ATHENS – The epiphany came for Justin Scott-Wesley when everyone left the room. He was alone with an MRI machine, and his own thoughts. He had been there before, literally, in that room, in that situation, waiting to hear how bad it was.
This time, though, he was past that. Way past that. He had been here too many times.
“I started thinking to myself: Do I really want to go through this again?” he said.
Football had been Scott-Wesley’s ticket out of a poor childhood in south Georgia. It was his avenue to glory and success at the University of Georgia. Even after multiple surgeries and setbacks, the speedy receiver had entered his fifth season optimistic. He could still do it.
Then the knee buckled. Again.
As Scott-Wesley sat in the room at Athens Orthopedics for more than an hour this past August, he began to realize he didn’t need to hear the result of this MRI. Three days later he was in his coach’s office to say, essentially, that he’d had enough.
“It was just a decision that I came to,” he said. “And I was at ease when I came to it.”
It was tough, because it wasn’t the way this story was supposed to end. But Scott-Wesley also knew he had other stories to tell.
‘It’s just a shame’
In the end, Scott-Wesley’s career at Georgia will be known for what might have been. But that’s because he provided the evidence of what could have been.
It came in the first month of the 2013 season. First, an 85-yard touchdown catch-and-run to clinch a win over then-No. 6 South Carolina. Two games later there was the 25-yard touchdown catch with 1:47 left to beat then-No. 6 LSU.
And one week after that, while covering a punt at Tennessee, came the massive knee injury that ultimately derailed his career.
“When he was healthy, and he was given the opportunity, I thought he produced extremely well,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I thought he was coming into his own. He had some big moments in big games. It’s just a shame the injuries came.”
The Tennessee injury was the first major one of Scott-Wesley’s life. It was also very serious.
Not only did he tear his ACL, but also his meniscus and had a microfracture on a leg bone. As a result there had to be two surgeries: The meniscus was repaired first, then rested for six weeks, then a reconstruction of his ACL.
“I didn’t know how to take it. I went into a bit of a depression, a bit of a funk. Then I got into trouble,” Scott-Wesley said, alluding to an arrest for marijuana possession. “That’s history. I just learned from that and tried to overcome the adversity.”
He fought hard to come back last season, but it took until the latter half of the season, and he wasn’t at full speed or his normal self. He caught three passes in six games.
“I couldn’t get back to that guy I was before,” Scott-Wesley said. “I put in the effort this past offseason to get my body back in peak condition and just gain confidence back in my body. I felt like I was on my way back.”
Then he tore his meniscus again on July 2, had arthroscopic surgery, and was ready for the start of preseason camp.
“I still had some pain here and there but I was willing to push through it because I still had big goals and ambition,” Scott-Wesley said.
It was the second week of preseason camp when Scott-Wesley got hurt again during a simple route-running drill. He remembered “running pretty aggressively” on a route, planting his leg, and then it gave out.
“It scared the hell out of me, to be honest,” Scott-Wesley said.
The knee wasn’t torn, and he could have played through it. But the pain was too much.
“I didn’t want to be that type of player who was just like: ‘Just let me get some practice.’ That doesn’t get you any better,” he said. “So to say could I have played through it? I don’t know.”
The end, and the beginning
So was it difficult giving up the football dream? Scott-Wesley takes a deep sigh and thinks a minute before answering.
Football was always something he was passionate about, he said. But he had always made sure that he had “other avenues” in his life. School was always important. And he had other hobbies, like writing and music.
That’s not unusual. Teammates like Malcolm Mitchell, Jay Rome and Keith Marshall have all found something else off-the-field while dealing with serious injuries.
“It has to be that way,” Scott-Wesley said. “It’s the nature of the game. That’s why you see so many people who have problems after the game because they put all their eggs in the same basket. When you have to step away from the game some guys feel lost, they don’t have anything else to think back on.”
He cited Paul Oliver, the former Georgia and NFL defensive back who shot himself in 2013 – the same week that Scott-Wesley caught the game-winning touchdown pass against LSU. He also pointed to Junior Seau, who shot himself because of what family members say was concussion-related depression.
“You get educated on stuff like that,” Richt said. “That’s something I took to heart, just making sure that I didn’t put all my eggs in that one basket.”
Richt, who was deeply affected by Oliver’s death, sat down with Scott-Wesley in August. So did offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who told Scott-Wesley that he had seen players in the NFL come and go off the roster every day. Both coaches told Scott-Wesley it was okay if he didn’t want to come back, despite having to know it would be a hit to Georgia’s passing game this season.
And it has been. Imagine what Georgia’s offense might look like with Malcolm Mitchell on one side of the field and a healthy Scot-Wesley on the other.
“You know what type of guy Coach Richt is,” Scott-Wesley said, his voice rising. “He didn’t put any type of pressure on me to do anything I didn’t want to do. He didn’t force me to do anything. He just told me that he wanted me to be at ease with it, and not to rush the decision. So I appreciate that.”
For a few days Scott-Wesley attended practice as a student assistant. He was excited about it, yelling tips and encouragement to receivers, even acting as a defensive back for some drills. But he quickly realized it wasn’t right for him.
“I felt like I was trying to live through my teammates and I just needed to find my own avenue in life,” he said.
He also hasn’t gone to most of Georgia’s games this year. He’s been spending Saturdays at a studio with his music business professor.
But Scott-Wesley does still attend team meetings and is around the team regularly. Watching how the season has unfolded for the offense has been tough, he admitted. But he didn’t want to say anything much about it because “I’m not out there” playing.
He will return to the field before Saturday’s game, and be honored with the other seniors. His aunt, grandmother and some cousins will join him.
“It’ll definitely be emotional, I guess, just because of all the time and effort I put in,” he said. “My career highlights have come at Sanford Stadium. South Carolina, LSU. So anytime I step on that field it’s always going to be something emotional.”
A music career
Scott-Wesley was at a campus music studio on Wednesday when he was reached for this interview. Since ending his football career Scott-Wesley has changed his Twitter handle and the bio: “Musically inclined.” He has recorded about 30 songs, some with the help off teammate Sony Michel, the sophomore tailback who has a studio set-up in his room.
“He’s kind of like my executive producer, if you want to put a title on it,” Scott-Wesley said.
Music was something that he dabbled in, since football was so time-consuming. But he has been writing poetry since 2010, and he has been working those into musical concepts. That’s why he’s been able to churn out so many songs over the past few months.
“Just personal stuff,” Scott-Wesley said. “Love, that’s a great subject. Things that are important to me, like my family. I always try to put my family in there. Just stuff I was doing day to day, make people understand me through my words.”
Scott-Wesley is due to graduate in December with a history degree. He’s taking one class this semester, sign language.
Asked if he wants to say anything, Scott-Wesley answered by thanking the University of Georgia.
“I come from poverty. I’ve overcome a lot of adversity to be where I am,” Scott-Wesley said. “But it wasn’t me by myself. I had a lot of support from people in the program and from people on campus. So I just want to let everyone know that I’ve been involved with and who have helped me that I’m appreciative of all the efforts.”
As for his football career:
“I know that I gave my all to the game, to my teammates, to my coaching staff, to the program,” he said. “I did all I could. I can only be at peace with that.”