Drivers heading into downtown Athens from the east side this summer and fall may notice the very public display of appreciation for Georgia’s fifth-year senior quarterback.
“Thanks Aaron for finishing the drill. We appreciate our Seniors! Go Dawgs”
The billboard 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 came up with the idea while driving with Bob Evans to the Georgia-South Carolina basketball game in early February, weeks after Murray revealed on Twitter that he was coming back after helping lead Georgia to two consecutive trips to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Evans is the past president of the Augusta Bulldog Club and Gates is the club’s chaplain.
“These days you don’t get many fifth-year seniors sticking around for a senior year,” said Evans, a 1981 UGA graduate who is a CFO of an industrial supply company in Augusta. “You get your team leader coming back for another year. 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 and has been a season ticket-holder for nearly 20 years. “I know they did this last year for (Matt) Barkley when he decided to come back for USC. There’s some precedence out there, but we kind of wanted to tweak that a little bit.”
That’s the mention of the other seniors and coach Mark Richt’s mantra of finishing the drill.
Gates got the Bulldog Clubs in Columbus and Savannah to jump aboard as well to help pay for the 9 ½ by 13 billboard on the side of a building. It can be seen to travelers entering downtown on U.S. 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, executive director of the Bulldog Club, who got the 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 they emailed 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.
Murray’s mother was in town and he told Slonaker she would be over to the billboard snapping photos. Murray said he has seen pictures of it but hasn’t driven by the billboard yet.
The three Bulldog clubs are together paying the cost of the billboard — about $1,500 or $1,700 per club.
“The clubs believed it was a good thing to do and they wrote checks,” Gates said. “We are trying to reimburse. Some of us are standing up at each club saying we believe in this project and we want to reimburse the coffers.”
Gates called it an “ensemble effort” behind the billboard as the clubs showed their support for Murray and the seniors.
Evans checked on securing a billboard in the Athens area. It was designed by Phillip Kelley, a trainer during the Herschel Walker era. Football letterman Trav Paine (1968-69) helped with the wording. Gregg Ewaldsen (a former Georgia basketball player from the Savannah Bulldog Club) and Frank Lumpkin (Columbus Bulldog Club) garnered support from their clubs.
Consider it a big counter response to that toilet paper rolling of the 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.”
While it’s not the biggest billboard, the backers liked the location.
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.
“We wanted folks to get excited over the summer, we wanted Aaron to see it obviously,” Gates said. “We’ve been getting some bad news preseason for the last few years. …We thought this would be a positive thing to go up, give fans some traction heading into the Clemson game.”