Editor’s note: In celebration of National Dog Day, we revisit Mark Schlabach’s incredible story about the time his dog ran onto the field during a Georgia-Kentucky football game. It was originally published on November 18, 2019.
It also was a big topic of conversation among my family and friends, and even Washington State coach Mike Leach, who texted, called or tweeted memories of the infamous day in 1997 when my chocolate Labrador retriever made his own dash for glory at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium during a game against Kentucky.
That dog arrived in my life as a 20-pound bundle of fur and fury on Sunday, March 17, 1996. He was a graduation gift from my then-girlfriend, whose parents had purchased the dog from a breeder in Savannah, Georgia.
I was living in the Sigma Nu fraternity house at the University of Georgia — a crumbling, white French chateau-style house on the outskirts of campus and a not-so-suitable place to raise and train a dog.
It was the day after the Bulldogs basketball team upset No. 4 seed Purdue 76-69 to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. My friends and I were watching games when my girlfriend brought the puppy into the room. When the dog vanished a while later — it wouldn’t be the last time he went missing — I found him licking water off the shower floors.
My friends and I had spent much of the previous hour trying to come up with a name for the dog. Someone suggested Tubby in honor of Tubby Smith, Georgia’s first-year basketball coach, and when we found the dog in the bathroom the name seemed fitting.
At that moment, I had no idea how adventurous my life with Tubby would be.
ESPN writer Mark Schlabach recalls the time his dog ran away from home and ventured onto the field at Sanford Stadium in front of 86,117 Georgia fans.
After winter quarter ended in 1996, I finally graduated (in five-plus years) and took a reporting job with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I moved in with two friends in a house not far from the UGA campus. Fortunately, the landlord allowed pets and there was a big fenced-in backyard for Tubby. Apparently, the yard wasn’t big enough. Whenever I left for work, Tubby spent the day trying to escape. When he figured out how to jump over the fence, I attached chicken wire to the top to make it taller. When he dug under the fence, I placed stumps, railroad ties and cinder blocks along the perimeter to make it Tubby-proof.
Alas, nothing seemed to work. One night, when I assumed Tubby was in the backyard, I got a call from a man at Dunkin Donuts a couple of miles away. Tubby had his favorite spots all over Athens — Waffle House, Taco Stand and Locos, a sandwich and wings joint a few blocks from our house, to name a few. One time, Tubby vanished for about 10 days. I thought he was gone for good. When I came home from covering a basketball game, he was sitting in a recliner wagging his tail.
I had four different roommates during those four years I lived in that three-bedroom house on West Cloverhurst Avenue, and I’m pretty sure none of them was particularly fond of Tubby. Don’t get me wrong, he was a friendly and lovable dog, but he was always looking for trouble and destroyed everything.
Tubby’s roommates describe living with him:
Jeff Cass: Tubby simply could not be contained. He was spirited and loved to push the envelope.
Jesse Baker: He chewed up everything — wallets, hats, Frisbees, Birkenstocks and money. I’d never seen a dog eat cold, hard cash.
Dan Fuller: Tubby’s tail was a dangerous weapon. Nothing was safe — beer bottles, glasses, spit bottles, everything. His tail ruined quite a few rugs.
Baker: We had to keep everything on a fireplace mantle — 6 feet up — to keep it away from Tubby or he’d get to it. It wasn’t a question of if, but when, Tubby would destroy whatever was left out.
Steven Tomlinson: Tubby was an awful influence on my Great Dane, Jackson. Whenever Tubby slipped out the front door or out of the backyard, he encouraged Jackson to follow him. Of course, Jackson was dumb enough to follow him.
Cass: Sometimes, when we were watching a football game or playing cards, the phone would ring and Schlabach would vanish. He’d come back a few minutes later with Tubby, who had been hanging at the Varsity, somewhere downtown or at a sorority house with the ladies.
Jesse and Steven worked as bartenders at Locos. They often came home late and had pizza delivered to the house. As soon as they went to bed, Tubby nudged the refrigerator open with his nose and dragged the pizza box into the backyard. Most mornings, I’d wake up and survey what he had for a midnight snack. Finally, after Tubby pulled a few uncooked steaks into the backyard, we came up with a solution: We secured the refrigerator door with Velcro.
Baker: Obviously, having to Velcro the refrigerator shut was a first. He was the only animal I’ve ever known that seemed so dull, yet was smart enough to open a refrigerator.
Cass: Tubby had a rather sophisticated palate for a dog. It didn’t matter if it was leftover pizza, chicken wings, sushi or lasagna. If it was inside the fridge when he opened it, it was coming out.
Baker: Eggs were the worst things he’d get into, for obvious reasons.
Cass: I remember him eating a garbage can full of leftovers from a huge low-country boil we had. He ate the corn, potatoes, shrimp and sausage. I’m pretty sure he even ate the onions. He had quite an appetite.
Baker: At least he typically left our beer alone.
Tubby’s favorite thing in the world was chasing tennis balls. He wanted to play fetch every minute of every day. I’d sit on the back steps of our house and throw balls to him for hours. I’m pretty sure it’s why the rotator cuff in my right shoulder hurts like hell when I throw today. One time, while I was driving past the YMCA — with Tubby hanging out the back window of my beat-up Volvo — he saw tennis courts. Going about 25 mph, he jumped out of my car’s window, landed on four paws, dodged traffic and somehow made it to the courts.
Whenever we had friends over to watch games or have a barbecue in the backyard, Tubby tried to coerce someone into throwing a ball with him. He always seemed to find at least one victim. When he brought the ball back, he didn’t just drop it. You had to yank it out of his mouth — he wouldn’t surrender until he was certain it was adequately covered in slobber and dirt.
Heather Schlabach (my wife): Playing fetch with him was the worst because he slobbered like a St. Bernard.
Fuller: You could always tell who had been one of Tubby’s victims because of the round stains on their shorts or pants. He liked to tag everyone with his mark. It was almost like a badge of honor.
Heather Schlabach: He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he was so mischievous. The dog was always in trouble.
In July 1997, I took a vacation to England, where my then-girlfriend, Erin Cranman (now Witkow), was studying abroad. While I was overseas, Tubby spent three weeks at obedience school. It was long overdue. Tubby was nearly 2 years old and it seemed like maybe the window had closed in getting him properly trained. Thankfully, the dog trainer was confident he could correct Tubby’s behavior.
When I returned to Athens and picked Tubby up, the trainer looked at me and shook his head.
“I did the best I could,” the trainer said. “He’s the most hardheaded dog I’ve ever worked with.”
“Tell me about it,” I replied.
Not much was expected of Georgia’s football team in 1997. The Bulldogs were 5-6 in coach Jim Donnan’s first season in 1996. They lost to Southern Mississippi 11-7 at home in Donnan’s debut and were drubbed 47-7 by Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. Things were much better the next season. The Bulldogs were 5-1 and ranked No. 16 in the country heading into an Oct. 25, 1997, game against Kentucky at Sanford Stadium.
I don’t remember much about that morning. It was cool and rainy and not a great day for a football game. I do remember being excited about a date that night with a girl, Heather Hodges, who would eventually become my wife.
It was a nationally televised game on CBS. The Wildcats weren’t great; they had a 4-3 record but had beaten Alabama for the first time in 75 years. Kentucky coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach had installed the Air Raid offense, and Tim Couch led Division I in passing and total offense.
When I left my house a few hours before the 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff, I made sure the back door was locked. It was rainy and muddy, and I didn’t want Tubby making paw tracks all over the hardwood floors. I’m not completely sure how Tubby escaped the house. I can only guess he likely pulled the heavy, wooden front door open with his mouth. He had done it a few times before. It was an older home and the latch didn’t always catch. I’m pretty sure we’d lost the key to the deadbolt several months earlier. A neighbor told me he saw Tubby leave the front yard and follow fans to the game.
Once the game kicked off, it was pretty uneventful. I was sitting in my seat in the press box, working on a notebook and story for the early editions of the AJC. With about four minutes left in the first quarter, however, Tubby made his Sanford Stadium debut. Michael Adams, the then-UGA president, told me later he watched my dog follow the Redcoat Marching Band into the stadium through the gate near the east end zone.
Once Tubby was inside, he somehow found a gap in the chain-link fence behind the famed hedges and ran to the middle of the field — almost immediately after Georgia safety Kirby Smart intercepted a pass.
When the crowd started cheering, I looked up from my laptop in the press box and saw the dog standing at midfield. Immediately, I knew it was mine — and I could feel the blood drain from my face.
I was helpless. I turned to one of my editors, Plott Brice, who lived in Athens. He knew Tubby and immediately realized it was my dog. Plott chuckled and shook his head in disbelief. I found Claude Felton, Georgia’s longtime sports information director, in the back of the press box. He was on a walkie-talkie, telling someone, “We need to find out who owns that dog.” I grinned and said, “It’s mine.” Claude told whoever was on the other end, “Hold on a minute.”
For about four or five minutes, Tubby eluded security guards, football players and coaches who were trying to catch him. The crowd cheered as he ran down the sideline before he finally ran off the field through the east gate, where an officer from Athens-Clarke County Animal Control intercepted him.
Fuller: I was watching the game on TV with a few friends when we noticed a chocolate lab break onto the field. Immediately, I thought to myself there was only one dog in Athens I knew that could pull off that stunt.
The late Larry Munson, Georgia’s legendary radio play-by-play announcer, is famously known for heralding the arrival of Herschel Walker by exclaiming “My God, a freshman!” In this game, he broadcast Tubby’s star-making performance live across the school’s radio network.
Somebody’s chocolate lab is out there… I wonder who released him.
Baker: I was bartending at Locos. I immediately told everyone at the bar it was Tubby. Folks didn’t believe it, but I knew right away.
Tomlinson: Tubby had an ankle-breaking, head-fake move, and I’d seen it hundreds of times when I was chasing him in the backyard. As soon as he made the move, I said, “That’s Tubby.”
Fuller: I had my doubts until the camera gave a close-up shot of the lab’s face. When I saw that one upper lip semi-curled under his teeth, with that unmistaken devious grin, there was no doubt it was Tubby. I’d seen that look before when he stole my steak off the grill.
He keeps breaking out into the Kentucky secondary. He runs by an official. I can’t believe I’m doing the play-by-play of the dog.
Tony Barnhart, former AJC columnist, now an analyst with the SEC Network: Mark looked down on the field. Then he looked up at the television monitors. Then he looked back down on the field and said: “Tubby! That’s my dog.” And away he went, like a nervous parent looking for his kid at Disney World.
He won’t let ’em touch him. He’s right in front of the Dawgs’ bench right now. He has stopped the game completely.
Matt Stinchcomb, SEC Network analyst, then a Georgia offensive tackle: I’d never seen Uga [Georgia’s English bulldog mascot] look that jealous. He doesn’t ever get to run on the field without a leash.
Sonny Seiler, Uga’s owner: Tubby’s appearance excited Uga a bit. He was barking and wasn’t happy that there was another dog on his field. He was confused, to say the least.
Sonny Dykes, head coach at SMU, then a Kentucky grad assistant: You would compare it to a streaker who the security guys are trying to tackle, except it was a dog.
Stinchcomb: I loved it. I got plenty of rest while Tubby made the rounds.
Somebody needs to get a hold of the dog’s collar. He belongs to somebody. We’re trying to treat him with kindness and love by bending down and talking to him but he says, “No way.”
Mike Leach, Washington State head coach, then Kentucky’s offensive coordinator: The dog didn’t have great straight-line speed, but he could make you miss, and he made a lot of people miss that day.
Stinchcomb: He would have made a pretty good punt returner.
Baker: The dog was fast with amazing hip turn. It looked exactly like my failed attempts in our backyard to regain whatever he had pulled out of the refrigerator.
Chris Hatcher, head coach at Samford, then a Kentucky graduate assistant: It was such a long stoppage of play, and it was a long time for Leach to come up with thoughts in his head.
Smart, UGA head coach, then a Georgia safety: Kentucky broke a record for the number of passes at Sanford Stadium that day. They threw it over and over and over. It made for a long game. Then the dog added to it. It was a world-record length for a game.
Leach: There were some fast people chasing him between world-class athletes from the University of Georgia and University of Kentucky. It took them a while to catch him. It’s not like they just went out there and grabbed him by the collar. That dog played chase with about 100 new friends for a while.
He’s off the playing field, but we don’t know if he’s gonna stay. Now he breaks, streaking down to the far end zone. Yeah! They got him out.
Hatcher: For that entire defensive series after they finally got the dog off the field, I listened to Leach telling stories about dogs and pirates. Thank goodness we finally got the ball back.
After a couple of fans — Fuller said he was lured off the field with a hot dog — and the animal control officer finally corralled Tubby, he was taken to the Athens Clarke-County Shelter, where he stayed until Monday morning. As soon as I picked him up, I took him to my veterinarian, where he was groomed — and neutered.
About a month later, I appeared in front of the honorable Vickie Carter in the Municipal Court of Athens-Clarke County. If I recall correctly, I had citations for not having my dog on a leash, public nuisance and something else.
A good friend, Billy Healan III, was an attorney and took my case pro bono. All these years later, he still calls Tubby his most famous client.
When Judge Carter asked if there were any witnesses, I responded, “About 86,117.”
Fortunately, she dismissed the charges. Tubby wasn’t a criminal.
“I remember you asking me if we should plead temporary insanity, but I didn’t think we could sell that to the judge,” Healan said. “We were relieved but a little surprised with the acquittal. I believe the judge considered the fact that Tubby had already served a day in confinement and had an otherwise spotless record. I would like to say that Tubby was remorseful, but that would be a lie. I believe he would have done it again if he had gotten the chance.”
Tubby’s run became part of local lore.
I get asked about Tubby all the time. Earlier this year, as part of our CFB150 project, I told the story in a video that ran on College GameDay and ESPN.com. I was covering Georgia’s game against Notre Dame at Sanford Stadium that night, and as I was walking to the field in the fourth quarter, several UGA fans screamed to me, “Where’s your dog?!”
“It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in a football stadium. I’ve told my wife about that dog for 20 years,” Dykes said. “I don’t think she believed me. I saw it on TV and was like, ‘Look! See, I was here!’ She said, ‘OK, maybe you were telling the truth.'”
The day after his famous escape, Tubby’s photo was on the front page of the AJC sports section, with an article from Barnhart explaining how my dog ended up on the field. Video of the episode was shown on SportsCenter, and Tubby’s run was CNN’s Play of the Day.
In 2004, I left Georgia to take a job at the Washington Post. Tubby was already showing signs of hip dysplasia, and my veterinarian worried the cold weather would make things worse. After Heather and I were married and had kids, our neighbors Dick Crooks and Kiki Pollard were semi-retired and fortunately liked to walk Tubby and our other dog, Shelby, a King Charles spaniel. With two toddlers and a job that required quite a bit of travel, I worried I wouldn’t have time to give them proper attention. I didn’t want to break them up either. Our neighbors were kind enough to adopt them.
A few years later, after I’d taken a job with ESPN and moved back to Georgia, our old neighbors called and told me they were going to have to put Tubby down. The dog who became unforgettable for his escapability struggled to run anymore. One of his hind legs kicked out to the side because the hip dysplasia was so severe.
I knew I had to go see him one last time. When I arrived at their house to tell Tubby goodbye, he was lying in the front yard. I’m pretty sure he didn’t forget me, either.
He limped up to the porch to see me.
I sat on the front steps to rub his ears, and he promptly dropped a slobber-covered tennis ball in my lap.