Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Alabama's Mark Ingram (22) leaps over Florida's Ryan Stamper and gets past Omar Hunter (99), a Buford grad, during Saturday's SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA -- The walk off the field at the Georgia Dome following the SEC championship game had been a long, laborious one for Lorenzo Washington a year ago.
This time, though, the 290-pound senior defensive end felt almost like he was floating on air.
Alabama, not Florida, will be playing for the national championship and no one was jumping for joy more than Washington on Saturday.
"I've never won a championship before," said the former Grayson standout. "Not in high school, not anywhere. This is the best feeling ever."
Another loss to Tim Tebow and Florida would have almost been too much to take. But Washingon and his Crimson Tide teammates made sure that didn't happen.
Washington couldn't stop smiling as he exchanged embraces with his teammates on the Georgia Dome carpet. He was handed his championship hat and posed with the SEC emblem before mounting the winners' platform to celebrate some more as "Sweet Home Alabama" blared.
It was easy to see why the SEC title meant so much to Washington. It was his last chance as a senior and the road to Alabama hadn't been an easy one. Plus, it wasn't all a smooth ride once he got to the Crimson Tide.
Washington didn't qualify academically and had to spend a year at Hargrave Military Academy after leaving Grayson. Then he lost his starting job as a junior before regaining it this year.
"But everything has definitely been worth it," said Washington, who had his high school nickname of Gorilla Zo on his eye black for the big game.
Washington also had a bandage above his left eye because of a cut suffered when his helmet was knocked off on a play. But he inflicted plenty of damage as well against the Gators.
Washington almost had a fumble-inducing sack of Tim Tebow, but it was ruled that the Florida quarterback had just gotten the pass off. In the end, it didn't matter.
"Playing against someone like Tebow, that just makes this even sweeter," Washington said. "After last year, we were waiting for revenge."
Washington wasn't the only player from Gwinnett County celebrating the Crimson Tide victory. Junior wide receiver Darius Hanks didn't add to his regular-season total of 17 catches, but that didn't temper the Norcross graduate's postgame joy.
"We had been waiting a year for this," Hanks said. "This feels unbelievable. The only thing better is a national championship. That's our goal. We've got one step left."
Florida had been hoping for a second straight BCS title, but that chance is gone now.
As Washington and Hawks celebrated, another pair of Gwinnett products made the disappointing walk to the Florida locker room, their heads down.
Defensive tackle Omar Hunter and fullback T.J. Pridemore didn't get to fully enjoy last season's title. The former Buford teammates red-shirted last year with Florida as freshmen.
Hunter started against Alabama, but he was just one of the frustrated Gators as Alabama pounded the vaunted Florida defense for 490 total yards.
"I know how bad it feels," Washington said. "It was awful last year. But this makes up for it. Right now, we're on the top of the world."