means the world for our teams. You know the examples, you might even have a few of your own: a rabbit’s foot, a lucky T-shirt, an incoherently skewed statistic, a game-day ritual, rubbing your first born child’s bald head while humming the tune to some embarrassingly inspiring Olivia Newton John song. Whatever.
The fact is that we buy into these beliefs, until they become part of the game itself:
“My South Florida Bulls are 13-1 when I eat nachos during the fourth quarter. This is working!”
“Steve Avery always gets out of early jams as long as Leo Mazzone rocks back and forth at least 75 times per batter. Somebody count, this is important.”
“If Chris Collins can restrain from giving Coach K a full-body oil massage at halftime, we might just have a chance to pull off this victory. Krzyzewski always coaches better when he is tense...and, of course, when Wojo is bent over in front of him and slapping the floor. We are in this!”
This all means something to us as fans; hell, to an extent, the players and coaches as well. Maybe even more so. If there was a poll released tomorrow on which group is more superstitious — athletes or fans — you can bet the outcome would be fairly even. The reality is that nobody wants to ruin a good thing, to bring a screeching halt to good luck or karma in the middle of a team’s hot streak. Whatever you want to call it — superstition, myth, luck, legend, ludicrous — some part of us as fans believe, or want to. Would you stop wearing your lucky Superman boxers, the ones you wore the entire undefeated season, just as your team made it to the NCAA title game? Would Patrick Kane cut his Playoff mullet or beard before a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals?
The answer is a resounding “NO”.
But despite this ever-present truth in the world of sports, for both athletes and fans, the University of Georgia is still deciding to go against the grain. The Athletic Association has made their decision, and made it their final one. But do not be surprised if it turns out to be a fatal one, also. Bulldog fans should be worried. Bulldog players should be worried. Coach Richt and his staff should be worried. That crazy bald guy with a Bulldog painted on top of his not-so-attractive head should be worried. Seriously...fret away.
This whole story truly began with a tragedy.
This tragedy did not reach Shakespearean proportions, but it was a truly heartbreaking loss nonetheless for the Bulldog faithful. The loss reverberated across Athens, the Southeast, and wherever else Georgia fans had supplanted themselves around the world. It truly hit home...and hard.
The University of Georgia had lost one of its own.
When Uga VII passed away last November, a void was left on the sidelines — an important void. A mythical void, if you will.
The line of English bulldogs that has paced — or lazily sat on ice — the sidelines of Sanford Stadium traces back all the way to 1958, 51-plus years of a belief system that the lineage brought good fortune and encouragement to generations of players and fans who supported the Red and Black. So when that expected death took place in the Bulldog family, people took notice. Most were surprised, some cried, others thought, “What the heck is the big deal about a dog?”
To be completely honest, I found the entire ordeal to be blown a bit out of proportion — pushing me more into that latter group of people, likely just because Red and Black does not run through my veins. I do not even think I should have to capitalize those letters, but I’m scared of causing a riot if they are not. Anyways, on the day of Uga VII’s passing, I even distinctly remember sarcastically writing: “Sources: Uga VII leaves death note, claims couldn't take watching Georgia play defense for one more weekend.”
So needless to say, there was one student in Athens was not in utter shock and despair.
Regardless, it did matter to Georgia fans.
But then, something strange happened. Russ, Uga VII’s half-brother, took the title of UGA mascot for the rest of the season only to be replaced by a younger pup in the lineage the following season. That was the initial plan.
So the five-year-old Russ took to the sidelines, taking one for the team, just a no-name old-timer jettisoned into the spotlight for a brief end-of-the-season run. He became the veteran pitcher called up for his last hurrah in the big leagues, a necessity for a team destined to miss playoffs following the injury of their star starting pitcher. He became, at the very least, Jimmy Morris in The Rookie . Was he past his prime? Most likely. But what choice did Damon Evans have? Russ was needed, so Russ took to the mound. And delivered.
The moment Russ took to the sidelines, a different team took to the field for the Georgia Bulldogs. They were even a dominant-looking team at times, something that had been missing towards the end of Uga VII’s reign. Was it Russ’ doing? Of course not, but remember those superstitions and beliefs of fans and players? They were coming back in to play again.
Mark Richt and his team knocked off seventh-ranked Georgia Tech before heading down to Shreveport, La. to take out Texas A&M in the bowl game. Just like that: two opponents, two wins. Russ was now 2-0 in his lifetime — and by the way Georgia was playing on the field, he was sporting a 3.11 ERA to boot. Georgia had luckily stumbled onto the Michael Turner of mascots, a four-year veteran with little mileage who could now carry the load when needed.
Superstition or not, something was working.
Then came the rumors. Then...the announcement.
Russ would still not be the permanent replacement to sit on those bags of ice in that overly-pampered dog house. The reason: old age. Even Michael Vick cringes at this sort of animal abuse, these were hopes and dreams that the Athletic Association was unjustly stripping away. Reports were that Russ was sullen and downtrodden by the news (as if he could look any other way). He was now just a flash in the pan, a brilliant shooting star in a soul-crushing night sky searching for greater longevity.
And, of course, Russ gave the okay for the entire situation — ignoring the pleas from his agent and other mascots in the business. Everyone in Russ’ ear warned him to just waddle away, that it was not worth the humiliation of being replaced by a rookie in the middle of the season. But still he stayed. And why? Because Russ truly cares, and he truly believes in something that the Athletic Association is missing here. Sure, his 2-0 record may be based off of pivotal insignificance, but much like fans and athletes, certain superstitions and beliefs still live on in the middle-aged bulldog’s heart.
So now the Bulldog faithful are left with an admirable mercenary on their sidelines, a mascot for hire that came through in a dark time once before. And now he is being asked to do it again — at least for the time being.
Georgia football is 2-0 with an old, grizzled veteran sitting on ice bags. Sure, he may be past his prime — but how can an entire organization turn their back on the fortunes his presence has brought? What if Georgia kicks off the season 3-0 or 4-0? What if, in the opening SEC game, Russ breaks off of his leash and latches onto Steve Spurrier’s visor like a Frisbee? Could he stay then? What if no replacement has been found by the time Georgia heads to Auburn, and Russ decides to pull an Uga VI on Tiger wide receiver Kodi Burns? Could he stay then? So many questions. No answers.
How this Athletic Association could walk away from a 2-0 record (or better) is beyond comprehension. How the UGAA could replace a proven veteran with an unknown rookie strays away from the side of logical, and into the grasps of the insanity.
There is just one ‘HOW’ Georgia fans can be sure of now: How can Bulldog fans still desperately cling on to their slightly-tarnished new mascot?
Put on that favorite T-shirt and start humming that Olivia Newton John tune, because you are going to need a good bit of luck.
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