July 17, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Jamal Golden did his best last fall to remain close to his Georgia Tech teammates while he was injured, and he never felt like he was completely gone.
There is little question, however that it has been much easier to stay in the mix recently both because Golden’s left shoulder is well, and these Yellow Jackets have been especially diligent about offseason bonding.
Fresh off a large-scale gathering last Sunday at defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s Gwinnett County home, where all defenders “from the starters through the walk-ons,” enjoyed BBQ and more, Golden has an opinion.
“I feel like this . . . is probably the closest team since I’ve been at Tech,” said the junior safety/return man deluxe. “We played ping-pong, watched the [World Cup] soccer final, and ate together . . . just had a good time. It was a great experience to hang out with my teammates. I feel like we’re closer than we’ve ever been.”
Golden is not the first Tech defender to say he feels this way. Senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy spoke last week with similar enthusiasm about the way the Jackets are relating to one another.
With the start of fall practice two weeks ago, the warm and fuzzy vibes may be exaggerated for Golden because of the way he spent last fall.
He did not play after dislocating his left shoulder in the third game, and while he worked to stay close to the Jackets, there were times he felt as if he were on an island away from the primary population.
That can be the nature of being injured.
Of course, he wanted to be on the field with his teammates when they enjoyed success. Just as naturally, he hurt all the more when they struggled without him.
“The bad times probably out-weigh the good times. You’re on the sidelines and you see plays that could be made, especially punt returns and kick returns,” he said. “You want to be out there when it’s time to make a play. That’s what I feel like I am, a playmaker. It really bothered me not to be out there with my team.
“I tried to stay connected, and tell my teammates what I would see on the field. The bad times out-weighed the good times a little bit.”
Golden and senior Isaiah Johnson, who will be returning from a left knee injury that sidelined him all of last season, will open fall camp as Tech’s starting safeties.
The absence of Golden last fall hurt in special teams, too.
In 2012, he was the only player in the NCAA to rank in the top 10 nationally in both kickoff return average (28.35 yards, 10th) and punt returns (14.59, sixth). Tech went some 14 years without returning a kickoff for a score until that season, when Golden returned a pair.
To make last season more frustrating for the fourth-year player from Wetumpka, Ala., he didn’t know when he was injured that it would cost him a season.
“It was the third play of the game against North Carolina, September 21st– third-and about 10, I believe. Eric Ebron, the tight end, caught a pass across the middle and I hit him low as soon as he caught it,” Golden recalled. “I kind of felt a little sting in my shoulder and I noticed that I couldn’t raise my arm quite as high.”
Golden yo-yoed in and out of the game a couple times before team officials finally decided that he’d had enough even after playing with a harness.
He still figured he’d play the next game after being held out of contact during practice early that week.
A couple days before that Thursday’s game against Virginia Tech, however, team officials decided with the aid of an independent review of Golden’s shoulder MRI that his season was over.
“The doctor he said that if I would have injured it again without surgery, it could have ended my career because I might have pinched a nerve in my shoulder,” he said. “It was a no-brainer once I found that out. I was told that if I would have played a quarter in the Virginia Tech my redshirt would have been out the door.”
Golden received a medical redshirt season from the NCAA, and therefore has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
He would not learn of that ruling until June, though, he was a regular spectator at practice last fall. The goal — after he underwent surgery to have an anchor placed in the shoulder joint, and to repair damage to his labrum — was to stay in touch, to help however he could.
Often, that was frustrating.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve had to deal with an injury to keep me from playing,” he said. “I was in a sling for four to six weeks. It was really aggravating. I didn’t want to shy away because that would have made the situation worse. I was in every meeting, and went to about every practice other than right after surgery.
“I even wanted to go to the away games, but [head] coach [Paul] Johnson said you had to be a captain to do that. I kind of saw myself as a leader last year, and . . . not being able to help and be around the team, it was more of a mental blow than a physical blow.”
Golden wasn’t shut out by teammates or coaches, but didn’t feel quite as connected as if he were healthy and playing.
That’s in the past.
He’s looking forward, and with a great feeling buttressed by last weekend’s gathering at the Roof residence. That was the second time in the offseason, actually, that the Jackets have descended upon their coach’s headquarters.
“The support of my teammates and coaches was fantastic last fall, and I appreciated that,” Golden said. “It was a great experience last Sunday. I praise coach Roof for having us out to his house. I’m excited to get back to playing.”
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