ATHENS – Keith Marshall isn’t sure what he’ll think when he walks back in that stadium on Saturday, what his emotions might be, how much he’ll think back to two years ago. He just knows he’ll remember that spot on the field, where the direction of his football career, and as it turned out his life, was changed.
“Yeah I remember it very vividly, in detail, what happened,” Marshall said.
A pass towards the left sideline. Marshall, then Georgia’s starting tailback, caught it and turned upfield. A Tennessee defender met him, and hit him low. Marshall’s knee buckled. The ACL in his right knee was torn.
One moment can alter so much.
“That’s one of the biggest lessons I took from the whole ordeal,” Marshall said Wednesday. “It changed my life. It changed everything, really. I got more serious about certain things. Academics. Because you realize football can be taken away just like that. I think I’ve grown from it.
“I wouldn’t say I’m glad it happened. But I’ve definitely grown from it, I’ve learned a lot of lessons, become a better person.”
The stories abound of players who have never been the same after an ACL injury. One is Justin Scott-Wesley, who also tore his ACL in that Tennessee game and after a comeback last year has decided to hang it up. There are other stories of players who, after a long recovery, return to form. Malcolm Mitchell, who tore his knee a month earlier in 2013, is back to being Georgia’s leading receiver.
Marshall is an in-between case, at least so far. He’s back on the field, by all accounts close to, if not at, his previous form. But he’s not having the same impact, for reasons out of his control.
Prior to the injury, five games into Marshall’s sophomore year, he had 1,005 career rushing yards in 19 games. He had 11 touchdowns, and averaged 6.2 yards every time he touched the ball.
Since coming back, including three games last year, Marshall has 155 rushing yards and is averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He’s third-team, thanks to the presence of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the current version of what Marshall and Todd Gurley were for one year.
Yes, Marshall wishes he was playing more. But he understands why he’s not.
“Right now, especially how they’re playing, they’re just killing it,” Marshall said. “So obviously we’re trying to win. I’m not gonna go talk to the coaches and say I want to get the ball more. Obviously I would like to play. But that’s everybody. So you’ve gotta focus on the team.”
When Marshall sat down for an interview on Wednesday night he knew what questions were coming. He was willing to talk about it, which was a bit surprising because his teammates and coaches have said Marshall hasn’t mentioned it to them.
That includes running backs coach Thomas Brown, who knows what Marshall is going through.
“I tore my ACL against Vanderbilt and I didn’t think about it the next time we played there,” Brown said. “He might be different, but he hasn’t said a word to me about it.”
That day at Tennessee, Georgia was already playing without Mitchell and Gurley (high ankle sprain the week before against LSU). Marshall went down in the first half, then receiver Michael Bennett tore his meniscus, and Scott-Wesley was hurt in the second half.
Georgia still escaped with an overtime victory, when Tennessee’s Pig Howard fumbled at the goal-line. (Howard was dismissed by the Volunteers on Wednesday.)
“We definitely wanted to win it for the guys that went down,” said Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who was a sophomore that year. “When you see a teammate go down it really just sort of encourages you and motivates you to keep fighting and really secure the win for them. Otherwise they got hurt for nothing.
“I definitely feel it sorta made the win bittersweet.”
The victory improved Georgia to 4-1, undefeated in the SEC and still in the national title hunt. But the day of injuries had basically sealed that team’s fate: It lost at home the next week to Missouri, then at Vanderbilt, and eventually finished 8-5.
In a way that Tennessee game is one Georgia is still trying to overcome: The Bulldogs were ranked No. 6 when they walked into Knoxville, but since that day have never been ranked higher than that.
Marshall is waiting to get back too. But he’s also adjusted his goals.
“It was just a long process. Anytime you play, you’ve been a bit successful, you just miss that and want to get back,” Marshall said. “Sometimes you might rush it. So you feel like – especially when you’re out for the whole season, you feel like you’re not part of the team anymore, because you’re not gonna play with them anymore. So it’s kind of hard to stay involved. This year it’s been fine. But the last two years it’s been difficult.”