All-Time Greatest – No. 6: Eddie George

BuckeyeSports.com has been counting down the days until Ohio State's 2008 season opener against Youngstown State with its list of the 50 greatest Buckeyes of all-time. With just six days left until kickoff, the series continues today with No. 6: Heisman Trophy winning tailback Eddie George.

Sometimes, first impressions can be deceiving. Going from a recruiting afterthought and a freshman plagued by fumbles to starring in three of the most memorable games in recent Ohio State history, Eddie George became the poster child for never giving up.

Born Sept. 24, 1973, in Philadelphia, Edward Nathan George was a good student who excelled in sports at Abington High School – winning the state championship in both the high and low hurdles in track as a sophomore – but he fell in with the wrong crowd away from school.

As a result, his mother pulled him out of public high school and sent him several hundred miles away to Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. It was an eye-opening experience.

"My mom saw that I had potential, so before my junior year (of high school), she sent me down there," George told Buckeye Sports Bulletin in 1994. "Now I'm happy about it. At the time, I wasn't. I was used to hanging with my boys, staying out all night and getting into stuff. Nothing major, but you know how young kids are when they don't have anything else to do. Then I got to Fork Union and my life changed overnight."

George quickly got used to the military academy and its stringent rules. Nearly every minute of every day was regimented between schoolwork, athletics and military drills. But the strictness of his new surroundings paid off.

"There's no question that I am where I am today because my mother sent me there," George said in 2002. "No question whatsoever. If she hadn't had the foresight to send me to Fork Union, there's no telling where I might be today."

In two seasons at Fork Union, George led the Blue Devils with 2,572 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. As a senior co-captain, he totaled 1,372 yards and 15 scores and began drawing the attention of several major college programs.

He had always been interested in Ohio State, especially because of its history of producing standout tailback, but nearly didn't become a Buckeye.

George had been recruited by head coach John Cooper and his staff, but Cooper was beginning to look like a lame-duck coach by the end of the 1991 season. Cooper was only 19-14-2 in his first three seasons with the Buckeyes, was 0-3 against both Illinois and Michigan, and had never finished above a tie for third in the Big Ten standings.

When the Buckeyes lost for the fourth straight time to Illinois in the second game of the '91 conference season, then lost to Iowa three weeks later, the general consensus around campus was that Cooper would have to beat Michigan to retain his job.

But before that game got under way in Ann Arbor, OSU athletic director Jim Jones put those rumors to rest by announcing a contract extension for Cooper. Fans really had something to grouse about after the Wolverines pasted the Buckeyes, 31-3, later that day, but the contract extension led to George's signing with Ohio State.

"If (Cooper) would have left, I wouldn't have gone to Ohio State," he said. "When he got his extension, the Buckeyes were No. 1. At first, I was looking at Penn State or Virginia, but after the extension, I chose Ohio State."

As a freshman, George was a little more accomplished than most first-year players because of his military school background. Already 6-3 and 220 pounds, he contended for a role in the backfield with starter Robert Smith and backups Raymont Harris and Butler By'not'e. And he got some early playing time, too, until a disastrous game against Illinois.

The Buckeyes were looking for their first win over the Illini in five years and were driving early in the game when George fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line. The fumble was bad enough, but Illinois safety Jeff Arneson scooped up the ball and rumbled 96 yards the other way for a touchdown.

Later in the game, the Buckeyes were driving again for a go-ahead touchdown when George coughed it up again near the goal line. Those two misplays helped give the Illini an almost unbelievable 18-16 victory.

George's confidence was crushed, and although Cooper later told the media that George would continue to be his team's short-yardage back, it didn't turn out that way. In fact, George saw only token action the rest of that season and all of the following season. He finished his freshman year with 176 yards and five TDs, then playing behind Harris during his sophomore year, accounted for 223 yards and three scores in mostly mop-up duty.

When the 1994 season rolled around, there was no one left in front of George at the tailback spot and he took full advantage. He broke out with a star performance in the season-opening Pigskin Classic as the Buckeyes defeated Fresno State, 34-10, and embarked upon a season that saw him roll up 1,442 yards, the sixth-highest single season total in school history.

More importantly, he had scored 12 touchdowns and put his fumbleitis behind him. George was becoming a more complete running back – he also had 16 receptions for 17 yards and was earning the reputation for being a punishing blocker on blitz pickups.

Naturally, he was to be one of the team's leading stars as the Buckeyes headed into the 1995 season with as much talent as Cooper had amassed in any one year since he had become head coach seven years earlier. George's year began rather modestly with a 99-yard performance that included a pair of touchdowns against Boston College in the Kickoff Classic.

But he went on an absolute tear after that and never looked back. The following week, he carried the ball 36 times against Washington for 212 yards and a pair of scores. Two weeks later, he topped the 200-yard mark again, this time in an emotional 45-26 victory over Notre Dame – the first meeting of the two college football powerhouses in Ohio Stadium in nearly 60 years.

That served as a springboard for both George and the Buckeyes as they rolled over opponent after opponent. He rushed for 100 yards or more in the team's final 12 games of the season, including a 314-yard explosion over his old nemesis, Illinois.

That total set a new single-game rushing record for Ohio State, shattering by 40 yards the mark Keith Byars had set against Illinois in 1984, and was especially gratifying since the Illini had entered that game as the No. 2 team in the Big Ten against the run.

Unfortunately, for George and the Buckeyes, their dream season ended after 11 straight victories when Michigan scored a 31-23 win in Ann Arbor, knocking OSU out of the Rose Bowl. Disconsolate, OSU went to the Citrus Bowl and wound up on the wrong end of a 20-14 decision to Tennessee.

Nevertheless, George finished his season with 104 yards against the Wolverines and 107 more against the Volunteers, winding up with 1,927 yards for the year, a new all-time Ohio State record, breaking Byars' previous mark of 1,764 years set 11 years earlier.

And while Byars was robbed of the 1984 Heisman Trophy, nothing could deny George.

After earning Big Ten most valuable player and All-American honors, George captured Ohio State's sixth Heisman, outdistancing Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier for the award. Some pundits had projected Frazier as the winner, but George outpolled the Cornhusker QB in every category – 268-218 in first-place votes, 248-192 in second-place votes and 160-158 in third-place balloting.

During the awards ceremony, Cooper looked on with a huge smile and later remarked to reporters, "I've been coaching 33 years and this young man has got the best work ethic of any football player I've been around. Obviously he's a great football player, but this award could not go to a finer person, both on the field and off the field, than Eddie George."

Finishing his career with 3,768 yards and 44 touchdowns, George finished second only to two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin (5,589, 1972-75) in yardage and third in touchdowns to Pete Johnson (56, 1973-76) and Byars (46, 1982-85).

George was a first-round selection of the Houston Oilers in the 1996 NFL Draft, going with the 14th pick overall. He exploded on the scene as a rookie with 1,368 yards and eight TDs, earning several rookie of the year honors. The following year, he increased his total to 1,399 yards and made the first of four consecutive Pro Bowls.

The Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997 and became the Titans in '99, but the moves and name changes didn't seem to faze George in the least. In eight seasons with the team, he never missed a game, playing 128 consecutive contests, and racked up 10,009 yards and 76 touchdowns.

He also never failed to carry the ball at least 312 times over those eight seasons, even topping 400 carries in Tennessee's Super Bowl year of 2000, and averaged more than 340 totes per season while with the Titans.

George finished his NFL career in 2004 with Dallas, and retired following that season with 10,441 yards and 68 touchdowns. Heading into the 2008 season, he ranked 21st all-time in NFL rushing yards and 29th in rushing touchdowns.

Despite all of his football duties, George still found time to return to OSU and complete work on his landscape architecture degree, earning his diploma in June 2001.

Since he has left football behind, George wears many other hats. He is a restaurateur, owning Eddie George's Sports Grille, a sports bar in Nashville, Tenn., and Eddie George's Grille 27 in Columbus. In addition, he is a budding actor, having appeared in a handful of television sitcoms and reality shows, and has appeared on TV as a college and pro football analyst.

George is also one of only seven men ever to have had his jersey number retired at Ohio State. The university permanently retired George's No. 27 during ceremonies in November 2001.

Yesterday: No. 7 Bill Willis

Tomorrow: No. 5


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