I thought I was in high cotton Thursday night at the annual University of Georgia Fellowship of Christian Athletes Gala at the UGA indoor practice facility. I was hanging out with three of my favorite people, Mike Young, Kevin Price and Steve Middlebrooks. Mike Young and I were Eagle Scouts together, longer ago than either of us care to recall. Kevin Price and I were as close as brothers during that same era. Steve Middlebrooks has become a very gracious friend over the past couple of years.
My lovely wife, Lisa, and I had even had our pictures made with Hairy Dawg a few minutes earlier. Coach Mark Richt and Jeff Foxworthy were in the picture, too. I can forgive the fact that Foxworthy is a Tech man because his heart is in the right place, but I do wish he'd quit bringing up the fact that the only time he came to a Georgia game we were down 33-0 to Alabama by halftime.
When the flesh pressing and the schmoozing was done with we all found our tables and sat down for dinner. As good as our company had been that evening, we got an upgrade when we took our seats. A mountain of a man was sharing our table. He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 237 pounds of muscle and sinew -- and hair. Our dinner companion had hair everywhere. He had a beard that put mine to shame -- especially since there wasn't a smidgen of gray in it -- and a head full of the thickest and longest dreadlocks I had ever seen.
They say that confession is good for the soul and I will make one here. If I had met that young man walking down a dark street at night, I would have given him a wide berth. I would have made assumptions about him based solely on his appearance. I have come a long way in life and learned a lot of lessons, but legendary UCLA basketball coach, the late John Wooden, once told me, "The most important lessons in life are the ones we learn after we know it all."
The young man introduced himself as T.J. Stripling and as soon as he did I knew exactly who he was. I just didn't recognize him without his red helmet and number 44 jersey.
T.J. Stripling was one of the most highly recruited football players in the state of Georgia -- and that means in the world -- when he graduated from Southwest DeKalb High School in 2010. He played for the great Buck Godfrey. He smiled when I asked him about Coach Godfrey and spoke of him with a respect that I could tell was reserved for the really special people in T.J.'s life. He was All-Everything in high school -- AJC Super 11, First Team All State, Defensive Player of the Year, SuperPrep All America -- and on and on and on.
So far, T.J.'s college career hasn't been what he hoped it would be, at least not on the field. As he told me, he is dedicating this season to making "something out of nothing." He suffered a season-ending ruptured tendon during the fifth game of his freshman season against Colorado.
Life is funny. Priorities are funny. I was at the game, in Boulder. All I could think of as I was leaving the stadium was Caleb King's last-minute fumble. Meanwhile, a player with a promising future was leaving the stadium wondering if or when he would be able to play again.
But football aside, I was a better person when I left Athens that Thursday night for having met T.J. because I allowed myself to look beyond the facial hair and long dreadlocks into T.J.'s heart and learned that he is a quiet, soft-spoken, respectful young man who is quick to smile.
I asked him how long he had been growing his hair. It has been since he was 8 years old, if you are as curious as me. He wears an XL helmet to accommodate his hair and has his dreads re-twisted every month. After graduation next spring, he really wants a chance to play on Sundays before pursuing a business career in the Atlanta area.
Here is the thing, though. I wasn't the only person impressed enough with this young man to change my attitude about outward appearances. So was Mark Richt. I learned Thursday night -- not from T.J., by the way -- that because of this soft-spoken young man, Coach Richt changed his policy about allowing players to have long hair. He also realized that making a player cut his hair or shave his chin will not change the person inside.
Erk Russell used to say, "It's great to be a Bulldog on a Saturday night." I say it is great to be a Bulldog any time. We of the Bulldog Nation have a treasure in Mark Richt. He is an outstanding football coach and has built an exceptional program at Georgia. He has done an even better job of trying to build strong men of faith and is trying to love them and teach them lessons that will endure long after their playing days are done.
Next time you have your checkbook out and are making a donation to help strengthen UGA athletics, send a little along to the FCA and help them strengthen UGA athletes.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. Email him at darrellhuckaby.net. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/darrellhuckaby.