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Friday, November 13, 2009

Home Is Where Your Helmet Is

A lot was made this week of freshman defensive end Montez Robinson earning SEC defensive lineman of the week honors, just a few weeks removed from some serious thoughts about transferring. That got me to thinking... Robinson certainly isn't alone in feeling a bit out of place at Georgia in his early career.

A handful of players who traveled the farthest to come to Georgia are getting minimal playing time, so I decided to look into how those players -- Brandon Bogotay, Arthur Lynch and Robinson -- have been coping. As a transplant to Athens, I know it can be a bit of a culture shock.

Anyway, my original version of the story came out pretty long, and with newspapers getting smaller, there just isn't room for 50-inch features anymore. So I had to make some cuts, and in the process, I think the story lost a lot of its color and detail.

You're free to read that version of the story online now, if you'd like. But, if like the Big Lebowski, you're not into the whole brevity thing, I figured I'd post the full version of the story here, without any cuts made to it.

Here goes...


It was the Fourth of July before Aron White’s freshman year at Georgia when he took a trip home to Columbia, Mo. for the holiday. He had been in Athens for a while, working out with teammates and getting ready for his rookie season, and the trip home was a welcome reward after a difficult start to his career with the Bulldogs.

Throughout the visit home, White couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he wasn’t supposed to leave. Many of his friends were in school at nearby Missouri, and being home was like old times. He missed family, he missed friends, he missed normalcy. Being home felt right.

Nearly four months passed before White made another trip back to Columbia, this time during Georgia’s off week in 2007. He hadn’t played a down that season, instead redshirting while fellow freshman Bruce Figgins earned praise from coaches and fans for his early contributions. Life in Athens was still unconfortable.

But that second trip to Missouri was different. White was happy to see his brothers, but many of his friends were occupied with school. Most had made new friends he didn’t know. The bedroom he had grown up in suddenly felt foreign. The bed wasn’t as comfortable. The d├ęcor wasn’t his own.

He missed Georgia.

“It was home, but it was just like, I knew by the end of that weekend I wanted to go back, I missed people,” White said. “I went home and slept in my old room, and it wasn’t the same. You don’t have all those things you surround yourself with. It wasn’t my bed, it wasn’t my TV, I didn’t have my movies or my posters hanging on the wall. That was definitely the point I realized that if I were to leave Georgia, I’d definitely miss it.”

White’s story is hardly unique. It’s an annual right of passage for Georgia’s freshmen, but it’s never a simple process.

While some players are eased into life in Athens with routine trips to nearby homes and meals prepared by mom or nights out with old friends, players like White can only make the occasional trip home, planned far in advance and paid for with scarce funds.

While some players transition is overshadowed by success on the field and immediate praise from fans and coaches, players like White often have far more time alone on the sidelines to question the decisions they made that led them to Georgia.

It’s never simple, but for some players, the transition is arduous.

“You definitely second guess yourself sometimes,” freshman tight end Arthur Lynch said, his words tinged with a heavy New England accent. “It’s not the easiest thing, and it’s something you can’t really adjust to because it’s so different than where I’m from. But you get used to it after a while.”

Athens may be one of the most beloved college towns in the country, but for players like Lynch, it’s a world apart from where he grew up.

The 6-foot-5 Dartmouth, Mass. native came to Georgia this summer expecting to stand out, but it’s the accent that always throws people. He can’t hide it. He might as well be speaking a foreign language compared to the slow, Southern dialect prevalent throughout Georgia.

There are other differences, too. There are things Lynch finds utterly perplexing about the South. He’s learned to keep most of those opinions to himself. He's not yet comfortable enough with his surroundings to ruffle any feathers. Life is simply different here.

Kicker Brandon Bogotay knows the feeling. He arrived in July from San Diego, and while the weather was a few degrees warmer and the beach was no longer within walking distance, things seemed relatively normal.

And then the rain came.

“It’s been raining, and I never really saw much rain out there,” Bogotay said. “The scooter rides in the morning have been pretty cold.”

Bogotay joked that he owned just two long-sleeved shirts when he came to Athens, but he’s in the market for a new wardrobe now.

For other players, however, the culture shock isn’t so much about the weather or the slang. It’s about family and security. It's about knowing who to trust and where to find comfort.

Defensive end Montez Robinson grew up in Indiana, then moved to Alabama when he was in grade school. His family life was difficult, but he was always close with his brothers. His father died when he was young and he and his brothers spent much of their lives as wards of the state. After his sophomore year in high school, he moved back to Indiana and later committed to Auburn.

When Tigers’ coach Tommy Tuberville resigned at the end of last season, however, Robinson’s life was shaken up yet again, and he re-opened his recruitment, eventually settling on Georgia, where assistant coach Rodney Garner assured Robinson he would find a home.

Through his first few months in Athens, however, Robinson simply wanted to see his family again.

“At first it was hard being away from home,” Robinson said. “There’s a couple other guys that are far from home, and we were always talking about how much we missed our families.”

It happens every season. The initial thrill of college grows old, the lure of home grows stronger, and eventually they all ask the same question: Did I do the right thing?

“I don’t care if you’re from 15 minutes away or 15 hours away, you’re not at home anymore when you go to college,” tight ends coach John Lilly said. “I think it’s natural to go through an adjustment period, and probably a little bit of a homesick period.”

As many times as they’ve seen it happen, Lilly said there’s no universal solution to getting a player past that point. They’re all different, but there is support.

Lilly said the coaching staff tries to talk to players' families and friends, asking them to offer encouragement rather than reminders of what was left behind.

Head coach Mark Richt has worked hard to create a family environment around the team, too. Coaches wives and children are frequent visitors, with the team holding a weekly family night after practice when they all share a meal together.

But while encouragement is offered, the job of most coaches is to impart discipline and demand excellence. They rely on the other players to handle the role of friend.

“It’s a difficult thing when you’re riding someone and you’re pushing them, you can’t be their buddy,” said Jon Fabris, Robinson’s position coach. “Yet you understand that there are players that have been there and you can tell them, ‘Hey, keep an eye on this guy.’ I think you can get better support through their peers because, who hasn’t gone through that?”

The feeling of being an outsider in a strange place is only exacerbated for those freshmen who rarely see the field. That has been the case for Bogotay, Lynch and Robinson this season.

Game days provide some solace, but offer little playing time.

White sees plenty of parallels between his career and Lynch’s. Both came from another part of the country. Both joined the team at the same time as another, more highly recruited player at their position. Both knew their role early on would be mostly as an understudy.

“It’s hard to deal with not coming in and being the guy and feeling like somebody else is getting all the spotlight or that he’s the guy people want to see take over,” White said. “It’s tough to deal with sometimes, but we remember that we’re all working toward the same goal, and so you just have to work hard as a player so you can be a part of that.”

That’s the approach Robinson has tried to take this season.

He admits he considered a transfer. There were too many days when going home seemed a far better option than going to practice. But things change. They always do.

Robinson got his first serious playing time last week against Tennessee Tech. He finished the game with the first five tackles of his career, including two sacks. He won the SEC’s defensive lineman of the week award two days later, and his foster father cried when he heard the news.

“You know when you can do something like that and the gratitude that people give you and the feeling you get afterwards, it eases things down a little bit, and it makes you want to work harder for things like that,” Robinson said.

It helped that Robinson’s two younger brothers, Armonze and Elijah, his foster parents and one of his cousins were all in Athens for his big game last week. They added a bit of home to a place that suddenly didn’t feel so foreign anymore anyway.

“Having success makes him love this place a little bit more,” Garner said. “Hopefully a lot of positives that come out of him having success, and that’s my hope for him, too.”

It’s probably too soon to call the game a turning point for Robinson, but sometimes it happens that quickly. That was true for White when he visited Missouri back in 2007 and realized it wasn’t home anymore. It has been true for dozens of others, too.

“You realize that home changes,” Lilly said. “You have all these great memories of high school and those kinds of things, and then when you do get back, it’s nice to go home and see people, but as the years go by you realize that home really is where you go to school. That’s where all your friends are and where your life really is at that point.”

Lynch tasted a bit of success last week, too, grabbing the first two receptions of his career during a fourth-quarter drive. There were no SEC awards that followed, but it was a good starting point, he said.

And seeing Robinson enjoy the spotlight after an impressive performance – that helped, too.

“You hope to catch a break and get on the field like Montez did Saturday,” Lynch said. “You keep moving, keep working hard in practice, and hopefully your time will come.”

Bogotay has taken the field just once this season, which is one more time than he has visited home. But even he isn’t sulking.

“I’m looking forward to the next trip home, but I love it out here,” he said. “It’s a big change, but overall I’m having a great time out here.”

Things change. Home is wherever you make it. It’s a conclusion everyone comes to eventually.

In fact, while Robinson was considering leaving Georgia just a few weeks ago, he’s now busy recruiting his brothers to join him in Athens.

“I have two brothers getting recruited from here, and they just want to go wherever I go,” he said. “I’m trying to convince them.”

It changes that fast, White said. Sometimes it happens after a big play. Sometimes it happens after a few friends are made. Sometimes, like White, a new perspective suddenly arises.

“Early on, I didn’t know if I fit in around here. It wasn’t so much football, it was just really hard for me to cope, being away from home,” White said. “But I realized it was about more than just feeling comfortable. I made a commitment to be here. The coaches gambled on me, they gave me this opportunity, and I didn’t feel like I was giving it a chance. By season’s end, I knew this was the right place for me and I had made the right decision.”

It’s a story he has passed along to Lynch, Robinson, Bogotay and others. It’s a story that dozens of other players on the team could tell, too, with just a few of the details changed.

Everyone gets homesick, White said. But eventually they all decide that Georgia is home.

“They’ll come around,” White said. "(Lynch), Montez, Bogotay, they’ll all come around. Because there are guys who live 45 minutes away that don’t want to go home on weekends. It’s too much fun being here.”


BulldogBry said...

Thanks, David. Every once in a while, it's good to read a story that reminds us that these guys are part kids, part men. And this is one of those stories.

Anonymous said...

Great story, David. I think we as passionate fans often lose sight of the fact that these football players are first and foremost humans, kids at that. While we're busy thinking about which players deserve playing time and which ones are going to take our program to the next level, we forget that they have a lot more going on in their lives than just football. I love the family atmosphere that Mark Richt and Co. have provided these guys.

Bernie said...

Ditto. This story can remind us all of what it was like to transition to college life. But for these guys it has a different edge to it.

Appreciate the insight Hale.

Patrick said...

These kids will someday realize that Athens is like their second home, and they will have 90,00 plus family and friends there to offer support each home game day. I think these kids all have really bright futures ahead of them in red and black. GO DAWGS!

On another note... It was nice to see Hines Ward on the Mike and Mike show this morning decked out in a UGA sweatshirt and hat. Just shows that once you're part of the UGA family, you'll bleed red and black forever. Damn. Good. Dawg.