Georgia took the time to say “happy birthday” over and over to a four-star recruit’s mom today. 15 times over.
That sounds on the surface like a boss move for a savvy recruiting staff, but let’s back off that thought for a second. Let’s not go there. There are too many cynical views in this life to just immediately go to that.
The cynics can lose this one. Yes, Georgia did send 15 birthday cards to the mother of an in-state defensive tackle who is currently rated No. 6 in the nation at his position. The nearly 6-foot-5, 295-pounder now does have UGA in his Top 5 “for sure” in a race where everyone is chasing Alabama.
Lee County senior Aubrey Solomon clearly stated that Alabama is still his leader. But Georgia took a dent out of that lead by sending some well-wishes over to his mother, Sabrina Caldwell, today.
“This is the first time I am turning 39 and then I will be 39 for every birthday going forward,” she said.
Her day started off by going to work.
“So I went to work today like a crazy person on my birthday, right?” Caldwell said. “Because that’s what I do and so after work I pulled up to check the mail.”
There were 15 red envelopes tucked inside. She recognized the Georgia red. Not the Alabama crimson. She assumed they were all for the No. 97 player in America for the Class of 2017.
“So then I looked at them all and they said to Ms. Sabrina Caldwell or Ms. Caldwell,” she said. “So I sat in the driveway and as I am opening each one my face just lit up.”
That’s the first tug on the heart. She didn’t get any other birthday cards today. Her loving sons, Aubrey and his little brother Kermit Solomon, Jr., would then weigh in with their efforts later. They were also baking her a chocolate cake. Caldwell knows going heavy on the chocolate is known to trigger a migraine.
Yet, it is her birthday. That’s what Excedrin is for.
“So I came in the house and my eyes were watering then,” Caldwell said.
Aubrey asked what was wrong.
“I told him this is so sweet,” Caldwell said. “As a parent, you always make sure your child’s desires are at the forefront. Their activities. Their education. Parents are often forgotten, but a noble parent knows that is the role we all must follow.”
But any noble recruiter knows Caldwell will be at the forefront of her son’s decision.
“I was acknowledged because of my life and because of my birthday and they wanted to celebrate that,” Caldwell said. “They made it clear because of my life that’s why there is this stellar young man who plays football. If I wasn’t here, he would not be here. That’s how I looked at it. It truly warmed my heart. I’m actually trying to keep from crying right now because of all of this. This truly touched me. This was genuine. Very genuine.”
Yet Caldwell understands the recruiting game, too.
“Georgia went that extra mile,” Caldwell said. “Any of these schools recruiting Aubrey could have gone the extra mile like this for Aubrey. But only Georgia did. … This also makes me think if they will go the extra mile while recruiting Aubrey to think of his mother, then what will they do for him when he is on campus? What will they do to look out for him then? This makes me think they will go all those extra miles, too.”
She brought up a life lesson she teaches her children to illustrate why she sees it that way.
“I went to Sam’s Club a couple of weeks ago with my sons,” Caldwell said. “I went through the checkout and there was a young man with a nametag so I called him by his name.”
Her youngest son was puzzled. He asked her if she knew him.
“I said ‘No, but I’m trying to personalize my experience to let that person know I value his role and what he does to make sure my purchases and groceries are in the cart,” Caldwell said. “So what UGA did here is they personalized Aubrey’s recruiting experience for me. They tailored his recruitment not based off of not just my son, but also me. This was a personalized experience for me as part of Aubrey’s family. I’m not just a number to Georgia. This stuff. You just can’t make that up.”
The cards wished her love and happiness on her special day to many more happy years. There was a graphic edit of the Jumbotron at Sanford Stadium topped by birthday balloons. There was one that said the Bulldog family was thinking of her.
“One of them was my ultimate favorite because it pretty much says you are only getting younger,” she said. “You know what? I really liked that one. Because the person who did that was right.”
It underscored how big of a recruiting home run this was.
“This is smart, but anybody could figure out whatever marketing techniques are out there to get the family,” she said. “They could do their homework and realize Aubrey is about his family and then his mother is pretty much the person they need to go to. They know his recruiting is about a woman’s experience but also a mother’s experience, too. So I applaud UGA in every way for doing their homework and personalizing this recruiting experience for us.”
Yet this gesture ran so much deeper than that. Kirby Smart, ace recruiter and all, has no idea how much the work of the support staff touched this family.
This time of year is hard on Caldwell. It is especially hard for her to be happy on her birthday. May 21 marks the anniversary of her brother’s death. Nathaniel Caldwell, Jr. was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2003. He served in the Army. That’s what caused Sabrina to leave the Navy.
Her father, Nathaniel Caldwell, Sr., was a Vietnam vet and the recipient of a Purple Heart. He passed away three months after they lost her brother. His birthday was on May 23.
Then there is also June 5. That’s the day her younger sister, Corrina Caldwell, passed away in 1989. She was just eight years old at the time. A car jumped a curb and crushed her. It was the last day of school.
“When you think about Memorial Day, that hits home for me this time of year,” Caldwell said. “I am normally kind of closed up. And with this for me to kind of skip around that low, this really is great. UGA did not know about this period of my life. But my kids do. So for Aubrey to be so receptive to seeing me so happy, he was touched by this. He could see his mother smiling on her birthday when she normally does not.
“He knows and really understands how much this means. I am always trying to smile to some degree, but he can sit here and see me now and see his mom has a little spark right now. Aubrey saw his mother so happy today and he’s grinning like a Cheshire Cat today, too,” she said. ”
Aubrey wanted to post the cards on the refrigerator, but she declined.
“This makes me feel pretty good deep down inside that Georgia cares not just about me but for my whole family,” Aubrey Solomon said. “It made me feel wanted because she feels wanted right now. It put a big smile on her face which isn’t easy to do this time of year. I mean a big ol’ grin.”
Caldwell is normally focused on her family and lost loved ones this week. But not today. Georgia gave her a moment in which she felt loved and remembered, too. She also got a birthday text message from Dean Fabrizio, too. He’s the head football coach at Lee County.
Solomon said the gesture helped out Georgia “a whole whole lot.” And yet then he said something that shows why he wants to go into nursing, teaching, sports management or coaching one day. He gets it.
“I look at like this: All these teams say they care about me and my mom but only one team really showed me that was really the case today with all this,” Aubrey Solomon said.
Solomon made it clear that Alabama still leads. Clemson is also a big contender. He said that it is very much within reason to expect him to sign at one of those three schools.
Caldwell said to look for her son to make his decision known either on Senior Night at Lee County High School on Oct. 21 or on National Signing Day in February.
If it is Senior Night, look for Caldwell to have a nice new dress on. Her “ultimate favorite” card may or may not have made it to the refrigerator by then.
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and 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. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.