"Coach VanGorder is always talking about it, saying, 'You've got to be a gladiator,'" Odell Thurman said. "It's a gladiator sport."
VanGorder hasn't paid any attention to the tattoo, Thurman said, but he has noticed how much attention Thurman has been paying to him.
"I'm so proud of him," said VanGorder, who is also the No. 6 Bulldogs' linebackers coach. "If you had seen him in the spring, there was a long way to go fundamentally in terms of being a big-time football player, and he's really worked hard on it.
Thurman signed with the Bulldogs in 2001 but was kicked off the team that year and sent to Georgia Military College for one season of penance. He returned in January, and it became clear in spring practice that the athleticism he used to dominate at Monticello High School and GMC wasn't enough in the SEC.
"What we ask of our linebackers is so different that he had a long way to go," VanGorder said.
Thurman described it this way: "It's a thick playbook."
Thurman earned a starting spot early on, but he didn't make an immediate impact like some thought he would. He reached double digits in tackles just once in the first six games (13 against S Carolina), but his diligence has paid off lately.
In the last four games, Thurman has 45 tackles with at least 10 each time. He also has all 3.5 of his sacks in the last four games. He has climbed to third on the team tackles list with 83 and leads Georgia with 13.5 tackles for loss.
The last two games - an 11-tackle day against Florida and a 14-tackle, two-sack day against Auburn - have been his best of the year, VanGorder said.
"Each game coach tells us to try to get better, and the last two games I've been getting more comfortable," Thurman said.
The highlight came in the fourth quarter of last week's Auburn game, when he returned an interception 99 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
"I watched it on ESPN a couple times, so that's big," Thurman said. "Everybody calls you to talk about that."
Still, he said, he's got work to do.
"Everybody watches and thinks I had a great game, but I go in there and watch film with Coach (VanGorder), and he's still getting on me."
VanGorder is less critical outside the meeting room.
"It's gotten to the point now where he has started to critique his fundamentals," he said. "That's when you know you have a guy with a chance to be really good."
Major: Arts and Sciences
High School: Monticello
High school honors: Macon Telegraph first-team All-State all-purpose player ... Had 153 tackles and 1,187 rushing yards as senior ... Invited to play in 2001 Georgia-Florida all-star game.
College honors: Named SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against Auburn last week ... Intercepted a pass against Tennessee that set up a touchdown ... Knocked Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle out of a game in October.
FYI: Thurman's father died suddenly in August. The 20-year-old said having the football season and lots of supportive teammates has helped him deal with his loss. "I just try to play like he's still in the stands and still watching," Thurman said. "I use it as a motivational tool."