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In the clear

A mother's difficult choice alters the course of Eddie George's life.

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2000


ATLANTA -- Long before he ran to daylight, he lay in the dark and wept.

There are moments, irrevocable moments, that change a course and turn a life. There are decisions, though we may bristle against them as they are made, that allow dreams to blossom into reality.

Long before he had somewhere to go, however, Eddie George felt he was nowhere at all.

He was 15 years old, and miserable, and he felt his mother had abandoned him. George was alone in a barracks at some place called Fork Union, far from his home, far from his goals. There were cockroaches, 2-inch, flying cockroaches that came out of the wall and flew around the room. And the kid pulled the covers up to his chin, and he cried.

This is where it started, this insatiable pursuit of greatness. With a mother making a decision that seemed all wrong but turned out all right. With a military prep school in Virginia, far away from his Philadelphia home. Long before his loping, upright running style won him a Heisman, long before George teetered on the edge of discovery in the NFL, there was Fork Union.

"If it wasn't for Fork Union," he says, his soft eyes looking into yours, "there wouldn't be an Eddie George in the NFL. I wouldn't be here. I'd be in Philadelphia, working nine-to-five, maybe as a manager in a fast-food restaurant."

A sobering thought for the Titans, that. Going into Sunday's Super Bowl, George is the No. 1 reason for a team to dream. He gained 1,304 yards rushing this season, continuing an assault on the record book that few outside of Tennessee has noticed. Since 1996, only Terrell Davis and Jerome Bettis have gained more yards. Only nine backs have gained 5,000 yards in their first four seasons: Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Terrell Davis, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Curtis Martin and Jim Brown. Oh, and George.

Were you aware he had blossomed so? Probably not. Mention the elite backs, and George always seems to be in the second wave.

"To me, the difference between good backs and great ones is consistency," George said. "Making great plays, eye-popping plays. Winning championships. I haven't looked at where I am. I think once you look, you start to believe your own hype. I don't want to do that."

Sometimes, though, George cannot help but look back to where he was.

He wasn't a bad kid, but he seemed willing to learn. "It isn't like I was out stealing or beating old people up or breaking into homes," he said. "But I had a lot of energy, and the potential was there for me to do that kind of thing if I stayed in that environment long enough."

When he was 15, he went to his mother and told her that he wanted to improve his grades and take a math class in summer school. Doris George paid the $55. But a few weeks later, the school called. Eddie George had been forced to take the summer course because he was failing and his football eligibility was endangered, and now, he was in danger of flunking again.

One day, one decision. That was it, Doris George said. He was going to military school like his uncle had.

Oh, did Eddie hate that idea. He pleaded with her not to send him. He cried to his grandmother, to his sister, to his uncles. Doris George would not budge. "She was on a mission," he said.

So she drove her son to Fork Union and turned him over to strangers. And she left.

George still remembers that first night. None of the other cadets were there yet. He had no television, nothing but his clothes and the "tons of roaches" that flew from the wall. "I thought, no way am I going to make it," he said. "No way in God's name. I thought she had stripped me of my dreams, and what she was doing was making them a reality."

Not that George took to the regimen of waking up at 6:30 a.m., of dressing in a uniform, of cleaning his room, of obeying cadets younger than he. He was disobedient, and he spent his share of time facing a wall, saluting it again and again, until he was allowed to stop. He didn't like the marching. He didn't like scrubbing the toilets.

After a few months, however, he adjusted. He learned discipline. He learned about priorities. He learned how much he loved the weight room.

"It's incredible how one decision can affect your life," he said. "I think about it all the time. I'm still tight with some of the other cadets. It was a tough time. We were just pulling each other along."

For 21/2 years, while his mother worked two, sometimes three jobs to pay for it, George was at Fork Union. Then he picked Ohio State ahead of Virginia and Penn State, who wanted to make him a linebacker. Again, one decision, and it changes everything.

His fury in the weight room became legendary at Ohio State. So did his upright style of running. "I'm 6-3," he said. "Running hunched over is not my style."

In Tennessee, running through secondaries has been. Not that the rest of America has noticed.

"They will," said Brad Hopkins, a Titans tackle. "Eddie will be an icon in this league. He will go into history. He's top five, easy."

Sunday night, perhaps people will rediscover him. Perhaps there will come a moment, late in the game, when the score is close, and it is up to George to try the hole inside or the one outside.

One day. One decision.

It can change your life.

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