By Joe Spears | @joe_spears7
Sports Capital Journalism Program
ATLANTA — Riley Ridley sat in his locker in quiet disbelief.
The sophomore receiver had just played the best game of his young career at the University of Georgia. Coming into the College Football Playoff National Championship, Ridley had eight receptions for 136 yards this season, and he did not catch more than two receptions in a game.
Against an Alabama secondary that had allowed an average of just 163.7 passing yards per game, seventh best in the country, Ridley had a career-high six catches. His 82 yards were seven short of tying career high.
“I spoke to Riley before the game and I said, man I just feel it, I feel like you’re going to have a great game,” said Jake Fromm, the freshman quarterback. “I’m so proud of him and the way he played. He definitely rose to the occasion and I’m so proud of him.”
The hushed words were a consolation following Georgia’s crushing 26-23 overtime loss to the Crimson Tide. From the players and coaches on the sideline to the fans above them, a stunned silence fell over the Georgia side of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Georgia players walked off the field with tears in their eyes. Fans cried and cheerleaders sat stunned while Hairy Dawg, the Georgia mascot, patted them on the back. Many of the fans just stood, staring at the players.
The field was littered with confetti and streamers for someone else’s party. But unlike many of the Georgia players that left the sideline, Riley Ridley set out to find his brother.
He found Calvin Ridley, Alabama’s junior wide receiver, near the 40-yard line and they embraced. Riley quickly got his shoulder pads and jersey off and the two talked and laughed. Riley got a quick hug from Alabama freshman Jerry Jeudy, but continued talking to his brother.
“He told me that I had a pretty good game and that he was proud of me,” Riley Ridley said. “He’s not the type of brother to rub anything in.”
Time after time, Fromm had found Riley Ridley in critical situations to extend a Georgia drive. The duo connected twice in the second quarter on third and long situations. Ridley’s 13.7 yards per catch average led Georgia and he also led the Bulldogs in receptions and yards.
“I had a couple of off games before this one,” Ridley said. “One I get that one catch and I get into my groove, my coaches understand that there is no one that can really play with me or stop me. That’s the mindset that I have.”
On top of Ridley’s shoulder pads in his locker rested a 2017 National Champions baseball cap. However, the cap didn’t have the Georgia “G” on it. Instead on the front was Alabama’s logo.
After trailing by as much as 13 with 6:52 left in the third quarter, Alabama outscored Georgia 19-3 to cap off its fifth national championship in nine years and 17th claimed national championship overall. Freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa started the second half for the Crimson Tide and immediately sparked an offense that had struggled to find any momentum in the first half.
Tagovailoa threw for three touchdowns, including the 7-yard pass with 3:49 to play that tied the game at 20-20. Threading the needle past the arm of Georgia’s J.R. Reed, Tagovailoa found Calvin Ridley streaking across the end zone to make a diving catch. Calvin Ridley had four receptions for 32 yards, but while Riley finished with more catches and yards, his brother made one of the biggest plays of the night.
“It drove me a little bit to know that my brother was on the other side and watching me,” Riley Ridley said. “Whenever my brother watches me, in high school I tried my best to use him as a role model and I really look up to him.
“For him to see me do good things, it just brought a little more out of me.”
When Tagovailoa’s perfectly-placed throw to DeVonta Smith from 41 yards out ended Georgia’s dream of its first national championship since the 1980 season, the brothers exchanged jerseys, hugged and went their separate ways.
Riley went to sit with his team in the Georgia locker room after a heartbreaking loss. As Calvin went to celebrate with his Alabama teammates, after what may his last game on Alabama, he wore Riley Ridley’s white No. 8 Georgia Bulldog jersey.
“I just told him I that loved him and congratulated him on the win,” Riley Ridley said. “I just told him that they played really hard and you can’t doubt a Nick Saban Alabama team. We didn’t.
“We came out and played hard. We just came up a little short.”