ATHENS -- Stan Rome never hid his past from his children. That was a decision he made early on. In Valdosta, he knew it was no use.
So Jay Rome, the third child of one of the most famous people in Valdosta, grew up knowing all about his father’s struggles. He also grew up seeing the second stage of Stan’s life, the part when he opened and ran halfway houses, trying to help others get back on their feet. The way Stan did.
They became closer as the years wore on, as Stan’s health began to fail him and Jay started making his own name. The son grew to admire his father and went from resenting to embracing being the son of Stan Rome. He wanted to be just like Dad.
But only to a point.
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The drugs and alcohol were obvious. There was also college.
At first, Jay was ready to go to Clemson and follow his father. But Stan kept telling him to follow his own heart, and gradually Jay realized his heart was pulling him toward Georgia.
So on Saturday, when the fifth-ranked Georgia football team opens the season at No. 8 Clemson, Jay will be playing tight end for the Bulldogs, and Stan will be seeking out a handicapped seating spot in the Georgia section.
“I’ll be rooting for Georgia,” Stan said. “Family trumps alma mater.”
Stan only played football for Clemson for one season. He made a bigger name for himself there in basketball but ended up being drafted in both sports. The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers made him a fourth-round pick, while the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs took him in the 11th round. He never played in a game for the Cavaliers but spent four years with the Chiefs, totaling 22 catches and one touchdown.
Along the way, Stan developed a serious drug habit, cleaning him out financially and putting him around some unsavory characters. His life reached a breaking point when he was shot at age 32, after taking a rock of cocaine and trying to run away from a drug dealer.
Stan survived, and the reason he walks with a cane now is a degenerative disk condition.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Stan said. “It looks like I’m in a lot of pain, but I’m not.”
For all Stan’s faults, he was still an ever-present father, according to Jay. And growing up in Valdosta, Jay was constantly reminded of who his father was. Stan was a Parade All-American in football, a highly recruited star in basketball. Back in 1971, he caught set a state record with 1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was just a sophomore.
Those high school exploits make him quite the celebrity around town.
“He’s a legend,” said Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell, a high school teammate of Jay at Valdosta. “He does what he wants in Valdosta. There’s no hype around it. What you hear is true; it’s his city.”
That was a burden at first for Jay, who also played football and basketball and thus was constantly compared to Stan. There was what he called “unwanted pressure.” But he learned to embrace it.
“I looked at the kind of person my Dad was,” Jay said. “He was respected by everybody in the community; he always did things in the community to help people. Everybody just loved him, and not just for what he did in football. I just wanted to be as much like him as possible.”
Jay would accompany his Dad to one of the halfway houses his father ran, giving him a glimpse at what Stan’s life once was like. They’d attend group meetings at the house. Stan told his son about his struggles, what he did to turn it around.
“It was a conscious choice not to try to hide it,” Stan said. “I felt that the best way to handle it was to be up front with him and open and honest, in hopes that he would see that he could learn from my experience. That was a route that he didn’t necessarily need to take.”
This Saturday will be the first Clemson game in about four or five years that Stan has attended. He used to take Jay by and show him his old haunts, visit Howard’s Rock and tell him old tales of glory days. There was always Clemson memorabilia around the Rome household, including one of his old jerseys and a few Tiger paws.
But Jay’s college choice didn’t come down to Georgia or Clemson; it was actually Georgia or Alabama. And Jay was swayed by a recruiting visit to Athens, where Jay befriended linebacker Mike Gilliard, another Valdosta native. Gilliard graduated from Georgia after last season.
“I had a great experience at Clemson, but that didn’t mean that he would,” Stan said. “The Clemson people, scouts and recruiters, tried to get me to persuade him to go to Clemson. But I told them that it was his choice. I didn’t want to put any undue pressure on him to go to Clemson. I think he made a pretty good choice.”
That choice happened because the father had taught his son to be his own man.
“Everything from my Dad’s life motivated me, and taught me and coached me up on how I wanted to live my life,” Jay said. “He taught me how to be the kind of person I am, and how to make my own decisions, and be my own person.”