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August 18, 2014

Much More Than a "Little" Recovery

Raise a hand for each season you
were a first-team All-American...
Two weeks prior to the season opener against Clemson, I reached out to a former UGA football playera Bulldog hero of mine as a kidwho had two notable games against the Tigers; one of which was rather memorable to me, the other apparently forgettable for him. 

The 1986 Georgia-Clemson game was supposed to be a little different than the close, nail-biting defensive affairs which had preceded it in the rivalry.  The Bulldogs, which had routed Duke in their opener, were nearly a double-digit favorite over the Tigers, which had been upset by Virginia Tech at home the week before.  Instead, Clemson inexplicably rolled through the Bulldogs seemingly at will, gaining nearly 300 rushing yards while averaging almost five yards per carry.  The poor-passing Tigers even found success through the air, and at the end, found themselves ahead on the scoreboard after their placekicker, David Treadwell, won the game with a 46-yard field goal with no time remaining.

The Georgia defense would get called out following the loss, especially its senior leader and team captainone who entered the Clemson game considered perhaps the best and most important player on the field.

"I must have had a bad game because I don't remember much from it," John Little informed me with a slight chuckle regarding the '86 Clemson game.  Little had been a first-team All-American defensive back the season before as a junior.  "Honestly, I don't remember if I had a bad game, an okay game, or whatI really don't.  What was even the score?"

Clemson 31, Georgia 28, marking the first time in nearly 40 years since a 41-28 loss to Texas in the 1949 Orange Bowl that a Bulldog team scored more than 24 points and did not win.

I had asked Little about the '86 Clemson game because of the aftermath that followed, when a team's head coach uncharacteristically named names and pointed the finger.  This was especially uncharacteristic of this particular coach, who exemplified the "the team is much greater than the individual" principle.

"You just don't inherit a job," Vince Dooley said following the setback.  "You earn it based on your performance and [Little] has not performed."  The head coach would add Little did have "a lot of company" (teammates) as far as those who had also played poorly on defense.


How the mighty had fallen, especially considering the memorable performance Little had against Clemson in 1985, then highlighting a brilliant Bulldog career which had been successful as soon as he finally set foot on the field.

Little, an All-State high school quarterback from Lynn Haven, FL, had decided to attend college six hours north of home because of a closeness he developed with assistant Ray Goff after being largely ignored by the major nearby programs during the recruiting process.  Soon after arriving in Athens, the signal caller was making another transformationthis time, to the other side of the ball.

"I remember looking at a depth chart [in the summer of 1982] and I was about the ninth quarterback out of 10," Little recalled.  "I was moved to defense pretty soon after thatmaybe the third practice."  To assist him in making a smooth transition, Little was redshirted as a true freshmanaccording to him, "a great move for me."  Turns out, yes, it was indeed.
 
Little was placed at the roverback spot—a position which is essentially a combination of a safety and linebacker, and occupied by a player capable to sniff out running plays, help out in pass coverage, while simply making big plays.  Georgia had started utilizing the "rover" approximately a decade before in the early 1970s upon moving from a six to a five-man defensive front.  "It might have been the best position on the defense, in that if you put yourself in the right position, you made a lot of plays," Little added.
 
Against Clemson in '85, Little (bottom on ground)
stopped the run as well as the pass, tripping up
Clemson's Kenny Flowers (No. 48) on this play.
 
Entering the 1983 season, the Bulldogs had their smartest, hardest-working, and biggest play-making defender starting at roverback in senior Terry Hoage.  The year before, Hoage had tallied an NCAA-leading and UGA-record 12 interceptions while earning consensus All-American recognition.  For 1983, it appeared Little would likely have to wait an entire season as Hoage's understudy until seeing significant playing time.
 
An injury to safety Charlie Dean in the third game of the season shifted Hoage to Dean's position while moving Little into the starting rover slot.  Making his first collegiate start the next week against Mississippi State, the freshman had what would be his finest performance of the season, recording 15 tackles, including one for loss, and breaking up a pass.  Little finished the campaign starting six games, or actually one more than Hoage, becoming just the second freshman defensive back in the Coach Dooley era to be considered a season starter.
 
As a sophomore in 1984, Little closed the regular season by making 25 tackles against Georgia Tech; no Bulldog defender has tallied as many in a single game since then.  And, it was during this time the young roverback started to be compared to his legendary predecessor.  From both being unheralded, out-of-state former high school quarterbacks to having tremendous success academically to developing into standout roverbacks, Hoage and Little's experience at UGA was becoming eerily similar.  Entering the 1985 campaign, Little was even "in the same class with Terry Hoage," according to defensive coordinator Bill Lewis.
 
"Before the game, we were on the field stretching and the Clemson players first rubbed that rock, and then ran down the hill," Little recalled of the Clemson game that year.  "Plus, it was really hot if I remember correctly.  So, playing at Clemson was pretty intimidating.  We played at LSU the next season, and that was tough, but Clemson was probably the toughest place to play in my opinion."
 
For the first nationally-televised football game at Clemson, Georgia faced the Tigers in Death Valley for the third game of its 1985 season.  With the Bulldogs leading the Tigers 17 to 13 midway through the fourth quarter and Clemson approaching midfield, Little intercepted a Randy Anderson pass, prompting CBS-TV's Brent Musburger to erupt, "It's Little—the roverback has done it for Georgia!  It is the most glamorous position on that Georgia team!...The number-one man in Georgia that the fans want to know about is, who's going to play rover..."
 
With just over a minute remaining and Georgia having added a field goal to lead Clemson by a touchdown, Anderson heaved a pass into the end zone from the Bulldogs' 36-yard line.  Little dove in the air literally over the intended Tiger receiver, making a spectacular interception and clinching a 20-13 victory for the Bulldogs—Georgia's first win at Clemson in nine years.  Little's memorable two-interception performance earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors; it would be more than two years later before another Bulldogs' defensive back received the same recognition.
 
Whether having a performance which earns conference defensive player of the week honors in one season, or the head coach declaring the All-American roverback in jeopardy of being demoted to a second-teamer the next, Little doesn't remember much in regards to individual play from either of his distinguished performances against the Tigers.  Instead, what stands out the most regarding the Georgia-Clemson rivalry came when he was merely standing on the sidelines.
 
"Honestly, the time we played Clemson on Labor Day night the year I was redshirted sticks out the most for me," Little said referring to the 1982 meeting and that season's opener.  "We were down [7 to 0] but then [Dale Carver] blocked a punt for a touchdown to tie it, and Sanford Stadium went nuts.  I didn't play, but that was my first game experience at the University of Georgia, and [the 13-7 victory] was phenomenal!" 
 
Although he likely wouldn't acknowledge it, what was also phenomenal, but not all that surprising, was Little's recovery from his game against Clemson four years later as a senior.  Just a week following the loss, he made a critical second-quarter interception at South Carolina, leading to a touchdown in an eventual five-point victory.  Against Kentucky, Little scored his only touchdown while at Georgia, intercepting a Wildcat pass and returning it 46 yards for a score—what would be the only interception return for a touchdown by a UGA player over a span of 64 consecutive regular-season games (September 1983 to November 1988).  Moving positions for similar reasons why Hoage was moved from roverback three seasons before, Little played most of the 1986 season at safety, ending the campaign with an interception against Boston College in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
 
Little (extreme right) is mobbed by teammates (L to R)
Tony Mangram, Calvin Ruff, and Gary Moss following
his diving, game-winning interception vs. the Tigers.
In 1985, Little had been recognized as a first-team All-American by the Football News.  By season's end a year later, he had received the same honor from the same magazine, in addition to being selected by the Walter Camp Foundation.  To date, Little remains one of just approximately a dozen Bulldogs to be recognized at the end of two seasons as a first-team All-American. 
 
Just a couple of months before the end of the 1986 season, Dooley had claimed Little had to "earn" his starting job.  I'm guessing the head coach would be the first to declare it was a job absolutely well earned by one of the greatest defenders in UGA football history.
 
At the end of his tenure at Georgia, Little's 381 career tackles, 18 passes broken up, 5 forced fumbles, and 10 interceptions ranked 5th, 3rd, 3rd, and 10th, respectively, all time at UGA.  Invited to play in the 1987 Senior Bowl, Little helped the South to a victory over the North by intercepting a pass thrown by then-Michigan quarterback, now-49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
 
After not being chosen in the NFL Draft, Little was invited for a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.  Eventually earning a free agent contract, he was a member of the team for nearly four months until leaving the squad only a few weeks prior to the Dolphins' regular-season opener.  
 
For 25 years, Little has worked for Georgia Crown Distributing.  He lives in the Columbus, GA, area and in his spare time, he's very involved with his two teenage boys' travel baseball teams.  Therefore, Little might see the Bulldogs in person once or twice each fall.  "I don't miss them on TV though; I still love my Dawgs!" he added. 
 
And, there's no way he'll miss his beloved Dawgs come August 30th against Clemson.
 
"You know, when I was at Georgia, to a lot of us, the rivalry with Clemson was as big as Georgia-Florida, if not bigger," Little said towards the end of our conversation.  "They had a lot of players from the state of Georgia, but we had about four or five standouts from South Carolina: Clarence Kay, Tron Jackson, Kenny Sims, Norris Brown... (who all together happened to be members of only the 1982 Georgia team)."  He continued, "There was so much atmosphere and electricity for that game in 1982—the previous two national champions playing against one another, on ABC-TV on Labor Day night, under newly-installed lights...  it was like it was the 'Game of the Decade.'"
 
By way of the Georgia-Clemson rivalry, John Little was not only proof that after apparently a poor outing, one can recover and perform as well as before, if not better, but evidence that Georgia's big "TEAM"-little "me" philosophy instilled into him more than 30 years ago is still obvious today.

3 comments:

Jim said...

Patrick, I was there for that game and all the games with Clemson at home in the 80's. Little was one of many on defense we could count on every game for those great defensive stands we were noted for but not today.

Patrick Garbin said...

Jim,
Thanks for reading and your comment. Yes, those defenses would bend, but hardly break--unlike today when they seem to simply break. Hopefully, Pruitt will change that.--Patrick

Ole Dokes said...

As a kid, no. 19 was one of my bulldog heroes as well, following the great path forged by scrappers Woerner, Sanchez & Hoage. John & his wife are in my Sunday School class & are great people. John is humble & quiet. You would never know what a warrior he was on Saturdays for our beloved Dawgs. DGD indeed!