ATHENS — For a long time, Chelsea Oliver said she could not return to the UGA campus. It wasn’t that she was mad at the school. It’s just that Georgia meant so much to both her and her husband, and now that her husband is gone, it just didn’t feel right to go there without him.
Chelsea’s husband was Paul Oliver, who starred in football at Georgia and would go on to play in the NFL. Oliver took his own life in 2013. It is believed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy — better known as CTE — contributed to his death.
Monday, Chelsea finally returned to UGA’s campus for the first time. She and her two sons were given a very good reason to to do so. The Bulldogs honored Paul Oliver’s memory by unveiling the “Wall of Inspir8tion” in the Rankin Smith Academic Center. Oliver wore the number 8 jersey at Georgia.
“Paul blessed us with his life and what we’re doing today with the Wall of Inspir8tion I think this is a great legacy for Paul,” said Ron Courson, UGA’s director of sports medicine. “To create this in his name will help student-athletes now and those in the future.”
Located on the second floor of the building where Georgia players meet with academic advisors and tutors and study, the wall is designed as a place where student-athletes can post notes of inspiration to others and seek help via the materials distributed there that include instructions on how to take advantage of behavioral medicine services on campus.
“It’s amazing. They did such a good job,” said Chelsea, flanked by her sons, 7-year-old Simeon, and Silas, 6. “People are using it already. It’s perfect. It just says so much about how Georgia is, I mean the entire staff. When you see all the thought that they put into it, you know they just really care. You can see how invested they are. We were all blown away by it.”
Chelsea came to UGA on Monday with a large party that included Oliver’s mother, Janice Oliver, other Oliver family members from Kennesaw, as well members of Chelsea’s family from California. As Chelsea Young, she lettered in volleyball at Georgia from 2005-07.
Oliver played cornerback for Georgia under former coach Mark Richt from 2003-06. In 2004, he received the Iron Man Award and appeared in all 12 games that season. The following year he was a part of the 2005 SEC Championship team and earned the team’s Most Improved Defensive Player Award. Oliver made a name for himself in 2006 when he limited Georgia Tech All-American wide receiver Calvin Johnson to just two catches for 13 yards in a 15-12 win in Athens. Oliver also recorded a career-high nine tackles against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
In 2007, Oliver was a fourth-round supplemental draft pick by the then San Diego Chargers. He spent four years on the team, but also suffered three major concussions in that span. He was out of the league by 2011.
On Sept. 24th, 2013, Oliver shot himself at his home in Cobb County. He was 29.
Chelsea donated Oliver’s brain to Boston University’s CTE Center. It was confirmed that Oliver was suffering from CTE, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in players with repetitive brain trauma.
UGA confirmed Monday that four of its former players have been diagnosed postmortem with CTE.
Chelsea said he had planned to say something about CTE at Monday’s unveiling. But she didn’t have to because UGA’s presentation included a brief CTE education provided by Courson, behavioral specialists Rob Lynall and Julianne Smith. Georgia coach Kirby Smart and Richt also made remarks, as well as current and former Bulldogs J.R. Reed and Fernando Velasco.
“That was huge for me,” Chelsea Oliver said after the ceremony. “You can’t bring up Paul dying and not bring up CTE. If they hadn’t gone into it, I would’ve gone into it.”
Chelsea Oliver said UGA’s willingness to discuss CTE and talk about what it’s doing to combat the disease is what sets it apart from most other athletic programs.
“What they have talked about is so new at a major university,” Oliver said. “Just Coach Smart being, like, ‘yes, we need to talk about concussions, we need to be able to have this discussion.’ Most colleges don’t want to talk about it. It’s a big no-no. It’s like if they start talking about it and bringing it into their program, it’s going to ruin all of football. It’s not. We still have a responsibility to take care of these guys. That’s all, to make the game safer.”
Neither of the Oliver boys play tackle football. Both play flag football, however.
“Flag football is an amazing sport,” Chelsea Oliver said. “That’s what everyone does is California. Flag is huge. It’s great. They have a blast. Simeon wears his Georgia shirt underneath his jersey.”
Thanks to the unveiling of the Wall of Inspir8tion, now the Oliver family has come full circle. Seeing the UGA campus for the first time since they’ve been old enough to understand their father’s legacy, they were bouncing off the walls Monday as they toured the Butts-Mehre Building, the Payne Indoor Athletic Center, the Rankin Smith and Stegeman Coliseum.
“This place is magic to them,” Chelsea Oliver said. “It’s amazing. Paul’s their hero, so walking around here and seeing pictures of him, you can just see the joy on their faces.”