Bulldog Haven: Cemetery for Ga.'s die-hard Dawgs

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ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -- You've heard of die-hard football fans, but a cemetery plot devoted to former University of Georgia players and their families takes the cliche beyond the grave.

The "Bulldog Haven" is a resting place in the shadows of Georgia's football stadium that is devoted exclusively to Bulldog lettermen and their families.

So far, more than 100 spots at the site have been sold to ex-Bulldog players and their families at $1,500 apiece. The Georgia Football Lettermen's Club, which is organizing the sale, is pitching it as a way for Bulldog icons to "come full circle."

"You have to do this at some point," said Andy Johnson, a former Georgia quarterback in the 1970s who recently bought a plot. "We have an opportunity to be buried with all the guys we played at Georgia with. It's kind of sentimental to be buried this close to the stadium."

The former players came up with the idea after Bulldog great Bill Hartman's 2006 funeral at another plot in the Oconee Hill Cemetery, just across the street from the stadium.

Hartman's friends arranged for team broadcaster Larry Munson to recreate one of his most famous touchdown runs, and when it played over the stadium's loudspeaker, it inspired Mack Guest and other ex-players to dream up a special burial place for former lettermen.

The result is a tidy plot deep in the sprawling cemetery where contractors plan to build a wall that looks like stadium steps, a small-scale version of a football field and a small chapel bell that would be rung to memorialize lettermen.

It also will sport the trademark hedges that line the field of the real stadium across the street.

"We thought it would be great to be buried close to the stadium where we could hear the crowds six times a year," said Guest, a burly former lineman and president of the lettermen's club. "It goes back to the Georgia tradition. There's nothing like being in Athens on a Saturday afternoon."

In some ways, it's a unique fit for a school steeped in some, er, morbid traditions.

The school's beloved bulldog mascots are buried in a mammoth marble vault near the football field. And for decades before Sanford Stadium was closed in the 1980s, fans would crowd the railroad tracks along the edge of the Oconee Hill Cemetery to catch the game.

Even today, groups of lettermen often tailgate at a part of the cemetery with no tombstones, a sight that can disturb opposing players.

"There was one scene so bizarre and frankly a bit frightening that offensive tackle Andrew Hartline nudged me and had me look out the window," wrote Brian Brunner, a backup quarterback for Central Michigan University, in a blog posting after his team played the Bulldogs. "Groups of people were tailgating in a cemetery. Welcome to SEC football."

The Bulldog Haven is one of the bolder moves in the growing realm of sports burials.

Some companies already offer caskets emblazoned with team logos, and a handful of soccer teams, including Argentina's beloved Boca Juniors, have encouraged private plots where former players, managers and rabid fans can be buried.

But the ex-Georgia players say Bulldog Haven is the first of its kind in the United States.

Guest, who brings groups of former players to tour the site during each Saturday home game, said most of the plots are sold to players' wives. But he said his decision to buy a plot near where the miniature football field will be built came a bit easier.

"You got Bulldog players going to Bulldog Haven," Guest said as he walked tensely around the plot. "And hopefully, we're all going to heaven."

A few feet from him sat a formidable pile of flowers, marking the final resting place for Randy Sharpe, a former running back who became a Georgia trainer after he injured his knees in the 1970s.

Sharpe had long wanted his ashes scattered at Sanford, but he told his wife in late September that he changed his mind after he discovered Bulldog Haven. When Sharpe died last month of a heart attack at age 54, his wife had no trouble picking a grave site.

He was the first person to be buried at the Bulldog Haven, and his casket was welcomed by many former players and coaches. For his family, it felt more like a homecoming than a funeral.

"It couldn't have been any more perfect," said Sharpe's wife, Joyce. "It was just like it was meant to be."


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