Penn State Football

Through their eyes: Penn State’s 1983 Sugar Bowl win, from the voices of Gregg Garrity, Vince Dooley and Lou Prato

Penn State?s Gregg Garrity (19) catches a 47 yard pass to score a touchdown against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Saturday, Jan. 1, 1983 in New Orleans. Penn State won the game and the national championship with a score of 27 to 23. (AP Photo)
Penn State?s Gregg Garrity (19) catches a 47 yard pass to score a touchdown against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Saturday, Jan. 1, 1983 in New Orleans. Penn State won the game and the national championship with a score of 27 to 23. (AP Photo) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gregg Garrity only remembers bits and pieces.

The 1983 Sugar Bowl lives in legend in the Penn State community — the clash of then-No. 1 Georgia and then-No. 2 Penn State, two touchdowns punched in by Curt Warner to set up a 20-3 halftime lead, back-to-back touchdowns from Georgia that brought the Bulldogs clawing back ...

... The Catch ...

Penn State had a little walk-on, I can’t remember his name. But I sure liked him. I’ve always been partial to walk-ons...While I didn’t particularly like what he did, because it was against us, I still had great admiration for walk-ons.

Former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley

“It was a long day,” said Garrity, dragging out the middle vowel, about two weeks before the Nittany Lions’ second-ever meeting with Georgia, in Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It was a late game ... I was never a big fan of late games. You just sat around all day, and you actually got more tired just from sitting, because they didn’t want you to waste your legs.

“Finally, we got to go to the stadium. The pregame was still the pregame, but you could tell everyone, at least on our side, there were some jitters a little bit. We were the underdogs.”

In the crowd that day in New Orleans, with his wife, son and second daughter was Lou Prato, now an author and Penn State historian, then a news director at a TV station in Dayton, Ohio.

“We went down as a family and stayed, and we just had to go to this game,” said Prato. “We stayed in a hotel near an airport but we hung out near the team hotel near Bourbon Street most of the time.

“It was run by a Penn Stater, so it was all decked out...It was the thriving place. The big thing I remember was that Bourbon Street, it was the perfect place to have that type of a bowl game because everybody hung out there. And the vivid memory was everybody shouting ‘How ‘bout them Dawgs!’ or ‘We Are! Penn State,’ and that’s all you could hear in the French Quarter for three days.”

Georgia had won the National Championship in 1980, and won the SEC title the following year.

“We were undefeated, and we were ranked No. 1 through most of the season,” drawled then-head coach Vince Dooley, gravelly voice made duskier by phone speakers. “Penn State had lost one early, I think to Alabama.

“I’ve always thought that sometimes it’s better to lose one early, as opposed to being undefeated ... There’s always something about losing early.”

Georgia was indeed favored, and Garrity said that when players would walk down the streets, Bulldogs fans would bark and shout at them. They didn’t have a curfew, he said, and hardly any supervision but he added that at that time, he thought then-head coach Joe Paterno felt the group was special and could take care of themselves.

Things were a bit different then, from the bed-checks and tight curfews Penn State has had throughout bowl week this year.. Different times, after all.

“Joe kind of gave us free rein,” said Garrity. “Every single year, you know, we went to four bowl games and pretty much ... (by) the national championship year, he gave us almost every evening off. And probably half the week we had no curfew.

“And, if you were 21, they gave you a rental car. Oh yeah. So we could come and go, and there was a lot of ‘demolition derbies.’”

Garrity chuckled.

“We talk about that, we just laugh about it. Because I mean, cars were on fire in our parking lot from the demolition derbies, it was just brutal. But we had a blast! And the good thing is, everyone kind of looked out for each other. So if we saw someone that was in trouble or was going to get in trouble, we got him out of there right away and everything turned out fine.”

Garrity said Penn State had “all the confidence in the world” in their team. And at first, they showed it with a quick 20-3 lead. Georgia didn’t even make it past its own 45-yard line but twice, something of which Garrity is incredibly proud to this day — the Bulldogs, after all, had Herschel Walker carrying the ball for them.

Then, the comeback.

“We fought back, scored right before the halftime,” said Dooley. “Then we really put the pressure on Penn State.”

And ‘The Catch.’

“Penn State had a little walk-on, I can’t remember his name. But I sure liked him,” laughed Dooley. “I’ve always been partial to walk-ons...While I didn’t particularly like what he did, because it was against us, I still had great admiration for walk-ons.”

Garrity, a little wisp of a receiver matched up against Georgia’s freshman corner, whizzed down the field as quarterback Todd Blackledge unfurled his pass, and made the diving catch.

He remembers all of his catches that game, especially one he still wishes he’d have snagged, a squirter he laid out for on a post-corner and just barely slipped out of his fingers as he hit the ground.

“That would’ve been a much better catch, in my opinion,” he said.

“I remember that, and also I remember my last catch, which I felt was just as important as my touchdown. It was a little 7-yard out-route that got us another first down that put away the game.”

Dooley said his defense wasn’t expecting a pass. Penn State had three yards to eat up in order to convert, and Warner had rushed for over 100 yards and two touchdowns already.

“We were still within striking distance, we could get the ball back,” he said. “I don’t remember if the ball (on the third down) was low or not, but he made just another terrific catch.”

Garrity said the team just really, really wanted to keep Walker off the field.

After, he said, the fourth quarter dragged. At least, to Garrity it did.

“The game was pretty quick, except for the last 10 minutes or so ... you just noticed every little mistake that we made, it was very nerve-wracking,” said Garrity. “I’ve never seen a clock move so slow in my life. I mean, it just seemed forever.”

Then, it was over.

The team carried Paterno off the field as the crowd roared, Blackledge won the game’s Most Valuable Player trophy, and he, Warner and Garrity filed into the media room for postgame interviews.

When they were done, the rest of the team was gone.

The funniest story about the whole thing, that I guarantee nobody really knows about except for those of us that were involved...After the game, Todd, Curt and myself had a press conference, you know, they wanted us to go in and answer questions. So we took our shoulder pads off and stuff...went in and did all the stuff we had to do, and when we came back into the locker room and everyone was gone. Everything was packed up, and everyone was gone.

Former Penn State receiver Gregg Garrity

“The funniest story about the whole thing, that I guarantee nobody really knows about except for those of us that were involved ... After the game, Todd, Curt and myself had a press conference, you know, they wanted us to go in and answer questions,” said Garrity. “So we took our shoulder pads off and stuff ... went in and did all the stuff we had to do, and when we came back into the locker room and everyone was gone. Everything was packed up, and everyone was gone.”

He said the three looked at each other for a moment, stunned.

“We didn’t know what to do,” said Garrity. “So we took a shower, and we walked out of the stadium and we had a couple of game balls that we kept and Todd had the MVP trophy and stuff, and basically had to hitchhike back to the hotel, which basically was like 45 minutes from the stadium.

“Yeah, so we got stranded at the stadium, and I think it was someone in a white van --” Garrity took a moment, overcome by his own giggling at the absurdity of the memory.

“They were kind enough to give us a ride back to the hotel,” he said. “Then we got back to the hotel and we couldn’t get into the hotel because there were so many Penn State fans around.”

He said the hotel’s manager snuck them — the player who would soon be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the best quarterback in Penn State history and the equally legendary running back — around the back of the hotel, up the work elevator, and then into the rest of their lives.

Garrity paused, suddenly solemn in his reflection. He remembers, like he said, only pieces, vivid bits of a blur that saw him wake up a normal 21-year-old college football player (and an undersized one, at that) and go to sleep the following night a national champion and chunk of college football history.

“I feel honored just being a part of that team,” he said. “Just the character of the guys that were on the team...And we became a close family, even before that game.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue

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