While many of the faces of Georgia Tech’s football team will remain the same as they roll into the 2017 season, there will be some faces gone from the sideline. These faces are ones that will be unequivocally tied to this program for as long as Tech Tower still stands. We know who these guys are: Justin and Freddie, Harrison and Rodwell, Pat and Rod, along with the rest of the senior class that all finally “got out.”
While many of the people outside of the program can appreciate the hard work and dedication of the student-athlete in the same way that they appreciate a good burger, those that have walked from the IC to Peter’s Parking Deck at 3:00am on a Monday night see this dedication in a different light altogether. It cannot be understated, and I will never sell short the struggles I endured in my time at the Institute.
I considered changing majors no less than four times and told myself I’d never get through certain courses, but like everyone else at this great place, I put my head down and did what I needed to do. For student-athletes, take this level of rigor and a full-time job, and add them together: a job where you work 12-15 hour weekends, are physically and mentally taxed each and every day on the job, and still go to school before arriving to work each day.
Add in group projects, academic advising, homework, clubs, family, friends, and oh yeah, sleep. Soon enough, you realize you don’t have any of your day left. Each minute of your life is accounted for. Imagine that dedication. For five years straight. During which time you probably take on a second job during the summers, one that puts you into the real world in an environment far removed from what you’re used to and where your “team” looks nothing like your other job.
Compare that experience with stories of people’s experiences at other schools. Each of the 2016 seniors knew what was expected of them when they committed to some old guy with a PE major from Western Carolina that was going to replace their high school coaches. They understood that choosing Georgia Tech wasn’t the easy path, but they welcomed the challenge and knew that they would strive for much more than the accomplishments that they had already achieved.
This class largely watched as 2012 produced a result that, if nothing else, could be described as bland .500 football. It ended on a high note with a solid bowl win, but saw trouble brewing as a two-quarterback system wouldn’t be sustainable for the morale of the upperclassmen. Waiting in the wings was a freshman quarterback from Alabama, teased by his teammates that called him “The Superstar.”
The 2013 season saw “The Superstar” again take a backseat. The team performed at a level that they had been accustomed to, but fell short of the goals they set out to achieve at the start of the offseason. Tough losses were the story of that season, and it seemed like a lot of the momentum gained from Johnson’s early years was beginning to fade. Another group of leaders left the team, giving the class of 2012 a chance to step up and fill bigger roles on the team.
It was “The Superstar’s” turn to take the stage as the 2014 season began. Surrounded by a veteran core of talent on offense and an opportunistic defense on the other side of the ball, this iteration of the Varsity squad began to believe they were building something special.
A slow start against inferior opponents woke the team up for a short while, but exhilarating wins in Blacksburg and against Miami caused the team to ease up ever so slightly. They were immediately brought back down to Earth with back-to-back losses against Duke and North Carolina. While these losses were hard to stomach, it was a necessary learning opportunity that taught the team how to persevere.
Five straight wins ensued, including an absolute stunner in Sanford Stadium that erased the drubbing they had received only two years before. No longer could their coach question if they felt they had played a rivalry game, for they had put on their gloves and gone the distance in front of 92,000 people. The season ended with citrus against Mississippi State, as the team rang in the New Year singing “End of the Road” in the locker room under Hard Rock Stadium. Another group of leaders had left the team, and the class of 2012 again stepped up to take their place.
With aspirations and expectations higher than ever before, the 2015 Jackets waltzed into South Bend expecting business as usual. While they had yet to be challenged up until that point in the season against vastly inferior opponents, all preconceptions of how things would go this season were checked at the door. They were exposed by Notre Dame, decimated by injuries, and had to learn the hard way how to lead.
They didn’t have the guise of winning to shield them from scrutiny. They never quit fighting and tacked on one of the signature wins in Georgia Tech history to their resumes. A longer than usual offseason left a bad taste in their mouths as many years of postseason bowling was brought to an end. A renewed chip on their shoulders now weighed on these now fifth year seniors, who were ready to go on their final chapter.
Remembering the lessons that they had both observed in their past and experienced in a trial-by-fire type manner, the 2016 season was under way for the seniors before they knew it. They were immediately tested in a foreign land, and then made the return home to earn their first of three SEC wins. Rumors of a 2011 repeat against Clemson murmured throughout the campus prior to a nationally televised showdown. And in this game, again, the resolve of this class was tested. Except now, there was no one to look up to. They were being stared at with wide eyes by the teammates they themselves helped bring to this point.
Mental errors plagued the team in the two following games, causing the fan base to groan with increasing intensity. But down the stretch, the seniors decided they were ultimately in control of their fates and would not let criticisms and naysayers hold them back from what they knew that had worked towards their whole lives. Four straight wins closed their collegiate careers, each impressive in their own way. A glimpse to the future in Blacksburg, one last win on Grant Field, the reclamation of an entire state, and a final game they could hang their hats on, knowing they helped their coach lay the wood to the SEC one last time before they moved on.
So how will the 2017 team be different than the 2016 team? The faces that have made themselves household favorites to us all will be gone, but the little brothers that have watched their every move are now ready to take charge of what was built by those that came before them. Sure there are questions as to what will actually materialize on the field but in a lot of ways, Saturdays and the occasional Thursday (or Monday), will be just the same as they’ve ever been.
The whistle will still blow out across Midtown. The Wreck will still carry white-clad cheerleaders onto the field. The flag will still fly high over the southeast corner of the stadium, and the White and Gold will still proudly take the field, same as ever. So don’t concern yourself with what you can’t control. The foundation has been laid. The example has been set for a new swarm of leaders to take the coin toss, carry the flag, and be the face of the program. The cycle will continue on just as it ever has, and 2017’s team will be just like the old ones, in everything but name.