Our Titans Anthology continues with a man who needs no introduction, a gritty north-south running back who carved out a stellar career in Tennessee; exuding the qualities of a true Titan; desire, leadership, strength, and legendary durability.
By Jordan Churchill
The Buckeye Bruiser
A Gritty NFL
The One That Got Away
The Ray Lewis War
Photo courtesy of Robin Marchant
Lion-heart, human bowling ball, football warrior...these terms describe one of the most successful and celebrated running backs in NFL history, and to be honest, they don't do him justice. Edward George grew up something of a nomad, moving to various locales in Philadelphia before settling in Abington, a fan of the NFL's Philadephia Eagles and the Penn. State Nittany Lions. George recalls selling hot chocolate at the Vet when he was 14 years old, with the prospect of one day playing on the field below only a distant fantasy. That's not to say he didn't have ambition.
"I remember going with Eddie to the Penn State-Notre Dame game in 1991...He turned to me and said, 'I'll be on that field someday, playing for Penn State.' For Eddie, it was something he always imagined." - Kevin McDonald, Eddie George's uncle
But there was little to make one believe he was destined for football immortality. The young Eddie George put little focus into his studies, preferring to hang out with friends instead. He played football at the local Abington Senior Highschool, but his career hit a wall when he broke his shoulder in his sophomore season. At the directions of his parents, Donna George and Derrick McCarthy, young Eddie was enrolled in Fork Union Military Academy. The way they saw it, the strict environment of Fork Union would either make or break him. Eddie himself wasn't 100% willing.
"I didn't want to go, and it was tough when I got there, especially taking orders from guys younger than me...But I had to learn about work ethic and develop better study habits. I had to become somebody. If I hadn't gone there, who knows where I'd be. I wouldn't be here today. That's for sure."
Fork Union Military Academy, the alma mater of his uncle, gave George the chance he needed. The school, more well-known as FUMA, has a long history of college athletes walking the halls, but none were ever like Eddie. From the outset, his talent was undeniable. There was a fuel that drove him even in those early days. George reveled in the military environment, opting even for a fifth preparatory-school year. The values learned from his parents and coaches, and the military virtues of toughness, endurance, and leadership were ingrained into him, and that was never more evident than on the football field.
His gritty running style and raw physical talent failed to garner a heavy recruiting campaign, but George found a home at Ohio State. His college career didn't start the way he intended either. After earning snaps his freshman year and impressing in the first four weeks of the season with five touchdowns, George hit a wall that almost ended up destroying his football career. George fumbled twice against Illinois, both right around the goal line, and both resulting in defensive touchdowns, and consequent losses. The once-touted running back from Fork Union garnered a paltry 79 carries over the next two years as a Buckeye, with it looking like little change was on the horizon.
The idleness fueled him. His junior year, George came alive, bursting back onto the scene with 1442 yards and 12 touchdowns. With a renewed chance to make an impact, George exploded as a senior, blazing the school record books with 1927 yards and 24 touchdowns, including a 314 yard, 3 TD performance against Illinois; fitting revenge for the mistakes his freshman season, a movie-worthy resurgence that put George in the Heisman conversation, an award he brought home at the the end of the season after earning First Team All-American honors.
"You've got to see and meet someone like Eddie George to really appreciate him...He wasn't heavily recruited, yet here's a player you love to have on your team because no one works harder and, as you can see, he's a physical specimen. His work ethic is amazing. During the summer, the players had a choice of running at either 12:30 or 6 o'clock. There were days when Eddie ran at both times."
- Buckeyes coach John Cooper
Despite being well outside the prototypical norms for running backs, being 6-3 and 230 lbs, George found success with a punishing run style more likened to a battering ram, "fullback-esque". Pretty incredible to also consider that the big man was the Virginia State Hurdles champ at one point; a testament to his inherent athleticism that few could believe once they saw him running toward them on the gridiron.
"It doesn't bother me when people say I'm a between-the-tackles runner...because I think I've shown I can run outside as well...It's a matter of getting the opportunity to run outside. But it really doesn't matter to me where I run, as long as they give me the ball."
By the finale of his senior campaign, George had put himself firmly on the map. 4 years removed from a game against Illinois that almost ended his career prospects in football, the bruising back had taken full opportunity of his chances, and hit the jackpot.
Eddie George didn't hear his name called until thirteen other gentlemen-athletes had walked up the podium and accepted jerseys with their respective new teams. The Houston Oilers selected the Buckeye tailback with the 14th overall pick, and they were not disappointed.
George was immediately turned loose in his rookie campaign for the lame-duck Houston Oilers, a team that was already scheduled to break their lease early and pack up shop for Tennessee. His efforts were rewarded with the NFL Rookie of the Year accolade. The big back's fire and bruising running style blazed a trail in the pro's, and that dominance carried over when the team did finally relocate and re-style themselves the Tennessee Titans, as we know them today.
Photo courtesy: Brian Bahr / Getty Images Sport
The Titans used Number 27 just like he was built, battering down opponents with physical running until they relented. Tennessee often owned the league crown for Time of Possession, and dominated defenses, wearing them down by the 4th quarter in an old-school style. In the NFL's golden age for running backs, Eddie George was the king.
On George's return to his home grounds of Philadelphia, he was once again at the Vet, where he once stood over 10 years before with only dreams of the NFL on his mind.
Eddie forged strong bonds with teammates Tight End, Frank Wycheck, and Quarterback, Steve McNair. Together they formed the crux of an offense that thrived on physicality, running the football, and finding ways to win in the 4th quarter. With George's grinding running and McNair's wily play, the Titans, backed by an equally aggressive defense led by "the freak", Jevon Kearse, rose to the pinnacle of NFL power.
In 1999 the newly dubbed Tennessee Titans went on a storied run to the playoffs. Eddie began the season with a bang. After giving up a lead against the Bengals in week 1, Steve McNair found George for a late 4th quarter touchdown pass, before kicker Al Del Greco provided the eventual game winner.
While the Titans were far from a flawless team, George and McNair helped them overcome to hurdles. When week 5 rolled around, the Titans faced the Baltimore Ravens, under first year head coach Brian Billick, and they did so without McNair at QB. Despite holding George to fifty-five yards rushing, and committing an NFL record 212 penalty yards, the Titans found a way to come away with the win, 14-11.
Eddie George had a great regular season that year, capping it off with performances against the Steelers and Jaguars. George ran wild over the Jags for the second time that year, as the Titans proved to be the only team in the NFL to beat them...and they did it twice, the second being a convincing 41-14 rout with McNair and George leading the way.
The Music City Miracle
The Titans, despite strong wins over the course of the year, squeaked into the playoffs as the AFC's 7th seed. The first match-up? The impressive Buffalo Bills. Both offenses struggled in the game, which was all but forgotten by the time the final whistle was blown. With the tunning last minute score to elevate them to victory, the Titans advanced deeper into the playoffs where George helped the team to additional wins over Indianapolis and Jacksonville (for the third time that year).
Eddie took to the field in the Georgia Dome, the first and last time he or his teammates would touch Super Bowl turf. The stage was set for a match-up bigger than any before; the league's No.1 offense in the high-flying St. Louis Rams and the most physical, dominating defense of the year in the Tennessee Titans.
George proceeded to rush for 95 yards and 2 Touchdowns, but it wasn't enough. When the clock read 0:0, the confetti rained down upon the players and fans alike, but a story book season had come up 6 inches short of triumph.
The Titans returned home to Tennessee to a surprisingly positive reception. The victory that year may not have been final on the field, but the team had won over the city of Nashville entirely; a bastion that had been wary to latch on to the new town football team that had traveled so far from Houston. They were home well and truly now, and players like Steve McNair, Jevon Kearse, Frank Wycheck, and of course, Eddie George, were suddenly household names that would never be forgotten.
Photo courtesy: Elsa Getty Images Sport
The Tennessee Titans played in the old AFC Central division, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, a grouping of franchises that was fiercely physical and predicated on dominating opponents in the trenches. The rivalries may have fallen by the media wayside these days, but these ties still elicit strong reactions among members of these franchises, and there is plenty of reason for it.
In 2000, the Titans were the class of the NFL. Coming off of the super bowl run the year before, the Titans proved to be a superior squad the year that followed. Behind George's astounding 403 carries and 16 total touchdowns, the Titans rolled over opponents on the way to a 13-3 record, those 3 losses coming by a combined 7 points. It stands to this day as probably the best performance by a team coming off of a Super Bowl loss. The Titans were perfect at home that season save for a single game. The one loss? The Baltimore Ravens, no less.
Riding a historically stingy defense, the Ravens punished Eddie George that day, eliciting a claim from Baltimore Corner Chris McCallister that the Titans Runner "folded up like a baby." This was fuel to the fire in what became an intense rivalry between the two clubs, most visibly between the Titans own Eddie George, and the Ravens young middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
The teams met again in the playoffs, with the Titans better prepared to tackle the Ravens defense. Tennessee out gained Baltimore on offense by 317 yards to 134, converted 23 first downs to the Ravens 6, and won the time of possession battle by over 20 minutes...yet they found a way to lose.
"Everything was set up for the Titans that year. The 2000 team was actually better than the one that lost in the Super Bowl...The immediate feeling after that loss was complete and utter shock....That game left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. To be honest, I'm not sure the fans have ever really recovered from it."
- Jim Wyatt, The Tennessean.
The loss sent waves through Nashville, and players from the 2000 squad have mentioned more than once about the disappointment that year, maybe even trumping that of the 1999 Super Bowl season.
"It hurt more than losing the Super Bowl the year before that, just because we knew whoever won that game would probably win the Super Bowl."
- Titans CB, Samari Rolle.
The Titans-Ravens rivalry was a bi-annual slug-fest from that point on, further ignited in 2003 when Ray Lewis claimed Eddie George had "lost a step," and was "not the same pounding Eddie George (as he was before)".
Following that conference with Baltimore's defensive figurehead, the Titans rallied against the Ravens to win, led by a battered and bruised Eddie George no less. George earned more than a few plaudits that day for his performance, made ever more impressive in his injured condition, but it served as a redemption of sorts, something that was never forgotten in the hearts of Titans fans who had been through the disappointments, and who had seen Eddie George carry the rock for so many years.
While there is no doubt that the win in 03 did little to heal the disappointments of the years before, it did serve as a reminder that Tennessee was still a team to be reckoned with. It is known that this game proved a valuable one for George though, despite all the surrounding factors. While only furthering the franchises' intense rivalry, it culminated a long career in Tennessee for Eddie George, and ensured his permanent home in Titans lore.
After a stellar career, George was worn down. He carried the ball an astonishing 330+ times in five of his eight seasons with the Titans. After a divorce in 2004, he signed on with the Dallas Cowboys, but it was clear that things were not the same. He retired after that 2004 season, having led an incredible NFL career that goes largely under appreciated when fans and experts alike discuss the best backs to play the game.
George still stands a the only NFL running back not named Jim Brown to gain over 10,000 yards on the ground without missing a start. The former Buckeye tailback went to four consecutive pro-bowls, and was a major component of the best teams in franchise history; beyond this, he was a vocal leader both on the field and off of it.
But when all was said and done, and the lights went dark, when George was no longer battling his way across the NFL gridiron, he became lost. Like many ex-NFL players, he found himself more daunted by the prospect of retirement than preparing for opponents for Sunday football games. The chance to retire a Titan, and win the big game, was a thorn George found difficult to shake as well. Emotionally, the former leader of Titans football was devastated.
"Oftentimes you don't have a chance to go out riding on a white horse," he said. " lot of times the ending, it is written for you, and that happened to me. I didn't have a chance to write my own ending, and that bothered me.""It is an ongoing process, and it is establishing my principles and making a commitment to living and being a lot better than I was when I left the game of football and what I am doing now in my life...The dark period that I went through, you have to sustain from it, but it is not like I am on the other side...
"Some of the things you have to go through to find your next life purpose can be daunting, it can be intimidating and it can be exciting, but it's a process you have to go through to get there. That's what I want people to know: It is difficult but you do it with diligence, with patience, with love and persistence."
George made his post-NFL life struggles public only recently. But like his prior obstacles, he overcame them. He powered through to the daylight on the other side. That is one of the qualities that keeps his career a treasured artifact in the minds of Titans fans who watched him take to the field.
"What defines success? Is it having millions of dollars, or is it peace of mind? And that is ultimately what I am talking about, having that peace of mind where I am happy and confident in who I am and what I am doing and where I am going vs. floundering, searching for that peace of mind,'' he said. "Think of guys like Junior Seau and even Steve (McNair) to some degree, being out of the game for the first time. You search for peace of mind and you often search in the wrong places. You look at (actor) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and he had a successful movie career, but he was fighting demons."
"There was never a point for me where I was in the bottom of the Cumberland River, I had an epiphany, and I turned my life around. There was a series of things that made me change things because I was changing into something I didn't want to be."
So here we stand, looking back on the resume of a celebrated NFL running back. Though he may never be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, there is an element that transcends the numbers when it comes to Eddie George. His iron-man mentality and loyalty to his teammates, his leadership and constant drive to build the Titans into a winner, these are the traits he will be remembered for.
After being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame on May 19th, 2011, it was recently announced that Eddie would be inducted also into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame on May 17th, 2014, joining former teammate Frank Wychek and late Titans owner Bud Adams.
Nowadays George spends his time on TV, working as a Studio Analyst with Fox College Football, and annually as a color commentator for Tennessee Titans preseason games. He also owns and operates several sports restaurant chains that bear his name, and raises his two sons, Jaire and Eriq George.
There is something that lingers though, about Eddie's impact on the Tennessee Titans. He was a bedrock of a new NFL team in a new city that didn't immediately embrace them. He was a big factor in making that happen, in making Nashville the Home of the Titans, and endearing that love and support that remains to this day, through thick and thin, in the form of passion and sold-out stadiums. Eddie George embodies everything is means to be a true Titan, and as far as this writer is concerned, the gold standard by which all Tennessee running backs will be measured.
Beyond all of the criticisms, the struggles, and the disappointments, George rose above, ever churning forward, building the Titans into the team we know today. For that he deserves our eternal gratitude, and his ensured place among the great athletes the NFL has ever seen.
Ray Parillo, Inquirer Staff Writer
Jim Wyatt, The Tennessean