Over my long life, I have come to realize that college football is not life-or-death. Life and death are life and death. Football is a game. Only a game. Yet, there are those rare times when the sport can tell us a lot about life – and death – and remind us that there is more to winning than the final score.
Georgia Head Football Coach Mark Richt has been the subject of a barrage of criticism regarding last year’s 6-7 record from dumbos who couldn’t pass a football if you fed them prunes. The man is 96-34 overall but anything less than an undefeated season and an SEC championship is failure in their eyes. They obviously weren’t around when people regularly beat Georgia like a drum. I had to endure eight straight losses to Georgia Tech. Not a happy time.
But even this bunch of yahoos should pause a moment between their anonymous blogs and talk show rants and give thanks that Mark Richt is the face of the University of Georgia football program.
In what was a banner year of recruiting, Coach Richt cleaned up in the state of Georgia, getting just about every star athlete he went after. But one selection above all the others proves the character of the man.
In an age of ego-maniacal football coaches, he is pure class.
Two of the most heavily-recruited football players in the state this past year were Jay Rome and Malcolm Mitchell, of Valdosta High School. In pursuing them – and eventually signing them up to play at UGA – Mark Richt ran across a young man, James Eunice, who was on the same football team with Rome and Mitchell.
Eunice was an honor student and a two-sport athlete, playing football and baseball. He had already been accepted to the University of Georgia on the basis of his academics and had told the coach that he planned to walk on next fall with the expectation of making the football team.
That all changed when 17-year-old Eunice drowned while duck hunting near Valdosta in mid-January. It took 17 excruciating days before his body was discovered by searchers.
At his funeral a couple of weeks ago, both Jay Rome and Malcolm Mitchell came to the front of the church with a box. In it was a letter from Coach Richt addressed to the Eunice family which they read aloud. The coach expressed his profound sorrow at what had happened. He also reminded the Eunice family how James had told him that he intended to walk on to the Bulldog football team.
At the end of the letter, Mark Richt added, “Oh yeah, James made the team.” With that, Rome and Mitchell pulled out of the box an official Georgia football jersey. On the back were Eunice’s name and the No. 23 he had worn at Valdosta. The grieving audience rose to their feet in applause.
James Eunice was officially a Georgia Bulldog.
Two long-time readers, Jean Aldredge, of Atlanta, and Rhonda Hoffman, of Valdosta, wrote me about the letter and suggested I let you know in case you had not heard.
And there is a good chance you have not, what with the rebellions in the Middle East, the ongoing debates about health care and illegal immigration, budget reductions and on and on. With all the meanness and shrillness in the world today, sometimes we overlook life’s small but very important lessons. Like how a big-time football coach could have ignored the tragedy in Valdosta in the middle of an extremely competitive recruiting period and no one would have known the difference. But that isn’t who he is. Or how two star football players who have a seemingly unlimited future in football now understand that life is a little more complicated than the X’s and O’s of a play-action pass.
And a family that grieves for a young life gone much too soon who can take great pride in knowing that James Eunice was able to accomplish his cherished goal because he wasn’t afraid to dream big.
I hope Coach Mark Richt has a banner year and that my beloved Bulldogs do well. (If they just beat Tech by a hundred points or so, I’ll be satisfied. My goals are modest.) But no matter what happens on the football field, the man is a winner and always will be in my book. I am proud that he represents my alma mater.
Yarbrough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Ga. 31139.