The recent mutual lovefest between departing senior flanker Chris Conley and the Bulldog Nation has shown him to be the embodiment of what is known as a “fan favorite.”
It also has prompted me to take a look at the list of my all-time favorite UGA football players, last updated six years ago.
Picking your very favorite Georgia Bulldogs and keeping the list to a manageable length is not as easy as it sounds, particularly if you’ve been following the Dawgs as long as I have.
When it comes to my favorites list, I’m not necessarily thinking about who were the greatest, best or most valuable players, or which ones went on to NFL stardom, though those descriptions certainly apply to some of them.
No, I’m talking about those players that I felt a special affinity for or connection with during their Georgia playing days and who I continued to follow in the years after they left UGA.
I’ve narrowed it down to the 15 players who made me especially proud, did something a bit out of the ordinary that touched me or impressed me, or who just had a personality that made me a fan long after their playing days in Athens were over.
My list: Fran Tarkenton, Lynn Hughes, Jake Scott, Andy Johnson, Herschel Walker, Kevin Butler, Hines Ward, Champ Bailey, brothers Matt and Jon Stinchcomb, David Greene, Matthew Stafford, Mohamed Massaquoi, Aaron Murray and, the latest addition, Conley.
Now, a bit of explanation why these players, among all the UGA greats I’ve seen, are my personal favorites:
I picked Tarkenton in part because he’s the first Georgia Bulldog I really knew anything about when I was a kid and I followed him during his many years as a record-setting QB in the NFL. Plus, he was from Athens, my hometown, and always impressed me as a very sharp, smart guy.
Hughes became a favorite of mine during Vince Dooley’s first season in Athens, when he shared the quarterbacking duties with Preston Ridlehuber. Later, he switched over to defense, where he twice was named All-SEC at safety, made Playboy’s All-American team and was an academic All-American. He played hard and was willing to do whatever the coaches asked of him. Another connection: I was his paperboy, delivering The Atlanta Journal to him when he lived in the Town House apartments on Lumpkin Street near Five Points. (I remember I didn’t want to cash the first check he wrote for me because it had his “autograph” on it, but my banker Dad convinced me that didn’t make any business sense.)
Scott, everybody’s favorite bad boy during his years at UGA (remember the legend about him riding a motorcycle over the top of the Coliseum?), was another Athens Y kid, like Tarkenton, though he played his high school ball in Virginia. Known for his fearless play as a UGA defensive back with a knack for snagging interceptions and making great returns, Jake was All-SEC in 1967 and 1968. A star on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dophins, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame four years ago. However, my favorite personal memory of Jake is running the movie projector in the driver’s ed class I took on the UGA campus.
Johnson was another Athens boy and one I went to school with from seventh grade on. We played touch football together in junior high and he went on to be the star QB for the Athens High Trojans, leading our team to a state co-championship with Valdosta in 1969. Andy also was an extremely talented baseball player (he played for the Dawgs and could have signed with MLB) and played basketball and ran track in high school, too. He was one of the most talented athletes I ever saw, but also was one of the nicest. I always look forward to chatting with him at class reunions.
Herschel, well, he’s everybody’s favorite. No need to spell out why he made my list, except to say what a sheer pleasure it was to watch him run during his days at Sanford Stadium. The greatest. Ever.
I’ve always had a soft spot for UGA placekickers ever since “little” Bobby Etter, but Butler is on a level all his own in the Bulldog pantheon. After a record-setting career in Athens that included that famous kick for a win over Clemson and saw him eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he went on to become the Chicago Bears’ best-ever kicker. And in the years since he’s built a considerable following as a broadcaster, first on the old WNGC “Fifth Quarter” show and, in recent years, on the Georgia football radio network, thanks to his ever-present sense of humor and devotion to all-things Georgia. In addition to being a funny guy, though, he also offers some of the best and most pointed commentary on UGA football, particularly special teams.
Ward was another versatile player who did whatever was asked of him — including playing hurt — while at tailback, quarterback and wide receiver during his time in Athens. A classy guy who went on to NFL success with the Pittsburgh Steelers (winning a Super Bowl MVP award), he also won the “Dancing With the Stars” TV competition and now is an NFL broadcaster who a lot of fans would like to see some day return to Athens as a coach.
Bailey, whose two brothers and cousin also played for the Dawgs, was an incredible two-way star in an era of specialization. If ever a player deserved the designation of “iron man,” it was Champ, who was a shut-down defensive back, one of Georgia’s main offensive threats as a receiver, and also a great kick returner. There were times it seemed Bailey never left the field! The consensus All-American won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player and went on to a long career in the NFL, mostly with Denver, becoming a Pro Bowl regular.
There’ve been quite a few other notable Dawgs who were brothers, but probably none more illustrious than the Stinchcombs, both of whom were All-American linemen and academic stars at UGA and went on to have successful stints in the NFL. Those would be pretty good credentials right there, but they’ve gone on to burnish their Bulldog bona fides by establishing the annual Countdown to Kickoff fan events as a major children’s charity fundraiser along with David Greene. Having chatted with Matt several times over the years, I’m glad to see him putting his natural articulateness to use as a broadcaster for ESPN and the SEC Network.
Speaking of Greenie, he was the coolest Georgia quarterback I’ve ever seen, maintaining his composure even when he didn’t have much of an offensive line in front of him. He also was the most adept at faking the handoff I’ve ever seen and could make some of the prettiest, most precise passes imaginable. Another classy guy and at one time the winningest QB in NCAA history. I’ve also really enjoyed talking with him in connection with the Countdown to Kickoff event.
Stafford was probably the most physically gifted QB I’ve seen at Georgia — I wish we could have seen what he could have done if he’d stuck around Athens for his senior season, but since he was the No. 1 pick in that year’s NFL draft, I could understand him leaving early. He also seemed to be a thoroughly nice and has been incredibly loyal to UGA. He’s still seen around Athens when he’s not busy with the Detroit Lions, and he and his fiancée even posed for pictures Between the Hedges last year.
Massaquoi turned heads as a freshman with his acrobatic, nearly impossible catches. I not only appreciated his talent, I also liked his attitude, especially when he went through a rough patch with drops and some elements of fandom started booing him. He bounced back with many more game-changing catches and also served as a mentor to A.J. Green during his senior year. Another classy guy.
As for Murray, I’ve already written lots about the quarterback who rewrote UGA and SEC record books while also graduating early and beginning graduate studies in psychology, but I think the real reason I added him to my personal favorites list is he had the biggest heart of any player I’ve ever seen. The way his career at Georgia ended with an ACL tear on Senior Day was heartbreaking, but it was typical of Murray that even after the injury he went back out on the field until the leg finally gave way beneath him. The best thing you can say about Murray’s time at Georgia is that, as long as Aaron was in a game, you couldn’t write the Dawgs off.
And then there’s Conley, the newest addition to my list. In addition to his success as a wide receiver, including making some incredibly difficult catches, UGA’s own Renaissance man was a Dean’s List journalism student, winning SEC scholar athlete of the year honors, and represented the SEC on the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Whether he was writing and directing a “Star Wars” fan film that has proved very popular online or playing piano in the hotel lounge on a bowl game trip, Conley was the epitome of what a student athlete should aspire to being. And, with his recent eye-opening performance at the NFL Scouting Combine drawing lots of national attention, he looks set to have an NFL career as well.
Then, to top things off, he wrote an eloquent, heartfelt open letter to the Bulldog Nation thanking fans for “the support and the encouragement during good times and even in the bad,” thanking Mark Richt “for giving me the opportunity to play college football,” and pledging, “I will always be a part of the the Dawg Nation and always hope to represent the ‘G’ with pride. … A part of my heart will always remain in Athens, between the hedges.”
He added: “People joke that I will one day be a politician because of the way I speak, the way I interact with everyone, or how I like to bring people together. I don’t hope to one day hold one of those positions, but rather I would like to set an example that we as people should have a goal to unite families, neighborhoods, and cities for the well-being of our state and then our country. Call me an idealist but I believe that all it takes for change to take root is a willing participant and the faith that it will happen. That same willingness and faith is what allowed a 2-3 star recruit to defy the odds and contribute at the greatest school in the country. Let us be the change we want to see in our homes, cities, and state. I am standing with you all.”
How could anyone who follows college athletics anywhere not love a kid like that?
That’s the Top 15 of my favorite players, though there are lots of others I look back on fondly, including Pat Hodgson, Buzy Rosenberg, Richard Appleby, Scott Woerner, Terry Hoage, Buck Belue, Bill Goldberg, Eric Zeier, Richard Tardits, Garrison Hearst, David Pollack, D.J. Shockley, A.J. Green and Todd Gurley.
Who are your all-time personal favorites among the football Dawgs?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.