Stafford Leaves His Mark

Matthew Stafford, perhaps the greatest quarterback in Georgia history, has fulfilled his potential in a short amount of time, but not without a mighty struggle in and out of the spotlight

It was, perhaps, the weirdest car drive Joe Cox had ever been on.

The Sunday two weeks before the start of the 2006 season Mark Richt summoned his four quarterbacks to his Oconee County home. Joe Tereshinski, Matthew Stafford, Blake Barnes and Cox had been in a nearly nine-month competition to replace D.J. Shockley as the starting quarterback. The fervor around the quarterback competition was an every-day conversation in the Bulldog world – Just who would start the first game of the season? Would a different player be the starter at the end of the season? If Matthew Stafford was supposed to be the future of the program, why not just throw him in there at the start of the year? On the other hand, the last senior who waited his turn, Shockley, produced one heck of a senior season himself.

Nine months after Stafford enrolled and two weeks into fall practice Cox was in the driver's seat in more ways than one. As Cox drove, he was eager to talk about the discussion he had had with Richt. Meanwhile, Stafford looked out the window.

"All that I knew about the entire thing was that Coach Richt told me that I was going to be the number two going into the season, and that Joe T was going to be the one. I didn't know where Matthew and Blake were," Cox remembered about the drive.

Stafford did know – and that was one of the reasons he was not in the mood to talk. Not only had Stafford not been able to secure the starting job, or the back-up spot… it was worse than that… much worse. Stafford was named the co-number three quarterback with Barnes, the player no pundits gave a hope of playing a significant down in the season.

The car ride was a difficult one for Cox and Stafford both.

"Obviously I was trying to talk just to try to make the situation a little easier, but he was a little mad. It was awkward," Cox said.

"I am a competitor, and Joe is, too," Stafford said. "I went into that thing thinking I would be number one or two."

The next day Stafford and the other three quarterbacks were brought into the media interview room. The look on Stafford's face told the tale – he'd have only himself to blame – even if the expectations put on him were crazy. The young prospect, with the entire Georgia nation watching, came up short in his effort to win the starting job. It was a hard pill to swallow.

"I probably don't take that stuff as well as I should," Stafford said.

Still, Stafford had to move on. Those around the situation, and Stafford himself, say that the freshman doubled his efforts after the announcement. But that realization did not take away the sting that was that day.

"I remember that he was a little upset about it, but I think that comes with being that young, too," Cox said. "He had all of the talent to play, but at the time you could tell that he didn't know everything that was going on. I just remember how weird it was that day. I know that Matthew was just mad at himself because he had higher expectations for himself."

"You never heard him complain about it," fullback Shaun Chapas said of the decision to start Tereshinski.

The First Year

The 2006 season may have been the most turbulent of the Mark Richt Era. After winning the Texas State Championship, Stafford enrolled early to compete for the starting job at Georgia. A few things were obvious – Stafford was the most talented quarterback, but he had some serious growing to do. He was overweight. He had to learn the entire Georgia offensive system. He was in a four-way battle for the starting spot with a senior quarterback in his way. The odds were stacked against him for sure, but the expectations were as high as they had been for a player in some time.

Still, Stafford was not ready to take the reins of the program, Richt decided, when he named Tereshinski the starting quarterback for the opening game.

Coaches, however, knew what they had and were simply wanting to see more from Stafford before they gave him his shot. Fans and coaches were not disappointed with what they saw when Stafford got his real first chance.

Early in the night against South Carolina, Tereshinski went down with an ankle injury that would cost him much of his senior season. The depth chart said Cox was to come in and play, but Stafford was the one that came in off the bench.

"I was a little upset after the Carolina game," Cox admitted. "Because Coach Richt had said the entire week that two people were going to play. They told me that I was the number two, so I thought it would be me. I found out on game day that it was going to change."

Stafford, at a very young age, was thrown into the spotlight on national television. He made all the throws needed, and guided the Bulldogs to an 18-0 win over the Gamecocks. It might not have been Stafford's defining moment, but it was a very good indication of just what he could be – a star.

"Matthew really was put into a difficult spot," fullback Brannan Southerland remembered. "He was so young, and to deal with everything right out of high school… it was impressive. You had a senior, who you look up to, who you are competing against. Anytime you have a younger guy beat out an older guy that's a difficult thing. You feel bad for them, but it's a competition, and you want the best player to play."

The season was young, however, and the quarterback carousel was not nearly through spinning. In Stafford's first career start, Georgia topped UAB the next week before getting into a dogfight with Colorado, a game in which Stafford struggled. Cox came off the bench and led the Dawgs to a come-from-behind 14-13 win. It was unclear who would start the next game – Stafford or Cox. Richt did not announce a starter, but when Cox took the field at Ole Miss he became Georgia's third starter of the season – Richt had only two starters in his five years before that. It was hard to find continuity on offense. Georgia struggled, but won 14-9.

The next week Tereshinski returned as the starter, but the Bulldogs gave way to a vicious Tennessee comeback to lose 51-33. The Bulldogs were about to enter their most uncertain stretch of the Richt Era.

Fans were split on the quarterback question – perhaps the coaching staff was, too. Tereshinski started, but Stafford played a healthy amount in the second half against Vanderbilt. Still, the Bulldogs suffered a difficult 24-22 loss. After the game Richt decided to start Stafford the remainder of the season.

The learning experience was on more than ever for Stafford. There was no need to look over his shoulders any longer – he was the man in charge. That didn't mean it wasn't strange, at 18, to be a leader at Georgia was a new thing. Stafford was still a rookie. He had been thrown into the fire for sure. He got SEC honors the week of Georgia's win over Mississippi State, but struggled with too many turnovers to upset Florida the following week.

Then came the trip to Kentucky.

Stafford struggled mightily. The Bulldogs seemingly hit rock bottom after the 24-21 loss to the Cats. It seemed to indicate that Georgia was on the slide downward. Stafford had turned the ball over way too often, and Kentucky had no problem taking advantage of it.

A Dawg Post photograph after the game of Stafford with a bruise over most of his face came to symbolize just how difficult things had gotten for the quarterback and the program – both were getting beat up pretty good. Richt kept the photo to remind the offensive line just how beaten up Stafford had gotten during the game.

"That picture (after the Kentucky game)… that's what happened," wide receiver Kris Durham said. "I still have that photo, and sometimes I tease him about it, but it was not funny at the time at all."

Perhaps something happened the week between the loss in Lexington and the upset in Auburn – it's hard to know. More than any other thing Stafford simply cut down on youthful mistakes – he quit turning the ball over. It made a huge difference in the bottom line.

Georgia thrashed the #5 Tigers – an upset no one saw coming. That day Stafford did everything needed to win. He started the day with a long bomb that set up Georgia's first touchdown. He ended the day by protecting the ball in the rain. In the game that was certainly the turning point of his Georgia career, Stafford was 14 for 20 for 219 yards and a touchdown with 83 yards rushing and a touchdown.

"I just remember all of those running yards that day," Chapas said. "It was just a combination of everything coming together for him. We all knew Matthew had the talent and what he could do. I think he suddenly had the confidence to do everything. From that point on it was his offense, and he was in charge of it. Ever since that game he's balled out."

It was the defining moment for the Dawgs with Stafford at the helm. It wasn't that Stafford did it with smoke and mirrors that day against the Tigers – Brandon Cox's multi-interception day helped, too – but he did it without mistakes. It was Stafford's arm, and his legs, that crushed Auburn's hopes of sneaking into the national title game.

"That game really helped Matthew," Southerland said. "Going in there as an underdog and with the entire stadium against him – to go in there and play a great game even with the rain it helped a lot. It was big for the entire program."

"It was so big for our team that year," Stafford said. "I think it was the first time that year we consistently hit the deep ball – that really helped out. The win over Auburn was a confidence builder for me. To be able to go into another team's house, the number five team in the country, and get a win was big."

The crowd at Sanford Stadium would have to wait an extra week to welcome Stafford between the hedges after the historic win. Georgia used the week off to get healthy and to get ready for hated Georgia Tech.

The Jackets came to Athens as the #16 team in the country. Tech's defense was stout – a huge challenge for Stafford. Still, he was steady, and it was on him to win the game at the end.

Trailing 12-7, Stafford drove the Dawgs the length of the field and threw the game-winning pass to Mohamed Massaqoui. He added a two-point conversion to make the final score 15-12. Stafford ended the day 16 for 21 for 171 yards and a touchdown.

"I can't remember exactly what Coach Bobo said to me before that drive, but he said something like: ‘This is what you play quarterback for – situations like this,'" Stafford said. "I probably said something back to him like: ‘I know.' And that's what I love. I love those situations."

While running back Knowshon Moreno redshirted that season, he said Stafford's confidence in the huddle puts all players at ease.

"When he is making big passes sometimes I just look at him and give a little smile," Moreno said. "The huddle is always relaxed and calm – waiting for the next play – and that's because of him."

The win over Tech cemented Stafford's status as a player to watch for the national media. Stafford would get a shot at another Tech – this one from Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Stafford wasn't nearly as sharp against the Hokies – he ended the game 9 for 21 – but that didn't prevent him from leading the Dawgs back from a 21-3 halftime deficit to win the game. Stafford's performance earned him the Offensive MVP for that contest.

With the win over #14 Virginia Tech, Stafford and the Dawgs won three straight games over ranked foes. The Dallas native ended the season 6-2 as a starter.

"That year, from my perspective, was overwhelming for him," wide receiver Kris Durham said of Stafford's first season in Athens. "He had to get used to being a quarterback – they are in the spotlight. I think he needed to get comfortable and confident behind center. College football is different than high school. Yeah, he came from a big high school where they won a lot of games – and he did amazing things. Still, it's not the same."

At Home and Around Athens

Shaun Chapas, one of Stafford's roommates, cannot remember the last time he did laundry.

"He's probably got dirty clothes on right now," Chapas said with a laugh after a practice one day in the fall. "He's pretty normal around the house."

Stafford may be the normal housemate, but he's hardly a common friend to have. While football players at Georgia have always been popular among the masses in Athens, Stafford gets even more limelight on him due to his skill and position on the team.

When he arrived at Georgia classmates often asked him to sign autographs – while in class. It was a strange realization – Stafford was living in a fish bowl.

Perhaps that fact of life was driven home most when photos of Stafford taking in a day of racing at Talledega surfaced in the off-season. Stafford was shown with a girl holding an empty keg of beer in the photos – much was made of the photos, and one has to wonder if any other player on Georgia's roster would have gotten such attention out of them, save Knowshon Moreno, if it wasn't Stafford.

Still, those around Stafford say, if nothing else, that the Talledega photos made things crystal clear – right or wrong, Stafford was just too famous to have a normal college life. While many undergrads could take in a weekend downtown in Athens, Stafford never could.

Friends of the quarterback compare him to the character Vincent Chase in the HBO series Entourage.

"He's definitely Vinny Chase around here," Chapas said.

Autograph seekers, for instance, are a fact of life for the signal caller.

"I am usually the guy standing to the left of him waiting for him to sign the autographs," Chapas said. "Everywhere he goes he gets that. I have never seen him not sign an autograph for someone – no matter who or where. I don't think it bothers him."

"Sometimes people come up to us while we are eating and get him to sign stuff," Durham said, "which he is more than willing to do. I see a lot more of people's reaction to him because I am walking with him – especially when he and Knowshon are together… they really look then. Matthew just looks like an average person if you don't know who he is."

The problem is that everyone does.

"I doubt Matthew can go anywhere in Athens and people not know who he is," Southerland said. "Since I have been here I have not seen any recruit come in with that much hype. He is under the microscope all of the time. It's difficult, but I think he's handled it well."

"Obviously Matthew is very popular on campus," said back-up quarterback Logan Gray, who has been able to watch Stafford up close for the last two years. "I think being the starting quarterback at Georgia is a very difficult thing. People always ask me if it's Matthew's fault if we win; they talk about how awesome Matthew played when we win. You get all the credit in the world if you win, but if you lose… I think Matthew handles it well."

Still, big sister has been a very steady force for Stafford to have with him at Georgia. But that doesn't mean Page Stafford has had an easy go of it with her brother being one of the most recognized students on campus. More than once in her four years in Athens she has piled out of a car after listening to an acquaintance criticize her brother – not knowing her family tie. Certainly out of the spotlight compared to her brother, the other Stafford on campus must also deal with a variable most don't have to.

"Page is awesome," Chapas said. "She comes by the house and hangs out with us. They are really tight, and I think that was good for Matthew to have her here especially being young and not knowing anyone."

Hating Losing More Than Loving Winning

"Nobody likes to lose, but he hates to lose," said Chapas. "I mean he really hates it."

Perhaps no player at Georgia wants to win more than Stafford. One of the earliest conversations between Chapas and Stafford showed the fullback just how obsessed Stafford was with getting a W.

"One of the first goals he had when we were talking as freshmen was the overall wins record that David Greene had," Chapas said. "I asked him: ‘If you could have any record here what would you want?' He said: ‘I want to beat or tie David Greene's record.' That was the first thing he said. That said to me right off the bat that Matthew loves to win, which is what you want as a quarterback."

Winning is something Stafford has done a lot of, too. While missing much of the first season as a backup almost instantly destroyed hope of breaking Greene's mark, Stafford has guided Georgia to two bowl wins, a 10-3 record against ranked foes and a #2 ranking in 2007.

"I hate losing more than I like winning," Stafford "That's just the way I am. I don't know, necessarily, that you have to be that way to win. But that's the way I am, and that's worked for me. It's not that I think about being angry after I lose, but that's just the way I am."

"You hear guys like Brett Farve talk about how he has learned to love the wins more as he gets older – you learn to appreciate things more. Right now, I don't know… I just can't stand losing – because of the way it makes me feel. Winning is always good, but losing is the worst."

"I think what makes him different is the way he goes about his business," Moreno said. "He has been learning and developing the last few years. To see the way he reads defenses and calls the right plays, and to know where everyone is supposed to be – its cool to see all of that," Moreno said.

What Are You Doing?

"What are you doing?" may be the most annoying question Matthew Stafford has to deal with. Will he stay, will he go – is it even anyone's business? A sensitive question the Staffords are bombarded by non stop, Stafford's mother Margret said the family is not interested in talking about Matthew's future during the season – understandably so.

"He just didn't want to talk about it during the season," Chapas said.

Still, Stafford did nothing more than help himself with pro scouts and Georgia fans alike when he made one of the most impressive plays of his career at the scene of one of his ugliest performances from years gone by.

With Georgia down 38-35 and time ticking off the clock, Stafford led the Dawgs down the field one last time against Kentucky. Stafford may not have had to take Georgia down the field against the Cats had Massaqoui held on to two long passes from the quarterback earlier in the quarter. The senior receiver took off for long runs after both receptions, but fumbled both times.

After the second fumble Stafford went over to see his teammate – hoping to make certain everything was good to go – maybe even ready to give a pep talk. Massaqoui would have none of it.

"I'm good," Massaqoui said before Stafford reached him.

"I know you are," Stafford replied.

Stafford was in a situation he relishes: his team is down, and they need his help to get them over the top.

"I just love it," Stafford said. "Three minutes to go, and I thought: ‘Ok, let's see what we can do.' Those are the most fun times for me. I love having the ball at the end when no one thinks you can do it. I like doing that a bunch – that's probably my favorite thing."

After taking the field Stafford hooked up with Massaqoui again, this time on a long pass that pushed the Cats' backs against the wall.

After getting the ball even closer to the end zone, Stafford dropped back on second down. Years before, in Lexington, Stafford threw an interception in the end zone, which, in the end, cost the Dawgs precious points at the end of the first half. This time would be totally different. He just plain took a sack rather than forcing a throw into the end zone.

Third and ballgame, Stafford lined up under center with Moreno at fullback and freshman Richard Samuel at tailback. It was a strange formation, but one with a purpose. The Bulldogs had saved the play for possible two-point scenarios and situations like this one.

With the game, and momentum for the season on the line Stafford took the snap and looked for Moreno.

"You could see that linebacker stick with Knowshon on that wheel route – it was not there," Stafford said.

At that point Stafford needed to make something happen. In order to do so, however, he'd have to break two tackles and make a heck of a throw. In the end Stafford connected with freshman wide receiver A.J. Green for the game-winning touchdown.

"We called a timeout before the play. I wanted to make sure Matthew knew to burn that ball into the first row of the stadium, and that we would kick the field goal and hopefully go play in overtime if nothing was there," Richt said.

But Richt admitted days later just how concerned he was when he saw the play break down and Stafford take off.

"I was screaming at him… ‘What are you doing?'" Richt admitted when Stafford ran out of the pocket. "But when he came over after the touchdown I didn't say a single thing about it to him."

"Breaking those two tackles and throwing a strike to A.J.," Moreno said. "That was pretty amazing to see. He showed a little speed out there… a little burst to get the ball off – impressive."

The post-game locker room could not have been more different than it was two years before.

The room itself was the same as it had been in the fall of 2006, but the Matthew Stafford sitting in the chair was totally different. Gone was the young rookie who was learning how not to turn the ball over. But the most notable thing missing from Stafford after the 2008 game was the unmistakable bruises on his face he acquired that day in Lexington. He didn't have a go-to running back. He had no significant wins. He was still very much a mystery.

By the time Stafford had returned to Lexington he was very much a known commodity. He'd guided Georgia to two ferocious winning streaks at the end of the two previous seasons – wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech as a freshman and wins over Florida, Auburn, Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Hawaii to end 2007 as the #2 team in the country.

By the time his junior season started Stafford was considered a can't-miss prospect by those in the NFL.

Make no mistake, the journey has not been an easy one for the Dallas native. The most notable strike against Stafford is that he has not led the Bulldogs to an SEC Championship. He has been criticized, as strong-armed quarterbacks often are, of relying too much on his arm. His critics point out that he threw too many interceptions as a freshman (what freshman doesn't?). In truth, Stafford has never had a complete offense in front of him. While he developed as a freshman Stafford enjoyed a solid offense line, but had few weapons to attack down the field. The offensive line has been breaking in newcomers since the start of the 2007 season. Weapons like Knowshon Moreno, A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaqoui have had to stay patient while the Bulldog offensive line suffered through youth and injuries – often at the same time. Still, Stafford's offenses have put up huge numbers while in Athens.

Nothing has symbolized Stafford's career at Georgia better than the two Kentucky games in Lexington: the first, a young Stafford with a swollen lip and bruised head; the second, a relaxed signal caller making plays to give Georgia a much needed win. He's certainly come a long way in a short time. Getting to the top at Georgia has been no Sunday drive, but maybe the drive he had that Sunday in August of 2006 helped him get to where he is today.

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