Tech Wins Battle, Loses Warhorse

Oct. 20, 2007

By Jack Wilkinson –

On September 21, 2002, in the injury-marred aftermath of Georgia Tech’s 28-19 victory over Brigham Young, I wrote these words:

“Tech may have won the battle but lost the warhorse.”

That warhorse? Tony Hollings. This time, I fear, it may be Tashard Choice.

“Let those guys know it’s not serious.” That was the post-game message to the media that Choice conveyed to Tech media relations director Dean Buchan in the locker room, after Saturday’s 34-10 win over Army. That may have been youth speaking optimistically.

With 2:03 left in the first quarter, Choice took a handoff, went up the middle for seven yards and went down and didn’t get up. Couldn’t get up. He had to be helped off the field, unable to put any weight on his right leg. And the thought occured: Tony Hollings.

Remember? In 2002, in Chan Gailey’s fourth game as head coach, Hollings ran wild over BYU, as he had in his first three games as Tech’s tailback. He was the nation’s leading scorer, had already posted four 100-yard games, totaling 633 yards. Hollings finished with 189 yards that day on 36 carries – the 36th being the last of his college career, after he tore his ACL with three minutes to play.

In less than a month, Hollings had indeed become Tech’s warhorse, with all the nobility and significance the word implies. And now so, too, had Choice. He led the ACC in rushing in 2006 and was leading again this season after an epic performance at Miami: a career-high 37 carries for a career-best 204 yards in that 17-14 triumph.

It was Choice’s third straight 100-yard game and fifth of the season. And, perhaps, his last.

As Choice went down on field Saturday, he was quickly attended to by Tech trainer Clay Farr, director of spots medicine Jay Shoop, team orthopedist Dr. John Xerogeanes and team chaplain Derrick Moore. As they examined Choice’s right knee, center Kevin Tuminello took a knee nearby.

“I just wanted to see if he was OK, and see how serious it was,” said Tuminello, a fifth-year senior. “Any time you see one of your close friends, or a teammate, go down, it kind of puts a damper on it. We’re a real close-knit group. Any time a player goes down, you hope he can battle through it.”

Choice could not, not even on a gorgeous homecoming afternoon. He was finally helped to his feet by Farr and Moore. He put his arms around their shoulders. The two men helped Choice off the field, the tailback hopping on his left leg, unable to put any weight on his right.

Sitting on the bench, Choice still wore his helmet and a grimace. He was clearly in pain as the medical staff examined his knee. Choice then laid his head on the seatback of the bench. He held his left hand to his helmet and Tech fans held their breath.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t see him on the ground, I was throwing the ball on the sideline,” said quarterback Taylor Bennett, who came over and patted Choice on the helmet on the sideline. “I saw him at halftime and he had a smile on his face, so I’m assuming that it’s OK and that he’s going to be all right. If it is up to him, he’ll play.”

It wasn’t, and he couldn’t, on Saturday. “Definitely a scary moment for me, and I can’t imagine what was going through his mind,” said fullback Mike Cox, who later leaned over and talked to Choice as he lay on his back on the sideline grass. “He said it was something with his knee.

“I wanted to check on him,” Cox said. “Tashard’s a next-level player, the NFL. He’s my brother. I just wanted to make sure he’ll be OK.”

As the second quarter began, Choice _ who’d been lifted onto a wheeled cart and was still wearing his helmet _ was wheeled off the field and into the locker room for further examination. When the Jackets, leading just 13-10, entered the locker room at halftime, their warhorse awaited them.

“He was really emotional, that he couldn’t be out there with us,” Cox said. “He was rallying the troops. You could tell it hurt him not to be out there.”

“He was trying to light a fire under the team, and I think that second half was for him,” Tuminello said. “He said you don’t get a second chance in games like this, and you have to play like every play is your last play.”

Just 73 seconds into the third quarter, just after a pressbox advisory that Choice’s knee injury “will be further evaluated during the week,” his backup, Rashaun Grant, sped 24 yards to score and give Tech a 20-10 lead. On the Jackets’ next possession, Grant raced 18 yards to go over the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. It was the second 100-yard game of the senior’s career, Grant finishing with 119 of Tech’s 292 yards rushing.

Freshman Jonathan Dwyer added 20 more. Fourth-string tailback Jamaal Evans scored Tech’s final touchdown. Even Cox, who hadn’t carried the last two seasons, rushed four times for 38 yards – more than double his previous career total of 15 yards.

When asked afterward about Choice’s injury, Gailey said, “I’m hoping it’s short-term, but we don’t know. We’re going to have to wait and see. They’re going to do some more tests today, tonight and tomorrow, and then I’ll have a better idea.”

He has a multiple-choice alternative if Choice is done for the season. As Bennett said, “I was just talking with Wes [Durham, Tech’s play-by-play announcer], who said it best when he said we have a three-headed monster if we don’t have Tashard. We’ve still got Dwyer, Rashaun and Jamaal, and they all bring something to the table.”

“I feel like I’m ready,” Grant said when asked if, assuming a worst-case scenario for Choice, he’s ready for prime time. “I’ve been playing here for five years, and I’m older and stronger and bigger. And I think collectively, as a whole, the running backs that we’ve got can handle the load.”

That’s nice. That’s optimistic. That’s thinking positively. That’s also not a warhorse.

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