SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Rodrigo Blankenship still had tears in his eyes when he came out of the Georgia locker room to be interviewed by reporters in the wake of the Bulldogs’ 20-19 victory over Notre Dame.
The immediate thought was that Blankenship, a sophomore from Marietta, was just emotional and overjoyed after delivering the game-winning field goal to be the Fighting Irish in a game of historical significance. But it wasn’t until a few minutes later that member of UGA’s sports communications staff revealed that Kirby Smart had just informed the team that Blankenship had been awarded a scholarship.
That brought forth an explosive reaction.
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“That was awesome, just awesome,” said Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith. “Rod is a hard worker. Day in and day out he comes to work, wearing his hard hat every day. I can’t be more proud of a guy like that. Nobody more deserving of a scholarship than Rodrigo.”
Georgia fans who have followed that story know that’s a gesture that has been a long time coming. Blankenship has paid his own way to school for seven semesters now while also competing for the Bulldogs, most of that time as their starting kicker.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Blankenship, who was invited to Georgia as a preferred walkon out of Sprayberry High School. “Since the day that I committed in December of my senior year it’s been a dream to play for the University of Georgia on scholarship. Now it’s coming to fruition.”
Smart actually delivered the news to Blankenship this past Thursday after having him summoned to the team meeting room before the Bulldogs’ practice. But Blankenship was asked to keep it quiet for the time being.
It was only fitting, then, that Blankenship would have the opportunity to reward his coach’s confidence. He actually missed a 44-yard attempt wide right in the first half. That miss was looking quite ominous as the Bulldogs found themselves trailing by two in the closing minutes of the game.
Then Georgia put together a nine-play, 63-yard drive that stalled at the Notre Dame 13. So number 98, the man his teammates and fans have come to call “Hot Rod” and “Mr. Rec Specs,” stepped up and delivered again.
“It’s one of the greatest stadiums for college football in the country,” Blankenship said. “Coach Smart told us about all the tradition and the history here. So it was just an amazing experience to be able to put the winning points on the board for my team.”
Blankenship beat out transfer David Marvin for the starting job in preseason camp. It was the second straight year Blankenship won the position through competition. He earned freshman All-America honors last year after taking over the job from William Ham in the fourth week.
Smart said the coaching staff decided a while back to place Blankenship on scholarship. They just had to make sure they had the numbers to do it.
“Rodrigo won the job,” Smart said Saturday. “He did a great job. He won it. … We told him he was getting a scholarship so he could go relax and go play. Rodrigo’s earned that. He’s a great kid.”
Being on a full ride closes a somewhat tumultuous chapter in his athletic career. He’d been promised by coach Mark Richt when he walked on that he’d get a scholarship if he earned the starting job. When that didn’t happen when Blankenship did just that last fall, his father Ken Blankenship went public with his complaints.
That rubbed some people the wrong way. But Rodrigo Blankenship never quit concentrating on the only things he could control, practicing his craft and making his kicks when they counted.
“I’d imagine he’s through the roof right now,” Blankenship said of his father, who has served as both his place-kicking and soccer coach over the years. “When you’re a parent you just want to do what’s right for your kid and you want them to have what they deserve. Maybe I didn’t deserve it at the time. But timing is everything and I think everything happens if the Lord wills it to be that way. I guess He needed me to wait a bit longer.”
Respect the Specs, indeed.