Eddie George: Driven to Greatness
He had the look of greatness from the moment he showed up on the Ohio State practice field in August of 1992.
Every year, there was a freshman who looked like he had reported a week early, like he should be coming to camp seven days later with the veterans.
This kid didn’t look like that.
This kid looked late, like he’d reported to OSU about five years into his NFL career.
The kid was Eddie George.
His imposing physical presence was one thing, but the most striking aspect about him was the singular focus to be great.
Freshmen subjected to then-coach John Cooper‘s three-a-day practices couldn’t wait to get off the field after morning, midday and afternoon workouts.
George unfailingly stayed on the field in the searing humidity, running extra sprints or drills, never leaving until sweat drenched his shaven head.
He was driven to be great, and great he became, confirmed by his selection Monday to the 2011 class of the College Football Hall of Fame.
It is a testament to Ohio State’s enduring football tradition that a select few players possess full ownership of the jersey number in which they excelled.
Troy Smith’s No. 10 was Art Schlichter’s before that and Rex Kern’s before that.
Terrelle Pryor’s No. 2 was Malcolm Jenkins’ before that and Michael Doss’ before that.
No. 36 passed from one linebacker great to another in an era bridging Tom Cousineau, Marcus Marek and Chris Spielman.
Even Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, is just some dude who wore Andy Katzenmoyer’s No. 45 to a generation of 20-somethings.
But Eddie George not only was No. 27, he is still No. 27 nearly two decades later.
George won the 1995 Heisman Trophy as a senior and set an array of OSU rushing records, including five 200-yard-plus games and 1,927 rushing yards that season.
Such numbers could define a player at a school whose tailbacks have earned six Heismans.
But with George, the statistics that tell how far he ran don’t tell his story as well as what he overcame.
His mother, Donna, took him literally kicking and screaming out of his Philadelphia high school and into Fork Union Military Academy in rural Virginia for his senior year.
Her brother had gone there a decade before and came out a changed man, which is what she wanted for her son.
Donna George, a single mom, left Eddie there in August — crying, resentful and defiant.
Three months later, she went back for her first visit and couldn’t find him in his barracks.
While walking to the commander’s office, she stopped cold at the site of the school’s honor guard -- three young men, each holding a flag.
One was her son.
George didn’t attract much recruiting attention his first year at Fork Union, so he stayed a second. Neither the 1,200 yards he gained, nor the 22 touchdowns, made much difference to the scouts the next season.
But one day, Ohio State recruiting coordinator Bill Conley was watching an OSU practice when a young trainer asked if he had heard of Eddie George.
The kid badgered Conley until he made a call, viewed a tape and liked it enough to investigate. Louisville was the only other school recruiting George, so when the Buckeyes offered, he was on his way to Columbus.
How did the trainer know what Conley didn’t?
“He was my captain in my company when I first went to Fork Union,” George said. “He used to give me demerits all the time. Little short guy — I didn‘t like him very much at first, but one night he called after he got to Ohio State and I just happened to be in the commander’s office.
“I said, ’Hey, does Ohio State know about me? Tell them I want to come up.’ ”
Cooper plugged George into the lineup immediately as a short-yardage battering ram. In the third game of that 1992 season, he scored three touchdowns in a 35-12 upset win at eighth-ranked Syracuse.
Two weeks later, he was inserted on the 1-yard line of the Big Ten opener at home against Illinois. George dove for the end zone, but a defender’s helmet popped the ball into the air for a teammate to grab and go 96 yards the other way for a score.
Late in the fourth quarter, with OSU driving for a clinching touchdown, George got the ball again on the 1. He fumbled again, and Illinois drove for a winning field goal.
George carried only 12 times and never scored another touchdown over the final seven games of that season. The following year, he carried only 42 times as a third-team backup.
He ascended to the starting job by attrition in 1994 and put up good numbers, but his 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns didn‘t merit many headlines. Coaches groused that he often hit the wrong holes, and fretted that eight of George’s scores came on rushes of 3 yards or less, with only two coming on runs longer than 6 yards.
All complaints vanished the next year, with George doing something few players accomplish. He reworked himself from a banger into a breakaway back, scoring eight of his 23 rushing touchdowns on runs of 10 yards or more, including sprints of 51, 64 and 87 yards.
The images of him pounding Notre Dame for 207 yards in the Horseshoe, or sealing the Heisman with a single-game OSU-record 314 yards against Illinois are indelible for Ohio State fans.
At age 37, after a four-time Pro Bowl career in the NFL, George looks as if he could still sweep around left end and outrun the Illini defense to the end zone.
What he outran to get there is what makes him a true Hall of Famer.
Follow Bruce on Twitter @BHOOLZ