(Note: This is part of a series of stories on legendary Georgia Bulldogs.)
DULUTH, Ga. – It’s one of the smallest pictures you’ll find on the walls of D.J. Shockley’s basement. And there are a LOT of pictures in his basement. Some are big, some small, some in fancy frames, others just frameless posters. There’s even a life-size banner of Shockley that a friend snagged from the side of Sanford Stadium back in the day.
But this one picture, the little one in the nondescript black frame, is his favorite.
It features a beaming Shockley in the middle, his mouth agape in what must’ve been a full-guttural laugh. To his left in the picture, arm-and-arm in an embrace, is Georgia head coach Mark Richt sporting a giddy smile himself. Teammate Kedric Golston and SEC commissioner Mike Slive are also in the shot, but they’re in the periphery, both literally and figuratively.
No, this picture is all about those two central figures, Shockley and Richt. It was taken after the Bulldogs’ stunning victory over LSU in the 2005 SEC Championship Game. Shockley, a senior, earned MVP honors. The scene is succinctly summarized with the hand-written inscription from Richt across the bottom.
“I told you you’d leave here with a smile on your face,” Richt wrote. He signed the pic and sent it to Shockley in the mail shortly after that season ended.
Never, Shockley said, has one sentence better summed up a career.
“That tells it all right there,” Shockley said, admiring the pic a thousandth time.
A lot of people know Shockley’s story at Georgia. Or at least they think they know. They know he came to Georgia as the No. 2-rated dual-threat quarterback in America. They know they he came there at a time when David Greene was already running the offensive show for the Bulldogs. They know Shockley competed with and shared time with “Greenie,” and actually had some good moments here and there. But they also know that he could never unseat the quarterback who would leave UGA as the winningest quarterback in NCAA history.
So everybody understands when Shockley explains how he almost left Georgia. Shockley went into Richt’s office after the 2002 season with that expressed intention. But that’s when they had the conversation that Shockley said changed his life. That’s when Richt first uttered those words that are now permanently preserved in black Sharpie on the bottom of a 5-by-7 glossy in the basement of his home.
Mark Richt closes the deal
“I really believe when you leave here, you’ll leave here with a smile on your face,” is the exact way Richt first put it. But as one might expect, those were simply the last words in a long and heartfelt conversation that started with Shockley saying, “Coach, I’m thinking about leaving.”
Shockley recounts it here:
“And he says, ‘Shock, first off I’m going to tell you, we love you. You’re gonna get a great education here. I can’t sit here and say, you’re going to play this many series. I can’t sit here and say I’m going to let you start two or three games. I’m not going to do that to you. I’m going to be honest. I’m going to be straightforward. We want you here, we love you here. And I think you will still have a great career here. And I really believe when you leave here, you’ll leave here with a smile on your face.”
Shockley wasn’t sure if he believed that at the time. He entered Richt’s office that day with his mind pretty much made up that he was going to leave if he wasn’t given certain assurances. Like any other athlete of his ilk, Shockley knew he could play. He’d performed well enough not only in practices but also in games to know that. And he knew “Greenie” could, too, and he didn’t hold that against him. But unless Shockley could get himself into a situation where he could truly showcase his talents, he knew his NFL dreams would wither away.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of other opportunities to be had. His father, North Clayton High School coach Donald Shockley, had been fielding calls right and left. And they weren’t coming in from lower-division or second-tier schools. Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden were telling his dad Shockley “could walk in right now and play.”
“My dad’s like, ‘Hey, you ready to go?’” Shockley recalled with a laugh.
But he wasn’t.
“At that moment, I knew I had to make the decision for me,” he said. “I had to make a decision that I would live with for the rest of my life. Nobody else would live with this decision. I had to look at myself in the mirror every single day.”
Shockley didn’t give Richt his decision right then and there. The plan was to take same time to think about it. But he didn’t really need it.
“As I left Coach Richt’s office, I knew this was the guy I wanted to play for,” Shockley said. “No matter where I went, if I went somewhere else, who knows what the situation may be? Who knows what the coach would have been like? But I knew exactly where Coach Richt stood and I knew that he cared about me as a person first, and he knew my abilities. Obviously, he cared about me, and was honest enough with me to tell me the truth. That went a long way for me. And obviously, knowing I would get my degree from University of Georgia, being a guy that will live here, born and raised in Atlanta, Ga., that was another part of it.”
Imagine that, Richt kept Shockley at Georgia by telling him exactly what he didn’t want to hear.
True to his word, there wasn’t a drastic change in the way Richt utilized the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks the next season. Shockley played mainly as a backup to Greene.
Eventually they’d establish a rotation; for a while it was every third series. But, generally, Richt went with his gut, changing quarterbacks only when the compulsion or the game dictated it.
Shockley was playing though. He appeared in 26 games for the Bulldogs those first three seasons. He had 24 TD passes and 5 interceptions in that span.
But it was his senior year before Shockley finally started. And he started with a bang.
In the 2005 season opener against Boise State, Shockley established a school record for touchdowns accounted for. He had 6 – 5 passes and a run – and the Bulldogs rolled over Boise State 48-13 in a game many of the national pundits had labeled as an upset special.
That game served notice to the college football world that Georgia wasn’t going to fall off the map just because all those All-Americans had left.
All smiles in the end
“Coming into that year, we had a bunch of guys who had been backups for the previous two or three years,” Shockley said. “Greenie left, [David] Pollack left, Thomas Davis. So coming into that season everybody was saying it was rebuilding time for Georgia.”
Thanks to Shockley, it was merely a reload year. The Bulldogs were 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country when they rolled into Jacksonville to face Florida. But Shockley had sprained a knee the previous week and couldn’t play.
“I didn’t dress out,” Shockley said. “I’m walking around before the game and I notice everywhere I go Charlie Strong [Florida’s defensive coordinator] is following me. He’s literally about 5 yards behind me. He’s watching my gait, seeing if I was going to play.”
Shockley didn’t, and Georgia lost 14-10 with Joe Tereshinski III filling in at quarterback.
“I remember seeing Urban Myer about 10 years later,” Shockley said. “I introduced myself, and he said, ‘Oh, yeah. I know you are. I remember ’05, we were scared to death you were gonna play. I told Charlie Strong, if this Shockley kid plays, we got no chance!’ It was fun to hear that story.”
Georgia dropped a heartbreaker to Auburn in the final seconds the next week, too. But the Bulldogs made it back to the SEC Championship Game, where they were big underdogs to No. 3-ranked LSU. That served as great motivation for Shockley and the Bulldogs.
“Nobody was talking about Georgia. ‘Georgia doesn’t belong here. They shouldn’t be here. They’re going to lose by 20.’ It’s the same thing that we heard all year long,” Shockley said. “I still remember to this day, Coach Richt stood in front of the team before we went out and said, ‘You make sure everybody watching this game, and especially those guys with the yellow helmets on, they know the guys with the G are here to play! We took it to heart.”