ELLENWOOD – Justin Shaffer dresses nicely. He wears braces, which we know because he smiles a lot. At 6-foot-5 and 348 pounds, clearly he gets plenty to eat. But like the duck that appears to be moving effortlessly across the water but is paddling feverishly below the surface, looks can be deceiving sometimes.
Shaffer — and his family — have had to fight like mad to get him to where he is today. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, he’s in a good place. He’s one of 27 signees that make up Georgia’s No. 3-ranked 2017 recruiting class. There might not be any single member that’s happier about that than Shaffer.
Or, again, his family.
“Georgia’s my dream school,” said Shaffer, who was born and raised in Atlanta and never lived outside the Cedar Grove High School district. “I always wanted to go there. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get that chance.”
There were a lot of things getting in the way. His initial offer from the University of Georgia was relatively late in coming because of concerns about his weight. There was a time that Shaffer was pushing 370 pounds. And he committed to Louisville first because that was his first and best offer.
But before that, financial stress and strain on the family threatened to throw the whole household off track. As it turns out, Shaffer was glue that helped bring the group back together.
“We worked our way through it and we’re a loving family again,” said Edward Shaffer, Justin’s father. “And right now, we’ve got to stay humble. That’s what I told Justin. He has to stay focused on his goals, his education, his bookwork. He’s got to put more and more into it every day because it’s going to be required when he gets there.”
HARD TIMES HIT HOME
As he gets set to enter UGA as a freshman in June, Shaffer says he has considered the possibility of pursuing a career in family counseling. He also might like to be a personal trainer and own his own gym. But before all that he’d like to forge a professional football career.
The Atlanta native has gained experience in all three fields over the last several years, the counseling deal quite by accident.
Shaffer’s father, Edward, is an electrical contractor. At one time, his business flourished as Atlanta went through a sustained building boom. But an economic collapse felt nationwide in the construction industry eventually put a clamp on Edward’s ability earn a living.
At first it was viewed as a temporary setback, but the downward economic trend continued well into Justin’s high school years and took its toll on the family. Meanwhile, it was being felt also by his mother, who then worked in the catering business.
“My dad was a contractor and when you’re not working, money’s not coming in,” Shaffer said. “My mom would do what she had to do to make money, but then she got sick and had to stop working for a while. My sister worked for the DMV, so she came in and helped my dad with the bills for a while. It was a tough time.”
Not surprisingly, the financial troubles eventually threatened the peace of the home. Before long, it was more than anybody could take.
“Just a lot of arguments and fussing and fighting,” Shaffer shared in a recent interview at Cedar Grove High. “We had to come home from practice worrying about the arguments and everybody yelling. It wasn’t good.”
At the time, Shaffer’s younger brothers, Jalen and Jeremiah, were in middle school and elementary school. The three of them and their mother moved out of the house their father owned and into a rental home in an area Justin wasn’t thrilled about living. Justin was working at a fast-food restaurant but they were struggling to make ends meet. The house across the street got broken into one day.
Justin had enough.
“Finally, I told my mom, ‘let’s just talk to Dad and get our stuff and bring the family back together,’” Justin said. “She was still looking for another house, but I said, ‘let’s just move back and save the money that we’d be spending renting a house and make things work.’ ”
Said Connie Jenkins, his mother: “He came to me and said we need to go back. I said, ‘well, OK, we’ll talk about it.’ And we got together and talked about it. Our lease was about to be up, so I just said, ‘OK, we’ll go back.’ We kind of ironed everything out and we’re back together.”
That was two years ago. The family remains together and is doing well. Connie now works as a contractor for UPS and Edward works when and where he can find it. Justin’s younger brothers Jalen and Jeremiah, 15 and 14 respectively, are flourishing in school and athletics and hope to follow their big brother’s path. Jalen already stands over 6 feet and weighs more than 300 pounds.
“It’s never perfect but it’s at the point where you can work with it,” Connie Jackson said. “You can deal with it.”
Said Edward: “We all fall short. We all have drama from time-to-time. … We all have experiences in life and then you get away from them. It was pressurized situation. Things weren’t going to way we wanted them to. We hit rock bottom in construction there for a minute. You have all kinds of things coming at you and you can’t fulfill your obligations as a man. …
“But you have to keep your spirituality up. Once you deter from that just a little, God puts things in your life that make you realize that He’s the strength and you are just a vessel.”
A FOOTBALL LIFE
Justin Shaffer’s football career began like most of them do, on the hardscrabble fields of the local parks and recreation department. He grew up playing for the River Road Raiders and the Glenwood Panthers in DeKalb rec complexes literally around the corner from Cedar Grove.
And success came early. With his father serving as defensive coordinator his first two years in the sport, Justin’s teams went 26-2 and even won the Florida Bowl in Jacksonville.
Edward Shaffer said his son was 9 when he started and already was bigger than most of the kids. But football didn’t necessarily come naturally to him.
“He always has been bigger; he just didn’t have the determination and the strength yet,” said the elder Shaffer, who stands 6-foot-3 himself. “That first year was hard on him because, you know how football is when you first start. It’s a lot to go through and it’s hard on you. He was a little whiner, but he didn’t quit. That’s what I liked about him. He’d boohoo but he wouldn’t quit.”
Winning helped Justin overcome his initial fear and angst. That second year he got to accompany his team to Jacksonville, where they won the Florida Bowl. That trip seemed to spark a fire within him.
“Ever since then, Justin had the determination he lacked,” Edward Shaffer said. “He fell in love with the game at a young age. And now he’s seeing what the rewards are of that. He’s going to get a free education and an opportunity to go to the next level.”
Word got out quickly about the big kid from Ellenwood. By the time Shaffer was in the eighth grade, he was taking a bus after school from the middle school to the high school so we could work out with the rest of the Cedar Grove Saints.
“I’d have to go pick him up at the high school,” his mother said. “But I never turned him down. That’s what he said he wanted to do, so I said OK.”
By the time he finally enrolled at Cedar Grove High as a ninth grader, coach Jimmy Smith was ready for him. Justin started that very first year on the varsity line.
“Since the 9th grade he got better and better every year,” Smith said. “He works so hard. If he keeps working as hard as he has been I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the next level. He works hard but he’s talented, too. The sky’s the limit for him.”
By his 10th grade year, Justin would be joined on the offensive line by his close friend and fellow UGA signee Netori Johnson. Johnson, who also weighs in at nearly 350 pounds, transferred in after spending a little over a year training with Deion Sanders at his academy in Dallas, Texas.
With Johnson and Shaffer book-ending the offense at tackle and rotating in and out on the defensive line, the Saints became hard to beat. They’d win 33 games over the last three seasons, reaching the semifinals in 2015 and winning it all this past season.
The Class AAA state championship and the victory over Calhoun to get there are Shaffer’s proudest athletic accomplishments to date.
“Our 10th-grade year we lost to Calhoun,” Shaffer said. “There used to be a poster on the wall about what their coach said. He said, ‘at halftime we knew we had them because they were exhausted.’ Our strength and conditioning coach, Coach Martin, he took those quotes and made a poster out of it and put it on the wall. We saw it every day going to practice.”
Calhoun knocked them out of the playoffs 38-18 in that first meeting. The Saints won their quarterfinal matchup this year 47-21 on the way to the state title.
CALLING THE DOGS
When it came to Shaffer’s college recruitment, he was relatively late in drawing interest, at least in today’s early-offer atmosphere. Initially he committed to Louisville in mid-January of 2016, which was after his junior season. But he did so then mainly because he hadn’t attracted a great deal of major-college interest. At the time, Charlotte was his next-best offer.
But as often is the case in the who-will-blink-first world of recruiting, the Louisville offer seemed to break the seal for a lot of other programs. Georgia was one of them.
The Bulldogs had been roaming the halls of Cedar Grove a lot during those winter months after the 2015 football season, primarily due to its interest in Shaffer’s teammate, Netori Johnson. They had talked to Shaffer regularly and always treated him kindly, but they’d never come forth with an offer.
“I honestly didn’t think they were going to,” Shaffer said. “I thought they were worried about my weight.”
In fact, a lot of schools had expressed concerns about that. That’s why Shaffer, under the advice of his father, decided to go ahead and accept the Cardinals’ offer. Todd Grantham had told them Louisville was confident Shaffer’s weight wouldn’t be an issue and that they’d get him in great shape.
But Shaffer’s mother was never thrilled with that arrangement. She didn’t like the idea of her son going so far away for school. She didn’t like the idea of trying to get back and forth to games and not seeing her son for weeks and months at a time.
“We were talking about it in the 11th grade,” Ms. Jackson said. “That’s when people started trying to recruit him. His daddy was like, ‘he can go anywhere he wants.’ I said ‘no he can’t; he’s going to Georgia.’ And Justin said, ‘Mom, Georgia hasn’t even offered me.’ I said, ‘they’re going to offer you.’ He said, ‘they ain’t going to offer me.’ But I told him I’d prayed for it and that’s where I wanted him to go.”
Two days after national signing day of 2016, Shaffer was invited by Georgia to come to Athens for their junior day.
“I didn’t go,” his mother said. “I made (Justin and his father) go. So they went, and then he texted me while they were there and said, ‘they offered me.’
“I said, ‘boy, you better put on your shiny shoes and look up at God.’”
Shaffer accepted Georgia’s offer immediately, and that set off an avalanche of opportunities. Suddenly offers were coming right and left.
“Kentucky fell in, Wake Forest, Michigan, Florida and Mississippi State,” Shaffer said. “Some of them didn’t offer me until my senior year, but they were offers.”
Shaffer kept his recruitment open and visited several SEC campuses that summer. But internally he never wavered from UGA.
“It’s a bond,” he said of the Bulldogs’ Class of 2017. “We had a bunch of silent commitments. We had people that were getting recruited by other schools that we knew were coming to Georgia. We had our group chat called ‘SicEm17’ and we came together like a brotherhood.”
THE LINE FORMS HERE
Of course, Shaffer wasn’t the only offensive lineman to sign on with the Bulldogs. There were six in all. And of them, Shaffer is the lowest rated when it comes to composite recruiting rankings. All of them carry at least a 4-star rating, including Shaffer’s teammate, Johnson, whom he helped persuade to join him.
But that doesn’t mean Shaffer is the least likely to play or excel at UGA. His upside, many believe is significant.
“He brings a lot to the table,” said Smith, who started him for four years at left tackle but expects him to play guard at Georgia. “Tori is little more athletic, but he’s not as technically sound as Justin is just because Justin was with me four years and Netori only about three. He understands the concepts and techniques. Quickness-wise, both of them are pretty quick. Justin’s really quicker than you think, people are surprised how quick his feet are.”
Shaffer’s unconcerned about reputation or perception.
“There’s going to be competition, but Coach (Sam) Pittman is going to work us,” Shaffer said. “I feel like, to be honest, that all positions are open. I’m their size. The guys coming in, we’re all athletic. We’re neck-and-neck with the guys that are already there when it comes to talent. It’s going to come down to who wants it the most.”
As Shaffer has demonstrated in so many areas of his life, he tends to get what he wants. He’s down from more than 360 pounds to inside 350 now. Pittman and head coach Kirby Smart have asked him to try to get to 325 by the time preseason camp opens in August. Shaffer is aiming to do them five better and get to 320.
It has been a slow process that requires a steady but safe diet and four trips a week to the Atlanta Sports Complex for cardio- and weight-training.
“Coach Smart was like, ‘if you want to come in and play you’ve got to be 325; the only way you’ll redshirt if you’re over 325,'” Shaffer said. “At this point I’m just working, working, working trying to get below 325. I really want to come in at like 320 so I can eat what I want when I get there.
“It’s tiring but at the end of the day it’s going to pay off.”
It’s a concept with which Justin Shaffer is quite familiar.
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