ATHENS -- When Bruce Figgins was a teenager in Columbus, he worked the gate and the concession stands at a pool in the Shirley Winston Recreation Center. There was one kid he remembered, about four years younger than him, who others talked about as a really good athlete. But Figgins never got his name.
It was only last year, when Figgins was in his fourth year on the Georgia football team, that he put a name to the face. Isaiah Crowell was by then one of the nation’s top recruits, the hope of Bulldogs coaches and fans, but to Figgins he was still the kid at the Shirley Winston pool.
“He didn’t have the dreads (back then),” Figgins said. “So I said, ‘What school you went to?’ He was like, ‘Yeah …’ I was like, that’s where I know you from.”
The connection will be much stronger Saturday when Georgia has its most anticipated season opener in years. Figgins, the former pool employee from Columbus, will be the fullback and lead blocker for Crowell, the kid who grew up playing in Columbus rec leagues.
And starting at outside linebacker for Georgia will be Jarvis Jones, two years younger than Figgins and two years older than Crowell.
Crowell could be the star of the Georgia offense. Jones could be the star of the defense. Figgins will be starting, too. And they all grew up a few minutes from each other in Columbus, a town that will be watching Saturday’s game against No. 5 Boise State with a sense of pride.
“The circles that I run in are a pretty wide range, and they’re excited,” said D.J. Jones, who in 1980 became the first product of Carver-Columbus, the alma mater of Crowell and Jarvis Jones, to get a football scholarship from Georgia. “They want to see Isaiah reach the potential they know he has. Everybody knows and feels that Jarvis is going to be exceptional. The fact that Bruce has moved to fullback and will open the holes for Isaiah and also helped him go to the next level. I think everybody is really pleased.”
Crowell got his start at football when he was 6 years old. His rec league coach, whom he only remembers as “Coach Buckner,” moved him from safety to tailback.
It was around that time that Georgia had great hopes for a tailback recruit from Carver named Jasper Sanks. But he didn’t pan out, as Georgia fans are well aware. Still, Sanks and Crowell have been in touch, one Carver tailback to another.
“Really he’s (been) telling me to keep my head on straight, and he was telling me that he messed up ... certain things not to do, certain things to do and work hard when I got up here,” Crowell said.
D.J. Jones has remained close to the program and recalls first seeing Jarvis Jones (no relation) on the basketball court -- and Crowell as a star tailback on the freshmen team. Yes, Carver was loaded enough that even Crowell couldn’t play on varsity right away.
“It was very easy to pick him out, because he was a man amongst boys then. He was breaking 40-, 50, 60-yard touchdown runs every game,” D.J. Jones said.
The raves have carried into Athens, where Crowell has spent preseason practice living up to the hype. He will get a chance in the Georgia Dome on Saturday to show the nation.
“There’s tons of guys who come in with all this hype and are, I guess, quote-unquote busts,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “But the way he’s been working and studying his plays and stuff like that, he looks great right now. I know it’s a little different when you get in there. There’s TV cameras and 70-90,000 people screaming and yelling. But as of right now, I know everybody on the team is excited to see what he can do with the ball in his hands.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, a former Georgia quarterback, was asked to compare Crowell to someone. He hesitated.
“No, I don’t want to put that on him right now,” Bobo said.
It seemed like the headline was already going through Bobo’s eyes. He was at Georgia when Sanks came in, so Bobo saw what could go wrong.
“A marquee tailback at any school, there’s a lot of expectation -- especially at this level. But a place like Georgia, that’s had a lot of great tailbacks and had arguably one of the best that’s ever played the game. And everybody’s still waiting for that guy,” Bobo said, not even needing to say Herschel Walker’s name. “But this kid is doing a nice job of going out and being himself and doing what he can do and doesn’t really get caught up in it. I read the stuff that he says (to the media), and I think he’s a pretty humble and level-headed guy.”
At least when he does speak. Earlier this week Crowell tried to blow off a post-practice session with reporters. But Georgia’s sports information staff, not wanting to set a bad precedent, made Crowell come after his study hall.
“Really, I just want to do everything for my hometown and my family,” Crowell said. “That’s what I’m doing all this for, my family. If it wasn’t for my family I wouldn’t even be here.”
The first time Jarvis Jones and Crowell met was on a basketball court, they were in the same AAU basketball program, run by a man, Tony Adams, who would serve as a mentor and surrogate parent for Jarvis Jones.
It was a less direct path to Athens for Jarvis Jones, who spent his first year of college at Southern California. He played in parts of nine games there before a neck injury ended his season. It threatened to end his career, but after transferring to Georgia, he was cleared by doctors to play.
Jarvis Jones sat out last season, per NCAA transfer rules. And while working with the scout team, he tantalized coaches, who wished they could use him right away. They can this year.
Now, people are expecting big things out of him despite not having played football in almost two years and not starting at USC.
“I know I’ve got a lot of expectations of me. But I’m only human, so I can only do what I can,” he said. “I’m gonna go out there and play my best and just do what I can, you know? Do what I’m capable of doing.”
For a while, it wasn’t certain Jones would play. He had to be cleared after an inquiry into payments he received from Adams, who was caught up in the Parks and Rec Department scandal in Columbus. When he was cleared, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was asked for his reaction.
“What do you think?” Grantham asked with a smile.
Figgins was also a member of that AAU basketball team, and although he went to high school at Shaw, he said he lived two minutes away from Jarvis Jones.
While Crowell and Jarvis Jones are expected to be major forces, Figgins isn’t talked about as much. He spent most of his first four years in the shadow of tight ends, before the team moved him to fullback this spring.
It has proven a great move for Figgins, who instead of being a third- or fourth-string tight end is now the starter at fullback.
The result, going into his final year of college football, is a sense of renewal.
“Of course you could say you’re (not) where you want to be,” Figgins said. “But God put me in a good position. This last year I’m starting. I’m healthy. I’m doing well. Things have been lining up good for me.”
Bobo admitted he was a little concerned with Figgins in the spring. It’s a blocking position but different in that there’s more space.
“But this fall camp, he’s done a nice job, and I think he’s going to be a very good fullback for us in this league,” he said. “Is he gonna be great game one, I don’t know. But he’s going to continue to get better and improve and be a very good football player for us at the end of the year.”
The ties that bind
Georgia and Columbus have had an uneasy relationship lately. There was the legacy of Sanks. There were ill feelings, since mended, about recruiting at Carver several years ago. And this past spring, several current Carver players were charged with theft from the Bulldogs’ locker room on a recruiting visit.
But the impact of Crowell and Jarvis Jones, each making their debut for Georgia this year, is a big one.
“That is a very talented area, obviously,” said Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon, one of Crowell’s lead recruiters. “They got a lot of talented football players that have come from there; they’ve got a lot of talented players that are still gonna come from there. The thing that I’m glad they see now is that hey, guys can come from that area, come here and do well. And not only do well on the field but do well off the field as well.”
Jarvis Jones is the player who could emerge as a force this season and help turn around the Georgia defense. Still, it’s doubtless that all eyes will be on Crowell, and whether he lives up to the hype.
Figgins will be right there with Crowell, blocking for him.
“It’s nice. I’m real excited for him,” Figgins said. “I know he’s excited. I tell him all the time he has that potential to do a lot this year. I’m excited to be a part of it.”