Seven stories, one team for UGA alumni

semerson@macon.comJuly 30, 2013 

Former UGA players take different paths to where they are today, teammates again in the NFL

CINCINNATI -- The locker room of the Cincinnati Bengals is oval-shaped and very large. There are rookie lockers in the middle. Everybody else gets a larger cubby against the wall.

This serves as the professional home for seven men who played college football at Georgia. Same college team, same pro team.

But how they got to this point -- and where they can go from here -- are seven different stories.

The veteran

Robert Geathers stands by his locker and smiles.

“I started it off,” Geathers said with a wry smile. “That’s why they kept coming back.”

He was the first Georgia player the Bulldogs put in this locker room, at least in this era. Geathers was here even before David Pollack and Odell Thurman came and went quickly. Since then, he has seen the other six Georgia Bulldogs players join him in the Bengals locker room.

Geathers wasn’t one of the big names at Georgia. He’s not one of the big names in Cincinnati. But he’s still there, entering his 10th season, giving the Bengals a pretty good return (104 games started, 33 sacks) on a modest investment (fourth-round pick).

“When I was at Georgia, I could barely step on the field,” Geathers said. “I started one year, but 10 years down the road, started eight years with the Bengals. So you just never know. It’s about being at the right place at the right time and ­taking advantage of it.”

Geathers has also personally witnessed the metamorphosis of a franchise. The Bengals were the NFL’s punch line and punching bag when he arrived. Now the team has made the playoffs three out of the past four years and has a measure of respect around the league.

“It’s been good to be a part of it,” Geathers said. “There’s no one left from the locker room from when I got here, in ’04. So to be a part of it, and for them to recognize that I’m a key part of it, to continue to build off of that, it’s quite amazing.”

The rookie

No, Shawn Williams has not changed in the half-year he has been gone from Georgia. Ask him a question, he’ll still tell you what he thinks.

Last year, Williams arguably saved Georgia’s season by calling out his own defense before the win over Florida. Now he’s in camp with the Bengals, who made the strong safety a third-round pick, and could be the only rookie who starts for the team.

So did Georgia do a good job of putting him in this position?

“I think I did a good job myself, of learning from other people’s mistakes and not wanting to be the guy that everybody’s talking about, that they have to stay on,” Williams said. “(Georgia athletics director Greg) McGarity kind of spoke highly of me for always being in the right places and doing the right things. So it carried over.”

Being brash doesn’t mean you’re not right. Around Bengals camp, the word that keeps coming up with Williams is “intelligent.” It’s a big reason the Bengals wanted him.

“We just feel like, from his experience at Georgia, he was one of the guys that was a team leader, a guy who really understands football,” head coach Marvin Lewis said.

Still, Williams describes training camp as like starting all over again. He has to show the veterans and coaches that he’s worthy of being in the NFL. Just like he had to do at Georgia, when he arrived as a three-star recruit.

“Probably two (stars),” Williams says, smiling and looking ahead.

And here he is now.

“It just goes to show you no matter what the (recruiting) stars, at the end of the day that (stuff) goes away and don’t really mean anything,” Williams said. “You got people that are no stars and five stars here.”

The five-star

A.J. Green felt for Chris Conley. Green was watching the SEC championship last year, and he saw Conley, the Georgia receiver, make the catch in bounds after the ball had been tipped.

Oh no, Green thought.

“That’s every receiver’s instinct, to catch the ball, and not bat it down,” Green said. “You don’t know to drop the ball.”

It’s hard to drop a ball when you’re good, which Conley is. But Green was great at Georgia, as he was expected to be, and he has been great so far in the NFL, which he was also expected to be.

The fourth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft has made the Pro Bowl each of his two seasons, and he quickly emerged as one of the top receivers in the game.

And, on the personal side, he just got engaged to his longtime girlfriend, whom he met at Georgia.

“I’m still the same person,” Green said.

That’s what the teammates who knew him at Georgia also say. And going even further back is defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who played against Green in high school in South Carolina.

“Same guy as he was in high school,” Dunlap said. “He just goes about his business and lets his work on the field speak for him.”

Green also said he doesn’t worry anymore about the only blot on his resume: The jersey-selling incident, which cost him the first four games of his junior year. One can’t help overlooking that Green’s No. 18 Bengals jersey is now all over Cincinnati.

“No matter what, I can get paid for anything I do,” Green said, with a smile.

The guard

The media has formed a horde around Green’s locker. Across the room, there is one lone reporter around Clint Boling, which is one more reporter than normal.

Boling laughs, saying it’s just like college, even when he was the unofficial spokesman for the Georgia offensive line in 2010.

“And even then I didn’t even talk to too many people. It’s one of those things I’m used to,” Boling said.

He’s in his third year, the second as a starting guard. He alternated between tackle and guard at Georgia, while in Cincinnati he has been going between guard and center.

Boling earned a starting spot. Next step: Establish himself. Stay in the NFL for a decade or more.

“You’ve just gotta be consistent, you’ve gotta come out every day to work and expect to get those things done,” Boling said. “But as long as you’re a consistent player and do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll be able to stay in the league awhile.”

The fullback

Orson Charles has had to change course. For years, he was ticketed for the pros at one position: tight end. He started there for Georgia. He was first-team all-SEC. The Bengals drafted him as one last year.

But then they drafted another tight end this year. In the first round. So now Charles is a fullback. It might be his best shot at making the team.

“Last year, everything was working at breakneck speed,” said Charles, who caught just eight passes as a rookie. “I was on special teams, trying to learn the offense. Now I pretty much know the offense but I’m learning a new role. So I’m taking that in, special teams is like second nature to me, so I can really work on my craft (and tight end), get better, gain the coach’s trust.”

Teammates like Green know they can miss a few days of camp, take it easy, and still line up in the opener. Charles is one of those who cannot. Every day is vital, a walk on a tightrope.

“Every day you’ve gotta prove yourself. And the moment you don’t think you need to prove yourself you’re gonna be out of here,” Charles said. “So every day I put these pads on, put these helmets on, knowing I have to prove myself to get these coaches’ trusts, get my teammates’ trusts, for them to trust me to be out there.”

When Charles signed last year, he got a signing bonus of $429,300. He earned $390,000 last season. That’s the money in the bank. Here’s how important it is for him to stick with the Bengals: He would earn $480,000 this year, $575,000 next year and $660,000 in 2015. But almost all of that is non-guaranteed.

He’s renting a place in Cincinnati.

“If God allows me to play a couple more years, I plan on buying a house,” Charles said.

The self-made man

Dennis Roland was never a star. He started two years on Georgia’s offensive line, but there were few accolades. He wasn’t drafted. Now the offensive tackle is entering his seventh year in the NFL, on a one-year contract that pays him $715,000.

“It is a gift,” he said. “It’s a blessing. You don’t take it for granted. That’s kind of how I work, one year at a time. Hey, this could be my last season, you never know, go out there and work hard, let’s have a good year.”

Roland has hung on this long by being reliable and versatile. He’s on special teams. He has played some guard. He has even lined up at tight end when necessary.

“I’m ready to do whatever is asked of me,” Roland said.

Most of his former Georgia teammates who were drafted ahead of him are no longer playing. Roland is still here.

“Just a lot of hard work. Weight room, film study,” Roland said. “It’s paid off.”

Among the Georgia Bengals, that makes Roland the second-best success story.

Mr. Popular

Geno Atkins has taken to Cincinnati, and Cincinnati has taken to him. At a recent Bengals practice, there are as many people wearing Atkins’ No. 97 jersey as there are for the starting quarterback. Only Green has more.

When the defensive linemen emerged on the main field, a few fans called out: “Geno!” The defensive tackle smiled and waved back. The man who has made the Pro Bowl twice in three pro seasons is reveling in this.

Pretty good for a fourth-round pick. Pretty good for someone who didn’t make first-team all-SEC. Pretty good for someone who wasn’t a top 100 recruit out of high school.

Atkins is one of those players, according to Geathers, who has benefitted from being in the right situation at the right time. Atkins was only a fourth-round pick, but he arrived on a team that plays a 4-3 defense; Atkins played at Georgia in the final year of its 4-3 defense. It was horrendous statistically, but somehow it prepared Atkins.

“I was happy with the defense Coach (Willie) Martinez had. It helped me,” Atkins said.

In three seasons with the Bengals, Atkins has 23 sacks and has anchored a defense that last year ranked ninth against the run. He was a first-team all-Pro last season, when he had 12.5 sacks.

Atkins is finishing up his rookie contract. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and all signs point to a lucrative contract.

If there is a president of the Georgia chapter in Cincinnati, it is Atkins, who will sometimes organize get-togethers. It is a loose-knit group. It can be hard to get seven different people together, especially with divergent goals and interests.

But Atkins thinks that one common bond still matters.

“I just think the organization likes the products that Georgia produces and knows what they’re gonna get when drafting them,” Atkins said. “They know that we’re no-nonsense guys, we’re not too flashy, we’re gonna do what we need to do on and off the field. And just good character guys.”

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