SIDNEY — A mistake prone freshman game made all the difference in creating the eventual1995 Heisman Trophy winner and a 10,000-yard rusher in the NFL.
But the mistakes in the game did not create the player nor the man whom Eddie George would become, he says — the way he responded to the adversity of that day did.
“That is what made me — those points of transitions, those crossroads were very important to me as part of my growth, my evolution not only as a player but as a man,” George told local media during a media conference at Sidney Lehman High School before an annual fundraising dinner. “I had to grow up at that point in time. I had to realize that I couldn’t run away from my problem.
“I was embarrassed because I went from being on top of the world and being the talk of the town to having those two fumbles that really cost us the game,” he said, noting he accepts full responsibility for losing the game. “During those two years — my freshmen and sophomore years — I said that situation will either make me or it will break me.”
Against the Illinois Fighting Illini, George fumbled twice in the second half of the game. He fumbled at the 4-yard-line, which the Illini returned it for a touchdown.
Later, he fumbled at the 1-yard line and the Illini drove the field for the win. George, who had carried the ball 25 times and scored five times before the Illinois game, struggled to see much action the rest of the season and his sophomore year.
George said he spent the remainder of his freshman and all of his sophomore year trying to find himself, digging a little deeper to truly learn who he was as a player and a man.
From that point on, he spent more time in the weight room, was the first and last person to watch film, took ballet lessons and worked longer and harder — oftentimes people did not see him putting in the time. He focused on “every minuté facet of the game” and “became a master of my craft.”
“That day I made the decision that I was going to see this all the way through — good, bad or indifferent — I wanted to be a man on the other side,” said George, who maintained his goals of wanting to be the starting running back and Heisman Trophy winner and for his team to be national champion. “I had to really win a lot of people over. I had to rebuild my confidence. I had to dig deep, I had to be resilient and persistent. That situation really made me the man I am today.”
George’s roots to being a man started in Philadelphia. Urged by his mother to study more, George enrolled at Fork Union Military Academy where he rushed for 1,372 yards in his senior year.
George also grew up a fan of the Penn State Nittany Lions and the late Joe Paterno, but his platoon sergeant at Fork Union Military Academy took a job as an athletic trainer with the Ohio State Buckeyes the year before George graduated high school.
The athletic trainer told members of former Buckeye head football coach John Cooper’s staff about George. He had his former student send a videotape of himself playing to the Buckeyes to review.
The coaches said they would check him out, but they really spent the bulk of their time recruiting athletes in Florida, Texas and Ohio, George recalled. His former platoon sergeant asked him to send another tape and two weeks later told the senior the Buckeye coaching staff “was in love with what they saw.”
Bill Connelly got in contact with George and Ron Hudson went to check out George in action and his actual size to make sure he was 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds.
The high school star running back finally made the decision to become a Buckeye on the last day of a recruiting visit in late January, just days prior to the national day of signing.
“We were inside the stadium, nobody was around and it was back when they had the track, the south endzone bleachers were disassembled,” George said. “I was decked out in my uniform and they flashed my name across the scoreboard and I just looked around and I said to myself, ‘Archie Griffin played in this stadium, Woody Hayes, Jesse Owens, Keith Byars, Cris Carter and Robert Smith and all the great players who had come through this school played here.’
“It was just something I felt and I said, ‘Wow, this just feels right,’” he said. “I couldn’t explain it, but something told me this is where I needed to be. I could just envision myself making big plays in big games in that stadium.”
The “new man” started seeing dividends from his hard work during his junior year when he rushed for 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns.
As a senior running back, George rushed for 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns and caught 44 passes for another 399 yards. He rushed for 207 yards against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and 314 yards and three touchdowns against the Illini.
From his two-fumble performance against Illinois, the young man from Pennsylvania carried the ball more than 600 times and fumbled only six times.
Following his senior season, the Houston Oilers drafted George as a running back. The Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Titans, where George starred.
In nine seasons with the Titans and one with the Cowboys, George gained 10,441 rushing yards and caught 268 passes for 2,227 receiving yards. He scored 78 touchdowns, 68 rushing and 10 receiving.
“It was difficult to walk away from the game because it never ends on your terms,” George said, sharing parts of his speech. “The NFL stands for ‘Not For Long.’ You have to prepare yourself for the end game, the end of your career whether you play two, three, five, 15 or 20 years.
“You are still a young man when you leave the game so it behooves you to think outside the game about businesses, other passions because if you get caught and attached to that identity then you are asking for trouble,” he said. “You are always looking back to what you had and always trying to get back to the top of the mountain, to a level you can never obtain — but you have to realize there is always another mountain to climb, another journey that is worthwhile.”
He said professional athletes need to realize they already possess the blueprint for success — “you just have to change it around for the rules of a different game and do your best in that.”
Clad in a dark grey suit with light blue pinstripes and a white shirt, George provided some advice for today’s student-athletes, similar to athletes in their prime.
“I would definitely tell today student-athletes to think about your end game in terms of your entire life and not just the athletics,” George said, glancing around the media center. “Being 15, 16 and 17, all you see is the next step, getting to college and going professional and making $100 million and be set for life — and that is not true and you really don’t want to stop at that, you want the ambition to move forward.
“It best serves them to live life and to experience all they can experience whether it is the arts, whether it is business, whether it is sports — whatever it might be outside of that, to really open up their minds and to explore that,” he said. “It is important that you diversify yourself because you were not put on this Earth just to run a football, shoot a basketball, throw a baseball or play golf — your purpose is higher and the work is how do you find that purpose and align yourself with that purpose.”