ATHENS — Matthew Stafford stepped out of Georgia’s locker room with his cell phone pressed against his ear and the nameplate from his locker in his hand just minutes after breaking the news that his career with the Bulldogs was over.
The souvenir, however, was less about sentimentality than practicality. He had been warned to take the placard before someone else decided to steal it as a memento of an era of Georgia football that came to a sudden end Wednesday with the announcement that both Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno would forego their final seasons of eligibility and enter the 2009 NFL draft.
With head coach Mark Richt seated between them, both players ended months of speculation by announcing they would not be returning to school, choosing instead to move on to the NFL, where both are expected to be first-round selections in April’s draft.
“It’s been a lifelong dream to play in the NFL,” Moreno said. “It’s been a journey. Coming to Athens, it’s been like a second home to me. It’s been wonderful.”
It was a journey Moreno seemed intent on enjoying until the bitter end, routinely claiming he had given no serious thought to the NFL during the season.
An amusing exchange between Richt and Moreno on Wednesday seemed to lend credence to the running back’s story, when his head coach revealed Moreno had failed to submit his paperwork to the NFL advisory board to have his draft status reviewed. It had slipped Moreno’s mind, and he missed the deadline.
“When (the review board) called me and were telling me the names and where they were, I said, ‘Well, what about Knowshon?’ ” Richt recalled. “They said, ‘I don’t have any information on Knowshon.’ Know felt pretty good about his status, I guess.”
In the end, Moreno said he made his decision after only asking for input from his family and coaches. The physical demands of playing running back made the practical side of the argument simple, and the possibility of NFL stardom proved too much to turn down.
“What I was really just thinking about was whether I could make an impact at the next level and the things I still have to work on,” Moreno said. “The mind-set that I have, wherever I go I’m going to make the best of it that I can and try to help my team out.”
While Moreno waited out the season before making up his mind, Stafford said he had decided on a future in the NFL before Georgia’s bowl game against Michigan State on Jan. 1. He sat down with family members during the holiday break and concluded that he was ready for life as a professional, but his final moments in a Bulldogs uniform nearly changed his mind.
“Taking off the pads for the last time, at a place that gave me so much, that was the toughest part for me,” Stafford said. “It just kind of came to a head that it was already over. But I know this is the right decision for me, and I know that I’m ready for it.”
Both players are widely projected as first-round selections, and each could be the first player taken at their respective positions. While Moreno is likely to be drafted in the latter half of the first round, Stafford has been pegged as a possible No. 1 overall selection — meaning he could be headed to the Detroit Lions, who just finished the NFL’s first 0-16 season.
The possibility of moving from one of college football’s top programs to one of the NFL’s worst franchises, however, didn’t play a role in his decision.
“I’d love to go play anywhere they want me to play and try to make that team a winner,” he said. “I’m ready for any challenge.”
While Richt expressed disappointment that two of his top players would not return for another shot at an SEC title, he said he was confident that both Stafford and Moreno were ready to play at the next level, even encouraging NFL teams to draft them early.
“Anybody who’s out there thinking about drafting these guys,” Richt said, “you’ll do well to take them as high up on the board as you can get them. And trade up for them if you’re smart.”
Stafford said he looked at the success of rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore) this season as an inspiration and said he hoped to begin his first season in the NFL as a starter.
Moreno, too, said he planned to spend the next few months working on specific skills to ease his transition to the NFL so he would be ready to make an immediate impact.
“I think I have to work on my speed a little bit, but that’s what camp is for, and I’m definitely going to work on that and come back faster than ever,” Moreno said.
Neither player has selected an agent yet or decided where they will spend the next few months training.
Their departure leaves two big holes on offense for the Bulldogs looking ahead to the 2009 season, after Stafford set a school record with 25 passing touchdowns this year and Moreno became just the second back in school history with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Richt designated senior Joe Cox as the heir apparent to Stafford’s position, while adding that the job of starting tailback would be an open competition between Richard Samuel, Caleb King, Carlton Thomas and Dontavius Jackson.
Wednesday, however, Richt urged fans to take the time to enjoy their final moments with Stafford and Moreno before setting their sights on what the future might hold.
“If all the guys were like these two, coaching would really be easy,” Richt said. “They’ve blessed our program, I hope we’ve blessed them. I’m truly excited for them, and I’m excited for the Georgia Bulldog Nation, too, because when guys like this come out of our program and have the success that they’re about to have, it bodes well for the program.”
Given the contributions they had made in their tenure with the Bulldogs, however, it was hard for many fans to picture a 2009 season that wouldn’t include two of Georgia’s biggest stars.
Just minutes before Stafford and Moreno announced their decisions, a young boy trudged through the halls of the Butts-Mehre Athletics building, clad in a black Georgia jersey with Moreno’s No. 24 inscribed across the front and back. In a somber voice, he remarked that it would be the final time he would wear it.
“You can still wear it,” a companion offered.
“Yeah,” he said, “but it won’t be the same.”
It was a notion even Stafford and Moreno seemed to understand as they soaked in their final moments at Georgia.
Asked to recollect their fondest moments, neither offered images of long runs or game-winning touchdowns.
“Obviously we had a great time playing games and celebrating in the locker room afterward, but some of the time we’ve had off the field is some of the stuff I’ll really miss,” Stafford said. “More than anything, though, I’m just appreciative of the time I had with these teammates and the coaches. It’s a tight-knit family here at Georgia, and the toughest part is going to be leaving those guys.”