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(Chip Towers/DawgNation)
Georgia senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter talks to UGA beat writers in an early Tuesday morning interview session on the sixth-floor pool deck at The Omni Hotel.

Jonathan Ledbetter’s personal journey makes him perfect leader for Georgia Bulldogs

Chip Towers

ATLANTA — Redemption is quickly developing as a theme for the 2018 Georgia Bulldogs.

It’s not about the 2017 season and that excruciatingly close call to winning it all in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. We’re talking about personal redemption, as in atonement and reclamation. As in recovery.

Case in point: Jonathan Ledbetter.

If there ever was an example of a player making good on a second chance, Ledbetter is it. The senior from Tucker found himself on the wrong end of the law — both UGA’s and that enforced by police — early in his career for the Bulldogs. But after finding himself on the outside looking in, suspended and on the brink of dismissal from school, Ledbetter sought help for his struggle with drugs and alcohol and then reclaimed his position as a productive member of Georgia’s defense.

Two years later, Ledbetter has risen well above that. He stood front-and-center with the Bulldogs on Tuesday as a face of the program as Georgia took its turn at SEC Football Media Days. If you want to get an idea of what his personal journey means to his team, behold the words his head coach.

“Jonathan has grown up a lot,” said Kirby Smart, who won Ledbetter’s commitment as an Alabama assistant coach and has known him since the 10th grade. “He will tell you there were times of immaturity in his youth during the recruiting stages and even leading into his time at Georgia. But sometimes the life you lead and the experiences you encounter, they give you the ability to stand in front of people and talk from experience. And I think our players recognize that when he speaks, he speaks from the heart. They see how he works. They see what he’s been through.”

Based on Georgia policies and disciplinary guidelines, Ledbetter knows he’s lucky to still be at Georgia. He tripped over them more than once. He’s also the beneficiary of good legal counsel and a progressive head coach with regard to substance abuse recovery.

There’s no sense in enumerating Ledbetter’s transgressions in this space. You can read details in numerous DawgNation articles posted here over the years. But he’s been subjected to a multi-game suspension and the shame of public arrests.

In a nutshell, Ledbetter fell victim to the same extracurricular habits and addictions that have befallen many college students, especially those who enjoy hero-like status on campus. As a result of all that, Ledbetter ended up missing half a season in 2016.

But since being reinstated, Ledbetter has been a leader in every way imaginable. He emerged as an almost unblockable force as a sophomore defensive end in 2016. Since then he has ascended into a respected team leader and accomplished student who will graduate with a degree in sports management around the same time he’s expected to become a professional football player.

“All I can say is life is a rollercoaster, man,” said a bespectacled Ledbetter, dressed to the nines in dark suit accentuated with a white shirt and bright pink bow tie. “You’re going along for a ride and you never know where it’s going to take you. You just have to keep the faith. I went through a bunch of trials and tribulations and I just kept my head on and stayed prayed-up. I talked to God when I could, to Kirby when I could and my family.

“All that stuff has just kept me grounded. It’s really cool to see how far I’ve come, but there’s really no looking back. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.”

It isn’t lost on Ledbetter that many others have encountered the same self-erected obstacles that he has. Some have overcome them and learned from them, some haven’t.

Chauncey Rivers, a good friend and recruiting classmate of Ledbetter, was dismissed by the Bulldogs after his third drug-related arrest two years ago and has had to rebuild his football career elsewhere. Current UGA teammates Natrez Patrick and Deangelo Gibbs are at different mileposts of similar journeys.

Ledbetter tries to be a resource when and where he can.

“Natrez was my roommate my first two years,” he said. “I don’t have to advise him anymore. He’s got everything going on the up-and-up and moving in the right direction. I’m just proud to see him doing that for himself. Deangelo is still working. He’s working hard and doing the right things and he wants to continue to do the right things. He’s still looking for excellence.”

Ledbetter has found it. And while his leadership and role as a mentor are a big part of who he is, it shouldn’t be lost in his story that he’s also a big-time player whose presence on the defensive line keeps the Bulldogs relevant to the SEC championship race this season.

Ledbetter’s career totals of 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 15 quarterback pressures are eye-popping considering the number of games he’s played and the fact that he defends only half of the field. But there’s not an offensive lineman on Georgia’s roster that likes to face him in practice, and the same can be said of most of the linemen who see him regularly in the SEC. Ask Oklahoma, which saw him make six tackles, about trying to block this 6-foot-4, 277-pound lineman with the quick-twitch get-off.

Ledbetter knows he’s here only because Smart subscribes to the philosophy of recovery rather than harsh discipline. But that came with the caveat of full buy-in.

“I think Ron Courson and our medical staff have done a tremendous job with Jonathan Ledbetter, of embracing him and helping him growing as a player and a person,” Smart said. “No better a person to listen to than a guy who has been through the trials and tribulations he has. When he says it, he says it with passion, and he leads the right way. And we want him to do that the rest of his career at Georgia.”

From his past, Ledbetter doesn’t run away now.

“It’s just part of me,” Ledbetter said as one of three appointed team spokesmen on display in Atlanta on Tuesday. “I don’t like to look back. I just like to keep moving forward and going in the right direction. Everyone has to grow up eventually. Everyone has to mature as you get older and gain experience. You can only get that through life. You can’t get it from someone else.”

The Dawg Nation can only hope that those coming up behind Ledbetter are paying attention to his message.”