This article was originally published on www.darinowkhah.com.
I'm lucky. I realize that. I have a family I would die for, led by a wife I'm too lucky to have. And maybe someday, I'll write a blog all about them. But Jenn will smack me if I do because she can't stand being the center of attention. She hates attention. I love that about her.
That said, I'll keep this one about a recent "job assignment." The best one I've ever gotten. And that says a lot because in my 19 years in this business, I've been privileged to cover sporting events any sports fan would dream of; college football national championship games (like the Alabama/Georgia one we just had), Final Fours, College World Series', NFL Drafts, you name it).
I was told I needed to go to California to cover the Rose Bowl. Now, anytime you're told to cover the Rose Bowl, that's a win. For crying out loud, that's the "Granddaddy of Them All." World famous game, world famous stadium, Southern California in January, you get it. Add to that the fact that this year's version was one of two College Football Playoff semifinals and BANG, let's go. Now, in my best TV infomercial voice... "But wait, there's MORE!" I'm covering Georgia (since I'm with the SEC Network and they're an SEC team), but they're playing Oklahoma, my alma mater!
I never forget who I work for. The SEC Network is an incredibly successful network launched by ESPN in 2014. The Southeastern Conference itself is, in my opinion, the "Granddaddy of Them All," comprised of 14 incredible institutions with supreme leadership. The SEC leadership itself is a group of people for whom I have tremendous respect and with whom I have fantastic relationships. I'm not from SEC Country, I didn't go to an SEC school and I wasn't raised an SEC fan. However, covering collegiate athletics as long as I have, I've grown to love the conference as though I was born into it.
But, I was ACTUALLY born in Oklahoma. When I was a kid, my football-shaped phone rang "Boomer Sooner." My first football jerseys were of Spencer Tillman, Brian Bosworth (it simply said "Boz"), Keith Jackson and Jamelle Holieway. My first football games were at Owen Field in Norman with my late grandfather, "Big Daddy." He loved the Sooners so I loved the Sooners. I knew I was going to attend OU from the time I was old enough to say "OU." And I did attend OU. Like most of you reading this, I love my school. I often think it represents me and I represent it. That's what I love most about college sports fans. It's more than simply having a passion for a university and its programs. It's feeling a personal connection to them. You get it.
So here I was, standing on the immaculate Rose Bowl grass with colleagues (and great friends) Chris Doering and Matt Stinchcomb. "CD" is a former Florida Gator All-American who was rooting hard for Georgia (don't tell his Gator friends) and "Stinch" is one of the all-time great Georgia Bulldogs who (though he may not admit this) was a nervous wreck as kickoff approached. And I'm with them, ready for the game to start. We had been in Southern California for three days already providing coverage for the SEC Network. Mercifully, it was time for kickoff. And I was a disaster.
I love sports. If I didn't, I'd clearly be in the wrong business. And while I love sports, it had been years since I had a knot in my stomach like the one I had around 2:00 pm Pacific Time January 1. BUT... I was there to cover Georgia and I consider myself an absolute professional in this business (sorry if that sounds conceited). Sure, many of our SEC Network viewers know where I went to school and typically, I don't hide that. Generally, we have fun with it. But I was not about to send one pro-Sooners tweet or make a pro-Sooners comment as we covered the game in the days and weeks leading up to the game. Georgia fans don't want to hear that and it would be out of place for me to do it. In fact, I thought it would be easy to stand there, during the game itself, and be okay with whatever happened. If Georgia wins, good for the SEC and a great Dawgs fan base. If Oklahoma wins, fantastic. My alma mater will play for its first national title since 2000. Was I going to "root on the inside" for somebody? Sure. Remember all that stuff you read about what my university means to me? I'll always be a Sooner. But I was there in Pasadena to do a job. And that's what I did. On the outside.
It was a different story on the inside. That Sooner blood runs deep. Standing on the sideline, six feet from the goal line pylon when Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield passed to Marquise Brown for the first touchdown of the game, I nearly exploded. But I didn't. I wasn't about to be a cheerleader for Oklahoma in front of Bulldog fans who know me as an SEC Network host. But I'll admit it now, I nearly exploded. For four hours, I stood on the sideline next to Doering and Stinch sweating every play, making sure I wasn't physically showing my allegiance to the non-SEC school, yet feeling like that 9-year-old Dari with the Boz jersey and Boz haircut watching his Sooners play Penn State in the Orange Bowl for the 1985 national title.
You probably watched the game. Oklahoma got up 31-14. Georgia scored 24 consecutive points to take a seven-point lead. Then Oklahoma scored two straight touchdowns to move ahead 45-38. Georgia scored with less than one minute left and we eventually headed to overtime. And in double-overtime, with the three of us standing on the opposite end of the field from where we started, Georgia's Sony Michel took the snap in the "Wild Dawg" formation, sprinted left, turned the corner and rolled right past us for the game-winning touchdown. Game over, Georgia wins. Dawgs fans inside that stadium went crazy, out of their minds ballistic. They were incredible all day long. And numerous too. I bet they made up 75 percent of that stadium. And in the end, they got what they deserved. They got to watch their team win in college football's greatest venue in what is absolutely one of the greatest bowl games in the history of the sport of college football. Honestly, I was really happy for them. The SEC Network is successful because SEC fan bases are so passionate. And to see this Georgia fan base so happy actually made me happy.
But I also felt like I had been kicked in the gut. After Sony scored, I turned around to Stinch, gave him a hug and congratulated him. His team was off to the national championship game. And we sort of congratulated each other, the three of us, for being fortunate enough to watch what may end up being the greatest football game any of us ever see in person. But I would be lying if I told you it didn't hurt. Oklahoma has now lost three national championship games (under the BCS plan) and two playoff games since their last national championship win 17 years ago. But none of those other losses (to LSU, Southern Cal, Florida or Clemson) felt like this one.
But, back to my job. We wrapped up our post-game responsibilities with a great interview with Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and All-America linebacker Roquan Smith. When that was over, we headed out of the stadium, found our producer Randy (also an Oklahoma grad, by the way), jumped in the car and drove away from the little slice of Heaven known as the Rose Bowl, knowing we had been given the assignment of a lifetime.
I really was so happy for Georgia. And I felt terrible for them and their fans after the all-SEC National Championship game against Alabama. The way that game ended was so similar to how the Rose Bowl ended, but UGA was on the wrong side of it that time.
I know this... the SEC is the greatest conference in college sports and the SEC Network is exactly where I want to be. But SEC fans, don't hate me for standing on that sideline in Pasadena January 1, sick to my stomach for four hours rooting on the inside for the non-SEC team. You should know, more than anybody, how much a college football program can mean to a college football fanatic.