It's a good thing Eddie George likes the responsibility of carrying a team on his back, because that's what he is saddled with now. The St. Louis Rams will deploy their warp-speed 21st century offense Sunday; the Tennessee Titans will play power football with George leading the way. We know this because Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said so Thursday. He told the world that for the Titans to win, their 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back is probably going to have to put up MVP-type numbers.
Here's what George said, in essence: Sounds good.
Not every player can hold up under the weight of the Super Bowl. Most cannot. George can, which is why Fisher and the Titans are going to ride him Sunday. This is becoming Fisher's modus operandi. It certainly was last Sunday in the AFC championship game against Jacksonville. According to George, Fisher "just came up to me and told me, 'This is why we drafted you, to carry this team on your back.' He really didn't have to say that to motivate me any further, but I was glad he reminded me of that."
It's possible Fisher put the word out to try to pull a fast one on the Rams, but it's doubtful. Two weeks ago, in Tennessee's playoff victory over the Colts in Indianapolis, George carried 26 times for 162 yards. The week before that, he carried 29 times for 106 yards in the playoff victory over the Bills. Last Sunday, against one of the best defenses in football, George carried 25 times for 86 yards, which was as impressive as his first two outings, considering the opponent. In 15 games this season, George rushed for 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns. The Titans are going to move away from this all of a sudden?
His backfield mate, blocking fullback Lorenzo Neal, wasn't into playing coy about Tennessee's game plan. "Offensively, we have to pound the ball. Everybody in America knows that we've got Eddie George."
Fisher already knew George was a great runner; he has averaged 1,341 rushing yards in four seasons. What Fisher needed as much as yardage was somebody to grab the team by the lapels and take charge. "We had a group of guys who would do literally anything you asked them to do," he said. "But we really didn't have anybody to stand up and say, 'Hey, guys, we need to do it this way.' I wanted somebody to stick his head above the clouds and take charge. Eddie's done that this year. . . . He's done it by his approach to practice and preparation. He's done it verbally, at times, on the practice field and in the locker room prior to games. He's had a significant impact on a lot of the younger players, specifically Jevon Kearse."
What Fisher found was a workaholic, big-game, follow-me kind of player--not a natural-born leader, but someone whose leadership skills have been forged over time. George is my favorite player here because of what he's made of himself. He tells the story on himself:
"I was 15 and I came to my mom at the end of the school year [in Philadelphia, where he grew up] and said, 'Mom, I want to better myself. I want to go to summer school to be better in math. So would you mind paying for summer school?' So all that summer she's thinking I'm going to summer school to be better in math and one day the teacher calls her at work and says, 'Mrs. George, it looks like we're going to have to hold Eddie back because he's failing math.' "
A confused Mrs. George found out that young Eddie had tried to pull a fast one. Summer school hadn't been optional, the way he'd explained it.
"She said, 'I'm going to have to send him away because he's starting to lie to me and he's being mischievous,' " he said. "So she sent me to Fork Union [military] Academy. It was tough for her to send me there. She worked three jobs. She was a flight attendant, a model and a waitress. It was a financial strain on her. So I made it a personal goal that she wasn't going to have to pay for college. To be quite honest, I didn't think I could make it through college if she had to pay for it.
"I tried to fight [being at Fork Union]. But I found myself marching more tours, doing extra duties and saluting the wall. They'd make you turn around, face the wall and salute it for as long as they wanted you to stand there. I was disobedient at first, but I learned I couldn't beat the system. . . . It instilled discipline in me. I think I lacked that at that particular time of my life. It was very crucial for me to leave [Philly] and go to Fork Union because, really, I was on a path headed nowhere. I had to get really focused and decide on what I wanted to do with my life. I was young, but time was starting to run out on me. I really had no ambitions of doing anything other than skipping school and playing street football."
While at Fork Union, George would stare at the school's Hall of Fame and look at pictures of students who went from that school to play in the NFL: men such as Mike Quick, who played with the Eagles, and New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. "I'd imagine one day," he said, "that I could be on that wall and be an inspiration to somebody else that was in my situation."
Ohio State got a model student and athlete, which is why so many of the Big Ten athletic directors, coaches and football people were overjoyed to see him win the Heisman Trophy his senior year. He's going to his third Pro Bowl. Yet, he still asks how he can improve.
His position coach, Sherman Smith, would like to see George improve his pass blocking. Hey, running backs don't block at Ohio State. But he's gotten better at everything else, so it figures he'll make himself a better pass blocker soon enough. Smith is the man who told George that dancing to the outside "might as well turn you into a 5-10, 180-pound guy. Don't run laterally. Impose your will."
He could have a higher yards-per-rush average if he bounced outside. But he has a bigger impact on the game by crushing people. North-south running isn't pretty, but it helps his team. George has a lot of two-yard carries early, which become six-yard carries in the fourth quarter. George calls Neal "Muscle." Neal (5-11, 240) says, "So I have to call him 'Chiseled.' Really, we call him 'the Beast.' He runs over safeties now, runs over cornerbacks, runs through linebackers. . . . Look, this stuff about having an MVP-kind of day on Sunday--he loves that. He won't walk around saying, 'I'm gonna do this to those guys.' He's not boastful; he doesn't gloat or taunt. But I guarantee you it's in the back of his mind."