George's success rooted in one fateful decision Mother's school choice started Heisman winner on the road to success

August 31, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

When Houston Oilers rookie Eddie George was a high school junior in Philadelphia, his mother, Donna, made a decision that started him on the road to the Heisman Trophy and a lucrative contract as a first-round NFL draft choice.

She sent him to a military academy in Virginia, in the hopes of making him a better student.

"I sent him there because he had a dream of winning the Heisman Trophy and playing in the NFL," Donna George said. "I knew that if those dreams were going to come true, his grades would have to improve . . . to get him into a major college program."

George, who wasn't happy about the move at the time, said: "If she hadn't done it, I'd probably be back in Philly working a 9-to-5 job, which would be cool, but that's not my thing."

There was one more ramification of that decision. It might have saved his mother's life.

That's because when George signed his five-year, $6.9 million contract, his agent, Lamont Smith, insisted that his mother come to Houston for the event.

"Lamont said it was a sentimental moment for Eddie and me and that there were financial matters he wanted us to go over," she said.

A flight attendant, she told him that she could make it July 15 or 16, but that she'd be flying July 17 to 19.

Smith told her they needed to be in Texas on July 19, the day the Oilers reported to training camp.

"I told him I'd be flying that day," Donna George said. "He reiterated the importance of the occasion and reminded me that we needed to discuss finances. He said it's an educational process he wants his clients and his families to go through."

She relented and changed her schedule, and that's why she wasn't on the TWA Flight 800 to Paris that exploded near Long Island, N.Y., on July 17.

George said: "I thank God every day she didn't get on that plane. I know we've been blessed, and my prayers go out to the families of those who died."

Donna lost many friends in the crash. "It's devastating that lives were lost," she said. "I'm still going through a healing process, trying to come to grips with what happened."

Donna said the experience has brought her even closer to her son.

"We've become more attentive to each other's needs," she said. There's more hugging."

If George is to succeed in the NFL, as many scouts believe he will, the drive his mother instilled in him will be a factor. She plans to continue to work even though her son is now a millionaire.

"My mother's been working since she was 16. She's a workaholic and doesn't want to stop," he said.

She said with a laugh: "I just don't see me depending on my son's income. I don't see him being the head of my household."

George, who said he was lazy in high school before his mother sent him to the military academy, is noted for working hard.

Still, he fell to the 14th spot in the first round despite his Heisman Trophy success at Ohio State, probably because he doesn't have blinding speed and suffered a shoulder injury last year. But Emmitt Smith isn't noted for speed, either, and that hasn't slowed him in the NFL.

Oilers defensive back Cris Dishman said of George: "He reminds me of Eric Dickerson. They're tall [George is 6 feet 3, 235 pounds] and they run straight up, but they're powerful enough to break tackles. They're long striders with excellent speed."

Although George is expected to begin the season behind Rodney Thomas, who gained 947 yards last year, the rookie is expected to win the starting job before long.

Sherman Smith, the running backs coach, said George doesn't have to be an immediate hit.

"There's no pressure on him to come in and be the savior or to help us get a running game going, because we've already got that," Smith said. "He's just a part that's going to make us better."

Although George's preseason statistics weren't eye-popping -- 37 carries, 116 yards -- the Oilers like his style.

"There are two ways to stop him," Dishman said. "Cut him low and hope he doesn't run over you or let him go by, jump on his back and wait for him to get tired and fall down."

Owner Bud Adams said: "Eddie has the talent, discipline and the smarts necessary to be a franchise back in this league."

George said he isn't trying to copy any other styles.

"I can only be the next Eddie George," he said. "I can't pattern myself after any other running back. I'm just going to work hard and try to live up to my own expectations."

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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