MEMPHIS -- The big lineman took a few steps over to the throng of reporters and grinned sheepishly. Claude Felton, Georgia’s associate athletics director for communications, offered the introduction.
“This is Trinton Sturdivant,” Felton said with a wry smile.
Sturdivant is perhaps the best story on the Georgia football team, and certainly the best feel-good story, considering the team’s 6-6 record. But it had been nearly two years since the offensive tackle had spoken to the media; partly his decision, and partly that of his position coach, Stacey Searels.
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There was a touchy subject -- two straight season-ending left knee injuries -- that Sturdivant didn’t really want to talk about.
But three days until the Liberty Bowl, which could end up being his final collegiate game, Sturdivant spoke about the injuries, how he never considered giving up football, and his future.
Three years ago, Sturdivant seemed headed for a sterling career. He was a first-team Freshman All-American after starting every game for Georgia at left tackle, protecting Matt Stafford’s blind side.
But knee surgery sidelined him for the entire 2008 season. When he returned to start the 2009 opener, he tore his ACL in the same knee.
Still, Sturdivant said he never considered calling it a career.
“I’ve never been a quitter,” he said. “I’ve never quit anything. So I didn’t plan on quitting then.”
But he admitted the rehabilitation process was “real tough,” especially after going through it the first time.
“To have it happen the second time, knowing the ultimate goal for every college player should be the NFL, to for that to be tarnished because of the injuries was tough,” Sturdivant said. “And being that you won’t be able to play with your teammates, and you don’t know if you’re going to be able to come off and play well. It was a serious struggle of mine.”
This year the Bulldogs, and Searels in particular, brought him along slowly. He didn’t play in the opener, then he had 10 snaps in the second game, then 15. The final part of this season, he was basically an every-snap player. He ended up starting six games at left tackle.
“I wouldn’t say he’s back to where he was his freshman year,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “But I think him getting through this season will help him mentally, and I think going into next year he’ll have a chance to get back to where he was.”
So how unusual is it to come back from two knee surgeries? Head coach Mark Richt recalled a Florida State player named Dan Footman, who came off back-to-back ACLs, then ended up playing in the NFL from 1993-98.
“It’s happened before, but to his credit he’s persevered,” Richt said of Sturdivant. “He’s had a good season. And hopefully he’ll come back and have a great season next year.”
But will he come back? Sturdivant has sent his name to the NFL draft advisory board, and remains noncommittal on coming back. He also scoffs at the idea that the NFL wouldn’t be interested in someone with his injury history.
“First of all, I don’t think I would just straight up not get drafted. But I haven’t really weighed all my options with my family,” he said. “Because I’m in season. When I’m in season I focus totally on football and focus totally on my next opponent.”
And while doing so, he said, he has gradually become more used to being back on the field, and less aware of being re-injured.
“In the beginning of the year, it was a very important point,” he said of the knee. “But now it’s like I’m just playing football, it hasn’t happened to me yet. So I don’t anticipate anything happening now.
“I mean it’s a rare injury, it’s a rare thing.”
His teammates had started to stretch, and Sturdivant started to pull away. He gave the media one final smile.
“I’ll see y’all,” he said, laughing as he jogged away, rejoining his teammates.