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Straight & narrow

Straight & narrow: Junior colleges help wayward players redirect their futures

Four months ago, when he still was in the good graces of Georgia football coach Mark Richt, linebacker Josh Johnson knew exactly as much about Georgia Military College as 99 percent of college football fans.

\”I didn\’t know nothing about it,\” he said. \”I just knew if you got kicked out of Georgia, they were going to send you to GMC.\”

Welcome to GMC, Josh.

Johnson, a product of Stephenson High School, spent one year in Athens before being dismissed from the team for at least this season. Like Odell Thurman before him, he has a chance to regain his place at UGA by spending a trouble-free year with coach Bert Williams at GMC.

Georgia Military is one of two schools UGA coaches have come to trust as they look for homes for wayward Dogs. While GMC traditionally gets those who have trouble with rules, Hargrave Military Academy gets those who have trouble with tests.

Whether these players end up in Milledgeville at Georgia Military or in tiny Chatham, Va., at Hargrave, it must seem like they\’re thousands of miles from Athens or any other major NCAA Division I college. The way they eat, the way they travel, the way they practice, even the way they walk, will be far different than on a tony, laid-back campus.

Georgia, for example, will take charter flights to four of its five road games this year. GMC will take a 2,000-mile round trip bus ride to and from Buffalo, N.Y., to play Erie Community College on Nov. 5. While the Bulldogs stretch out in their private bedrooms and private bathrooms in the $102-million East Campus Village, Bulldog-to-be Darius Dewberry will share a concrete-floored room with one of his Hargrave teammates.

Like Johnson at GMC, Dewberry has no phone or TV in the room, and he\’ll share a bathroom with everyone on his hall. Unlike Johnson, however, he won\’t be allowed to have a cell phone or a car on campus.

\”It reminds me of a boot camp, but you ain\’t locked up,\” said Dewberry, a former Peach County High standout. \”We don\’t have any air conditioning.\”

The school days at both places are structured in a rigorous military format. Students wear uniforms, march in formation to all meals and are required to keep their rooms ready for inspection.

Time on the practice field is just as regimented. Georgia\’s players dress in a locker room with a big screen TV and four video game consoles before walking 50 feet through a carpeted lobby to four immaculate practice fields. At Hargrave, the players walk half a mile through the woods up a gravel road to a practice field the players call \”The Grave.\” It\’s adjacent to a cow pasture and on the site of the school\’s old dirt airstrip.

These days, the grass is two inches high and the sun feels like it\’s 20 feet away.

\”What you talking about, man?\” said Georgia tight end Leonard Pope, shaking his head at the memory of his one year at the school. \”That walk to that practice field! Man. It was night time when we\’d come back, and there\’d be deer jumping out in front of us.\”

At GMC, the practice field is not such a hike but the conditions are no better. On the first day of practice two weeks ago, Johnson learned one of the many differences between his old school and his new school.

At Georgia, a squadron of managers makes sure every piece of practice equipment is in the right spot before practice begins. At GMC, the players drag their own tackling pads and blocking sleds from dilapidated trailers before every workout.

\”At Georgia, everything is first class,\” Johnson said. \”You eat when you want to eat and all the time. Your equipment is new stuff. Down here, it\’s not like that.\”

And for the privilege of living in these spartan conditions, players may have to pay thousands of dollars. Tuition at GMC is $14,000 to $16,000 per year, and the school gives out only 38 scholarships (on a team of 100) to cover tuition and books. Other fees must be taken care of with Pell grants or out-of-pocket. Tuition at Hargrave is even higher, close to $23,000 per year. Even after scholarships, many players are left with $8,000 to $10,000 to pay, Georgia assistant Rodney Garner said.

At Hargrave, what that money buys is points – points on an SAT test, points on a grade point average or both. Some players go because they failed to achieve a qualifying score on their SAT; some go because they failed to graduate high school.

Hargrave\’s main business is a four-year boarding high school, but the football players there are in a one-year, postgraduate program. Their curriculum depends on whether they need an SAT score or a high school degree.

\”If you need to get the SAT, then they focus on it probably 15 hours a day,\” said Georgia running back Danny Ware, another Hargrave alumnus. \”They try to give you what you need and give you little hints and tips to help you get better.\”

The school expects students to be able to gain at least 200 points on their SAT in a year, coach Robert Prunty said. For him, the score on grade sheets and test papers is much more important than the score at the end of games.

\”If we lost every game and all the kids got qualified, I did my job,\” said Prunty, 41 and coach at Hargrave four seasons. \”My job solely is to get these young men qualified for a college or university. Don\’t get me wrong, I\’m competitive. If I play you at checkers, I want to beat you, but that\’s not my mission here.\”

There are few illusions here about the purpose of a players\’ time.

\”It\’s football, score, and that\’s it,\” said Florida State recruit Callahan Bright. \”Get your score, get out.\”

That\’s not the case at GMC, the 2001 national junior college champions. For starters, Williams gets most of his players for two years instead of just one. Also, NCAA rules make it tough for four-year schools to stash young players at a junior college for several reasons.

While a year at Hargrave doesn\’t count against a player\’s four years of Division I eligibility, every year at GMC does. Plus, players who enroll initially at a junior college must spend at least two years there before enrolling at a four-year school.

The last junior college players Georgia accepted were offensive lineman Kareem Marshall and defensive back Brandon Williams in 2001.

Players like Johnson, though, who already have attended a Division I institution, can be sent to junior college for one year to get their act together and then brought back into the fold. It\’s no easy task, though, to toe the line at GMC, or Hargrave for that matter, particularly for elite athletes who\’ve spent the last several years standing out rather than fitting in.

\”We\’re probably the most democratic team you\’ve ever been around,\” said Williams, 36 and coach at GMC for four seasons. \”It\’s a day-to-day thing. We\’ve go a very simple set of rules that we expect all our guys to go by. Be responsible, no excuses and no complaining. That goes from the best players to the worst.

\”The big difference here is they have a much higher degree of responsibility than they\’re going to have to take on at any other non-service academy, and the expectation and oversight is not just during the athletic time. It\’s 24-7.\”

Said Johnson: \”They keep us out of trouble, keep us busy.\”

Four to six players a year at GMC are \”placement\” players, Williams said, meaning a Division I school has called Williams and asked if he can take that player for a year. This year, he has Johnson, linebacker Fred Wilson from South Carolina, defensive tackle Willie Williams from Kansas State and wide receiver Phillip Morris from Clemson.

\”The placement is essentially a gentlemen\’s agreement,\” Williams said.

The rest of Williams players are either guys who \”usually have come up short somewhere\” in their academics or need two more years of maturing or exposure to get to the top level of college football. GMC has sent at least 49 players to major Division I-A programs since 1992, while Hargrave sent almost 40 last year alone to some level of Division I, Prunty said.

\”We have a pretty good thing going down here,\” Williams said.

The question is, does anybody know about it?

Contact Kendall at kendall