Aug. 17, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
They’ve contributed a combined 11 years of service to the football program yet never played to big cheers. Between them, they have a modest 12 game appearances to show, all adding up to perhaps a few dozen plays in blowouts.
Their teammates are aware of their sacrifices, though, so when head coach Paul Johnson announced in Thursday’s team meeting that the three long-time walk-on players are being given full scholarships, the room thundered with applause.
McNearney, the 5-foot-6, 170-pound A-back doesn’t recall all the details.
He won’t forget the feeling.
“[In meetings] coach talks about crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. Sometimes, he’ll bring in a guest speaker,” McNearney said. “He just said some typical stuff. I really don’t remember . . . that’s not the news that I remember.
“He rattled off three names . . . he really didn’t have an opportunity [to comment on each player] because all of our teammates were clapping and going nuts for us. It was special.”
A few years ago, McNearney was a star quarterback, running back and defensive back at the Marist School. Rogers was a standout linebacker at Sequoyah High in Canton, and Gardner stood out as a defensive lineman at Terrell County, in Dawson, Ga.
At Tech, they’ve been tackling and blocking dummies of a sort.
Day after day, their bodies get pounded upon – no differently than all their teammates – yet only rarely have they enjoyed payoff in the form of playing time.
Up to now, their families have been paying for the pain.
It takes a special kind of patience and constitution to go through all that and . . . keep doing it.
So, with spare scholarships available, Johnson rewarded the hard-working trio.
Rogers, a 5-9, 203-pound linebacker who appeared in two games last season, said it’s all been worth it because for him the game is about more than playing in games.
“Getting to be around a team, it’s pretty special,” he said. “Just being around a group of guys you’re invested in . . . you want to see them do well. That you get to help them, even though you’re not always out there with them, it just feels cool to be part of something that is bigger than yourself.”
Gardner, a 6-2, 279-pound defensive end who was unavailable for interview after Saturday’s scrimmage because he is — and has been — injured, played in three games last season. He had a tackle against Presbyterian in his only 2012 game.
Life as a college student-athlete is no picnic, and for all the current chatter about further compensating scholarship student-athletes there is never a peep about helping those that punch the clock on their own nickels.
These young men have given so much, given up so much, and their rewards are intrinsic. Often, they battle within themselves.
“Having to work your way up a hill a little bit . . . every now and then you wake up and you don’t feel as good as you did the day before and you’re thinking, ‘Some of my friends are enjoying the college experience right now, and not going through the hell that I’m going through, and . . . and I don’t have much to show for it,’ “ McNearney said in describing his occasional internal debates.
“It’s kind of like, ‘What am I doing?’ You have those days every once in a while for sure, but other than that, I wouldn’t say I’ve had too much of a low time.”
Actually, you have to pry that kind of comment out of McNearney.
He’d rather talk about the upsides, like the fact that he’s going to graduate in December with a degree in business administration (concentration on finance), and more points of joy.
The fact that he doesn’t mention the two games he appeared in in 2011, the one from ’12 or the three last season doesn’t mean those don’t rank, yet, “Obviously, getting a scholarship is one of the bigger highlights,” he said. “Any time I’ve gotten to travel, beating Clemson three years ago here, that was a big highlight.”
Rogers’ singular highlight quite likely came Thursday in that meeting.
He played in two games last season, and will graduate in December with a degree in aerospace engineering.
The fifth-year student-athlete has an indelible memory, as you can tell: “Everybody was cheering and showing how much they appreciated me,” It made me feel special, made me feel important. It was cool.”
What’s the greatest takeaway here?
That’s open to interpretation by the players themselves, including the redshirt junior Gardner, and to a less important degree by outside observers.
McNearney, who had opportunities after high school to pursue football at lower-level schools, believes whole-heartedly, “the education here is really what sealed the deal for me.”
Arguing the value of leaving The Flats with a hard-earned degree from Georgia Tech would seem a fruitless effort.
For these young men the fact they’re earning their papers while also giving so much of themselves to the football program might be more a multiplier than most of us can imagine.
All those early-morning workouts, all the pain, all the curfews, all the discipline . . .
With the goal of going into commercial real estate, after taking a break following graduation to do some big-time hunting and fishing out west, McNearney thinks he’ll be better prepared for whatever lies ahead for sake what he’ll leave behind.
Student-athletes have little choice but to become hyper keen managers of their time. They know better how to prioritize, to absorb disappointment and grow from it. They know how to work.
“It’s changed the person that I am, 100 percent,” Sam said of his pay-to-barely-play football experience. “I’ve had to grow up a lot faster than some of my peers.
“Just being around all these great people, my teammates, knowing what it means to sacrifice and see them dedicate themselves – regardless of what other people are saying about us – has absolutely been the greatest experience for me.”