Oct. 26, 2012
by Matt Winkeljohn, Sting Daily –
It might seem fitting that Tony Hollings will be back Saturday, when he’ll be honored by Georgia Tech on the field between the first and second quarters of the Yellow Jackets’ game against Brigham Young.
It was against the Cougars 10 years ago, after all, that Hollings’ magic ride ended and visions of the first Heisman Trophy winner in school history were wiped out by the sight of him leaving Grant Field on a cart with his hands over his face. You can even find posts on Tech message boards this week suggesting that Tech avenge Hollings.
There are a few catches.
First, Hollings has been back plenty of times. You can in fact find him tailgating yet again tonight and Saturday with some long-timers near Marietta and Luckie Streets.
And while he, too, wonders what might’ve been had he not blown out a knee in 2002 when he was leading the nation in rushing, he hardly sweats it.
“I met one guy who said he had made up a website – Hollings for Heisman. If I had kept pace, I might have got 2,000 yards,” he said. “I think about it, but everything happens for a reason so I don’t let it bother me. I go to every home game. I’m a regular down there now.”
Back in 2002, Hollings was something of an overnight miracle.
The Jackets were short on ball carriers that spring, and the first big decision of new coach Chan Gailey’ career was to convert Hollings from reserve defensive back to running back.
There were several “back” stories at work.
Joe Burns, who was the fourth-leading rusher in school history, had another year of eligibility because of a medical redshirt but did not return to Tech in ’02. Fellow running backs Jermaine Hatch, Sidney Ford and Jimmy Dixon battled a variety of injuries that spring and summer, and Gailey was scuffling.
Legendary Tech running back Eddie Lee Ivery, who worked in the athletics department at the time, had an idea.
“Eddie Lee Ivery came to me and . . . I had played quarterback in high school, but he said, ‘You just look like a running back. Walk with me and you can ask Gailey,’ and coach said yeah and the rest was history,” Hollings explained.
His was a brief, white hot, run at Tech.
Hollings had been quite a dual-threat QB at Twiggs County High outside of Macon as he rushed for about 1,300 yards as a junior and again as a senior. Each time he passed for about 700 yards as well.
He had a problem hanging onto the football in early Tech practices while playing a new position, but his athleticism was impossible to miss. Cutting, starting, stopping, hurdling, sprinting – Hollings was like a video game.
In his first collegiate start, the junior rushed 17 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Vanderbilt while playing barely more than a half. That made him the first back in school history to rush for more than 100 yards in his first game. He followed that with a 16-carry, 144-yard, four-touchdown effort in a win over Connecticut.
The Jackets fell 24-19 at Clemson as Hollings rushed 23 times for 147 yards and two more scores before he was rolling against BYU in Game No. 4.
Well past the point where he became the first back since Ivery in ’78 to rush for 100 or more yards in four consecutive games, Hollings was try to help Tech ice the Cougars.
In the fourth quarter, he was plugging away when nothing struck — leaving nothing for which to seek vengeance — yet something went badly wrong.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “There was 3:23 left on the clock. It was an open-field cut. One of my linemen was blocking, and I made a jump cut right to left, and nobody was in front of me. I heard it pop so I knew it was bad. I got hit on it earlier in the game, but it wasn’t to the point where it kept me out of the game.”
With a torn anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage damage in his right knee, Hollings was finished.
Tech won 28-19 to move to 3-1, but went 4-5 without him the rest of the season.
His 633 rushing yards on 92 carries – an average of 158.3 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry – led the nation, and he was second in scoring with a 16.5-point mark.
Within days, he had surgery.
Hollings entered the NFL’s supplemental draft the next summer, when the Houston Texans exercised their 2003 second-round pick to choose him. He spent three seasons with the Texans, appearing in 23 games, rushing 49 times for 149 yards. His quickness never again matched those four magical Saturdays in 2002.
“It was a shock to me, but we had a great offensive line that year,” he said of his four-game run. “I guess no one really expected us to be that good because we lost three running backs.”
The NFL’s Bears, Colts and Jets gave Hollings a look in ’06 and ’07 before he ended up playing in NFL Europe with Hamburg and Berlin in parts of ’07-’09.
“We won two championships, and my last year I broke my left leg,” he recalled. “Actually, it was the fourth game of the season like when I was at Tech . . . and that’s when I knew it was time for me to hang it up so I came back from Germany.”
Hollings lives in Lithonia, and frequently visits his children in Houston. They occasionally visit him here. He works at Eagle Rock Distributing Company in Stone Mountain, and may one day seek to finish his degree at Tech.
“Everybody from the Southeast recruited me, but my mom’s side of the family is from Atlanta so when they offered it was an easy decision,” he said of heading to The Flats. “I was surprised by this. It was a coincidence because my name was floating around on [a prominent Tech message board] and it was the 10th year anniversary of my injury.
“I think it’s going to be a great experience Saturday. My family is coming. This is an honor.”