Editor’s note: This continues a regular feature on DawgNation called “Throwback Thursday.” It offers the chance to revisit the recruiting stories of former UGA greats. The last few installments were on talented tailback Robert Edwards from Washington County in Sandersville, big-play QB DJ Shockley from North Clayton, 1985 Florida game hero Keith Henderson and his 1980’s running mate Tim Worley.
Damien Gary’s UGA legacy might be as a guy who helped tie the laces on Larry Munson’s “Hobnail Boot” before P-44 Haynes silenced Knoxville in 2001. He had an electric 72-yard punt return touchdown in the first half, but also caught a 14-yard pass which opened that final scoring drive.
The man who did that is on the other side of the facemasks on Saturdays now. Gary serves as the running backs coach for new Division I-A entry UNC-Charlotte. He’s on the staff of former UGA assistant Brad Lambert. The Charlotte 49ers face Georgia State in Atlanta on Friday.
Doesn’t everybody in the Red and Black hope to have a treasured play or two like that? Gary’s resume actually has more depth than that. The 1999 signee is still UGA’s career leader in punt returns and punt return yards. He has about 200 yards more than former All-American Scott Woerner in the latter category.
Gary grew up in Athens and played for Clarke Central. He wanted to play for Florida State, but all that changed after unwavering attention from UGA and former head coach Jim Donnan.
“I was a Florida State die-hard,” Gary said. “That’s where I wanted to go growing up. I had my eyes set there. I wanted to get out of Clarke County. My first ever recruiting letter came from Florida State when I was a 10th-grader. But Coach (Jim) Donnan started recruiting me heavy towards the end of my sophomore year. Just from the first day I met him and the first time my mom met him he had a really big impression on me and my entire family. My mom still to this day will say she saw Coach Donnan riding around town or she ran into Coach Donnan the other day.”
Gary finished his UGA career as the school’s all-time leader in punt returns and punt return yardage. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)
Gary said Donnan was “phenomenal” in his recruiting process.
“He made us feel at home and shared with me why it was important to keep all the state of Georgia talent in the state,” Gary said. “He told me being a local boy I had the chance to do something not many have been able to do. I could grow up in Athens and come to Georgia. That was the recruiting spiel that made me think Georgia was the place and made me forget about Florida State.”
His tore his ACL prior to his senior season and didn’t play a down. He even redshirted his first season on campus.
“A couple of schools fell off after I got hurt, but Georgia remained loyal,” Gary said. “Georgia was right there from the 10th grade on and never wavered. They continued to recruit me heavy. … It was an unbelievable outpouring of support after I hurt my knee. It was like they even recruited me harder after I got hurt.”
He committed to UGA at the senior gala. That was his official visit. He had trips to N.C. State and Virginia set up, but that cinched it. He committed on the spot and canceled those visits.
Gary’s family is filled with die-hard UGA fans. His aunt recently retired after working at UGA for 30 years. His grandfather has had season tickets for four decades. He agreed with the notion he would’ve likely considered UGA if Daffy Duck was the coach, but Donnan was the bonus on top of the program’s vast football tradition.
“Coach Donnan put the icing on the cake with my recruitment,” Gary said. “He made me always feel like I was at home just as much as when I was at home in Athens.”
The irony is Gary is now the one trying to win over prospects and their parents in those living rooms.
“The biggest thing is about being honest with a kid and his family,” Gary said. “(Recruiting) is all about relationships. That was a big part in my recruitment with Coach Donnan. It’s about just being honest. Most universities are going to pretty much have the same things so it comes down to trust and honesty and making sure that recruit believes you when you tell them this university will be the best fit for them and their family.”
Jeff Sentell covers UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.