A different Bulldog story: Finishing the drill outside the spotlight

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Linebacker Tommy Long, a walk-on player from Marietta. (John Kelley / UGA)
Linebacker Tommy Long, a walk-on player from Marietta. (John Kelley / UGA)

Linebacker Tommy Long, a walk-on player from Marietta. (John Kelley / UGA)

Let’s take a moment away from the ongoing discussion of Jeremy Pruitt’s defense and the strength of Hutson Mason’s arm for a generally overlooked aspect of Mark Richt’s Bulldogs.

Tom Hodgson, with whom I grew up and went to school from kindergarten through college in Athens, passed along an inspiring story about the kind of young man who plays a big part in college athletics, even if he doesn’t get the headlines.

It’s about one of those nonscholarship players who “walk on” the team and spend long hours practicing without getting to enjoy the spotlight. Often, their main contribution in the eyes of fans, besides impersonating the upcoming opponent in practice, is upping the team GPA.

However, sometimes, as with current defensive starter Aaron Davis, those hard-working volunteer players get a chance to contribute on game day. Occasionally they are even awarded a scholarship for their hard work.

Tommy Long is one of those unheralded players, and his story unfortunately doesn’t have a “Rudy” ending. But kids like him, who play out of sheer love of the game, are one of the reasons why I’m a college football fan. I shared Tommy’s story, as told by my friend Tom, late last week on Facebook. I thought the rest of you might appreciate reading about him.

Take it away, Tom …

This year, I was really expecting great things from No. 43. Don’t know him? No. 43 is Tommy Long, the outside linebacker from Marietta. Still drawing a blank? That’s too bad, because Tommy Long is my kind of Bulldog.

Tommy loves football. He grew up in a sports-crazy family and worked hard to get noticed at Wheeler High School in Marietta. He’s big — 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds — but not so big for an SEC college football player.

He was better than good in high school, but no 5-star. Heck, I don’t know if he was any star, but he was good. Not great. Small schools were interested in offering Tommy a chance to leave Georgia and play for a lesser program, but, like I said, Tommy grew up in Marietta and he wanted to play for the University of Georgia.

Tommy participating in the Dawg Walk outside Sanford Stadium.  (Ted Mayer / UGA)

Tommy participating in the Dawg Walk outside Sanford Stadium. (Ted Mayer / UGA)

A little more than two years ago, Tommy put on some sweats and walked out on the practice field and announced he wanted to try out for our Bulldogs. Honestly, it probably wasn’t as dramatic as that. He may have had a letter from his high school coach or filled out a form. But he was certainly unknown, and to a large degree unwanted, at that point.

But he worked and he worked and, against plentiful odds, Tommy Long was awarded a temporary locker and new pair of Nikes and was given the chance to be a red-shirted tackling dummy on the practice squad for his favorite team. No scholarships were offered and no leniency for his less-than-a-star caliber. If anything, he was the classic long shot and he would have to prove himself against highly recruited competition.

Miracles did not happen like in the movies. There was no injured star making room for the walk-on. The travel team had no room for Tommy on the plane, but the drills and scrimmages still required his presence. He would play in G-Day games and dress out for some home events, but this was not the life of an SEC starter for the Bulldogs. This was the life of a modest young man who loves Georgia and loved hitting big guys with big names.

After finally working himself into moderate relevance on the depth chart, his turn for the training table came late after practice. But his bruises still hurt and tomorrow meant more class, more weight training and drills, and more practice. What a life.

But he was almost certain to play against Troy. If the starters got the lead they expected, No. 43 would have left his sweat on the Sanford Stadium turf in a legitimate SEC college football game complete with stats and radio announcers calling your name.

It never happened. Two weeks ago Tommy had his left knee badly injured during afternoon practice. I got a text from Tommy’s father that evening from the UGA Suite at St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. It took two paragraphs to describe the torn ligaments and dislocated knee and fractured bones. Tommy’s mama wasn’t happy, but she knew he got hurt doing what he wanted.

Friday of last week Tommy had surgery to repair the damage. I don’t know the eventual prognosis, but I think I know the football future of this fine young man.

I love my Bulldogs, every one. And, of course, I hope they win every game until they play Tech. I hope they embarrass Tech.

Tommy Long is back in classes now after surgery on an injured knee. (John Kelley / UGA)

Tommy Long is back in classes now after surgery on an injured knee. (John Kelley / UGA)

But we all have to admit that the sport is not what it was, for better or worse. The players are fabulous athletes who are sorta coddled everywhere but inside Butts-Mehre and on the practice field. Stories like Tommy’s are rare today. Yes, plenty walk on still and the really good walk-ons, like Kosta Vavlas, winner of the Coach Mike Castronis Scholarship, can gain many of the perks that the recruited athletes have earned.

But so many try it for a season and realize they are not going to letter and retreat to a normal college life. Tommy wanted to see it through and see how far he could go. What a kid.

I called Tommy’s father Mike the Wednesday night when his son was injured. It was late and, though I knew Mike was with Tommy, I was certain that the young man would be asleep and his dad could talk.

But we only got to speak for a minute. Tommy had a project due by midnight and he was hard at work, asking for no distractions. In his hospital room. In significant pain. With his leg immobilized in a brace.

He finished the drill.

My kinda Bulldog.

Thanks, Tom.

Tom adds that Tommy’s parents, Mike and Teresa Castano, report the surgery went well, with seven different repairs required. Tommy is out of the hospital and trying to make up classes starting Wednesday. He is, Tom says, a “great kid. Still keeping the Hope scholarship and will graduate on time, if not early.”

Get well soon, Tommy!

Go Dogs!


Got something you want to discuss concerning the current football season? Or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Email junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

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