Massaquoi the Old Man Now

ATHENS – A.J. Green could have played college football anywhere. By the time his high school career ended, he had assembled a highlight reel of spectacular catches that would make any recruiting coordinator salivate.

Off the field, however, Green is a quiet but confident kid, and he wasn't looking to spend the next few years just anywhere. He needed a place he felt comfortable, where he could relate to his teammates.

On his first visit to Georgia, he was introduced to fellow wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who showed him around and sold him on Bulldogs football. It didn't take long for Green to realize he'd found a kindred spirit.

"His personality and his demeanor, he's so calm and cool and collected," Green said. "That's sort of like me, and I needed somebody else who was like that to teach me about the game."

Since that first visit, Green said Massaquoi has been like a brother, showing him the ropes both on and off the field.

From running routes to relating to the media, there are plenty of lessons a rookie needs to learn. Massaquoi learned most of them the hard way.

It has been four years since Massaquoi was the new face at Georgia's preseason camp. Unlike Green, there wasn't a lot of national hype for the Charlotte native, but there was plenty of potential. He came to college owning the North Carolina state records for receiving yards and touchdowns in both a season and a career.

He grabbed his first college pass in the first game of his career. He caught at least one more in six consecutive games after that, finishing the season as the Bulldogs' second leading receiver on an SEC championship team.

Massaquoi quickly gained star status, and with Georgia's top receivers leaving after his freshman season, he would be counted on to produce even bigger numbers during his sophomore campaign.

That's when reality set in.

Playing with a true freshman quarterback, Massaquoi saw his numbers drop significantly in 2006. Despite starting five more games, he caught eight fewer passes and had nearly 140 fewer receiving yards.

"Me being young and not knowing the offense really well and not getting to play with him until we were thrown out onto the field definitely had something to do with it," quarterback Matt Stafford said.

The fans, however, didn't exactly see it that way. What many disappointed fans saw was a player with tons of talent failing to live up to his potential. They saw a guy whose quiet confidence could be mistaken for indifference as the Bulldogs suffered through their worst season in years. They saw their go-to guy drop one pass after another.

The situation hit bottom in late October, when Georgia hosted Mississippi State at Sanford Stadium. Massaquoi caught three passes, including a touchdown in the game Georgia eventually won 27-24, but that wasn't enough for a small but loud contingent of fans.

Massaquoi had also dropped four passes in the game, and he was booed heavily after the final two. When head coach Mark Richt finally called him off the field in the fourth quarter, a Bronx cheer erupted from fans happy to see their star receiver trot solemnly to the sideline.

"That was probably the lowest of the lows for me," Massaquoi said. "You never expect something like that. And when it happens to you, it's not overwhelming, but at the same time you're like, ‘Wow.' "

After the game, the Georgia message boards erupted with fans voicing support for their slumping receiver. Several students started a Facebook group supporting Massaquoi. He said he received letters from fans, alumni and former players telling him to keep his head up. But it was the guys he shared a locker room with that kept him going.

"Those are the guys you see every day, those are the guys you work with, those are the guys who build your confidence up," Massaquoi said. "Just to know that they continue to trust you, to know they still feel the same way about you, it just makes you get out of your slump."

So Massaquoi persevered. In the weight room, he worked harder. On the practice field, he went faster. On game days, he sprinted back into every huddle with his head up, regardless of what happened on the previous play.

"He's a mature man," Richt said. "He knows that you're not always going to get what you want in life the way you want it. He's not going to sit there and cry about it. He's going to look inside and say ‘This is the situation I'm in, what can I do to help it?' "

By his junior season, Massaquoi's numbers were up. He finished with nearly 500 yards receiving and doubled his touchdown total from the year before.

The numbers were good, but they still only scratched the surface of his potential. A year after surviving life with a true freshman quarterback, Georgia's line was now full of inexperienced players, forcing Stafford into quicker progressions and giving Massaquoi less time to get open downfield.

The rookie quarterback and the inexperienced line, however, were things Massaquoi couldn't control. He focused on the things he could change, and that started with his personality in the locker room.

In truth, Massaquoi said, the change came naturally. He's definitely more vocal now, and he takes a more hands-on role with the younger players, but that's just what happens when you've learned as much as he has the past three years.

"You start talking to more people, you start noticing more people respect you, you start noticing you influence more people," Massaquoi said. "So it kind of, not forces you, but you just want to go out and make sure you can help everybody."

In the offseason, Massaquoi keeps tabs on his teammates, making sure they're working as hard as he is. When recruits like Green come to visit, Massaquoi is the first one to welcome them. And when the young receivers hit a wall, Massaquoi has plenty of hard-earned wisdom to impart.

It's a role he's thrilled to play. Richt called the senior receiver "the keeper of the gate," because nothing gets by him. He's a father figure – or more appropriately, as Green put it, a big brother.

"It's a family atmosphere being with these guys," Massaquoi said. "I love these guys. I don't have any brothers, but all these guys are my brothers."

As he prepares for his final season at Georgia, Massaquoi finds himself the senior leader on offense for a team ranked No. 1 in the country. His teammates have graced the covers of USA Today and Sports Illustrated, and he earned a second-team All-SEC nod in preseason voting. Superstars-in-waiting like Green pronounce Massaquoi their mentor, and Stafford calls him the glue that holds the passing game together.

The roller-coaster ride Massaquoi has endured at Georgia is clicking its way back to another peak. And while the low points remain etched in his mind, lessons he'll teach and re-teach to the next generation of Bulldogs, he's careful to appreciate the good times when they come.

"The high moments are just being with my teammates," Massaquoi said. "That's something you can't replace. The low moments are just those days when it's a grind, the growing pains you go through. But the high moments pick you up."

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