On Sunday, I was watching the 1977 Sugar Bowl between Georgia and Pittsburgh on VHS (sounds exciting, huh?) and then, a few hours later, heard about the Bulldogs kicking Zach Mettenberger off the team — two unfortunate events in the annals of UGA football that are separated by more than three decades and seemingly have nothing in common.
The '77 Sugar Bowl and recent player dismissal feature ex-Bulldog quarterbacks from two completely different worlds. One was an African American, who grew up playing football on a coal strewn field in one of Atlanta’s roughest areas, and had already established himself as a star athlete at the University of Georgia.
The other, Mettenberger, is white, grew up in Watkinsville, Georgia, far from any mean streets, and had yet to take a snap from center as a college football player.
Nevertheless, these two quarterbacks have more in common than is evident.
Midway through the final quarter of the aforementioned Sugar Bowl, Georgia was getting embarrassed by a score of 27-3 in a game that had long been decided. However, Pittsburgh head coach Johnny Majors did not want to leave any doubt with the voters that his undefeated Panthers of 1976 were the No. 1 team in the country.
Majors kept Tony Dorsett in the game so the Heisman Trophy winner could reach the 200-yard rushing mark while teammate Matt Cavanaugh, Pitt’s standout quarterback, continued to attempt long passes against the Bulldogs’ reserves on defense.
Instead of defending the padding of stats by Majors, Georgia coach Vince Dooley decided to prepare for what he thought was the future. The more than 75,000 in attendance and millions watching on television witnessed a rarity that afternoon when Georgia’s Anthony “Tony” Flanagan trotted onto the field of the Superdome—a black quarterback playing major college football.
As Georgia’s third-string quarterback, the 6'3", 195-pound Flanagan (Photo: Flanagan during a spring practice in April 1977 - The Red and Black) had played sparingly in 1976, seeing action in primarily just two games—a 41-0 win over Clemson and 45-0 victory versus Vanderbilt. For the season, he rushed for 73 yards on eight carries, including a one-yard touchdown run against Vanderbilt, and completed the only pass he attempted for 16 yards.
Flanagan was the first black quarterback at the school. The second wouldn’t come for another eight years when James Jackson, an eventual three-year starter, saw his first action in October of 1984.
Flanagan was under center for Georgia’s final four offensive snaps of that forgettable Sugar Bowl. He was sacked, gained only one yard on an option run, and threw two incomplete passes. As it turned out, it would be the final four plays Flanagan ever ran as a Bulldog.
At Southwest Atlanta High School, Flanagan was an absolute superstar on both the football field and basketball court. One of the most “celebrated high school athletes in Atlanta history,” according to Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Flanagan came to Georgia in 1974 on both a football and basketball scholarship.
He soon quit the Bulldogs’ football squad to concentrate on basketball, but would try out again two years later for the ’76 team that would win the SEC and earn the Sugar Bowl bid.
A cocky and confident guard on Georgia’s 1974-75 basketball team, Flanagan averaged 12.8 points per game and led the team in assists as only a true freshman. As a sophomore and junior, he again started for the Bulldogs and averaged nearly 11 points per game for each season.
In the spring of 1977, shortly after receiving an award for being the basketball team’s best leader, Flanagan began spring practice as the football team’s No. 1 quarterback. As the practices ended, Flanagan, like Mettenberger 33 years later, was involved in a three-way battle for the starting position, along with Jeff Pyburn and Danny Rogers. However, the quarterback race was soon minus its top contender.
Flanagan was ruled academically ineligible that summer and would not play football or basketball again at Georgia. He was the last Bulldog quarterback vying for the starting position to leave or be dropped from the team until two days ago when Mettenberger got the boot. However, Flanagan is a prime example of one who turned a personal tragedy into triumph.
Soon after leaving school, Flanagan joined the Hawaii Volcanos of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). A few years later, he was playing football for the Georgia Pride, a semi-pro team of the American Football Association. While with the Pride, Flanagan worked for a moving company in Athens during the day and played football more than an hour away in Atlanta at night.
In 1982, Flanagan was a starting quarterback for the first time since high school, leading the Pride to the playoffs. It was during the team’s playoff run Flanagan displayed the same confidence he had while playing for the Bulldogs, predicting, “I’ll be playing quarterback in the USFL next year.”
In 1983, Flanagan earned a roster spot with the Boston Breakers of the upstart United States Football League (USFL) and later with the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL.
After Flanagan’s career in professional sports, he returned to Atlanta to coach at John F. Kennedy Middle School, where he soon became a mentor and favorite of many children.
On January 12, 2001, Flanagan passed away untimely at the age of only 45.
How tragic it must be for Zach Mettenberger. He grows up a Georgia fan only minutes from Sanford Stadium, earns a scholarship to play football at UGA, is a candidate to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs as a mere redshirt freshman, and has the best performance at G-Day of Georgia’s three quarterbacks. Regardless, Mettenberger’s underage drinking prior to the spring game apparently led to his eventual dismissal.
This young man’s life is far from over, however, whether playing football or otherwise.
Mettenberger’s bad decision ultimately led to him following the same path as another former Georgia quarterback by getting removed from the team. Let’s hope he can continue to follow in the footsteps of the late Tony Flanagan by taking the right path next time and getting his life back on track.