Homecoming is special for everyone, from alumni to players to the general fan population.
But, for Georgia’s Brandon Wheeling, it’s more than that.
Wheeling, a former walk-on turned scholarship defensive tackle, will be playing in his first homecoming game with the Bulldogs when his team takes on Tennessee Tech on Saturday.
As a kid in Dallas, Ga., Wheeling worshipped everything Georgia.
“It was God, family and then Georgia football,” he said. “That’s the way the structure always was in my life. Georgia football’s always been something.”
Wheeling’s working class family couldn’t afford Georgia tickets. But once a year, his father’s boss would give them tickets to the Bulldogs’ homecoming game — one that’s typically against an inferior opponent, a game that Georgia is supposed to win easily. One that some fans might consider a waste of time.
Not Wheeling and his father, Kenny.
“For the longest time, I thought they had those old cheerleaders at every game,” Wheeling said. “It’s kind of special (to play in it). It was always an opportunity that I got to come and see them play. The fact that all those people are going to be coming back to watch me play now, that makes you feel good.”
Wheeling is a senior. But he’s playing in his first season with the Bulldogs, and it has been a long road.
With no scholarship offers out of high school, Wheeling chose to play at West Georgia, a Division II program. He played there for two years, then transferred to Georgia.
The 6-foot-3, 280-pounder walked on to the team and made it. Despite the coaching staff’s pleas to have him eligible for the 2008 season (there was a coaching change under way at West Georgia when he left), he wasn’t.
This spring, he was named the Bulldogs’ outstanding walk-on. During fall camp, his lifelong wish came true, and with an extra twist. A scholarship opened, and defensive line coach Rodney Garner said Wheeling was an obvious choice.
Kenny Wheeling, a truck driver, had been laid off recently.
“Just being a Bulldog, with or without a scholarship, just having the opportunity to throw on the red and black and play on Saturdays, it’s a dream come true,” Brandon Wheeling said. “But it was huge. I was already taking out loans, but my parents were still helping me out a lot. I would have had to just completely go in debt, probably for the rest of my life.”
And he probably would have, too. That’s how much he loves Georgia.
“It’s definitely a good feeling for a guy that just has that type of passion, that type of love,” Garner said. “Even prior to earning the scholarship, he’s a guy that came to work every day, showed up, gave you a 110 percent. You knew you were going to get a day’s work out of him. He never complained about anything. That is very rewarding to see that, because you just don’t see that a lot these days. Today, this generation, they feel like you owe them something. This kid is just grateful to be on the team.”
Added tackle Jeff Owens, “Everything he’s gotten, he’s done on his own. He works hard. A lot of people tried to put him down and say he would never play at Georgia, and he just defeated all odds.”
Wheeling can recite seemingly every call of Bulldogs announcer Larry Munson’s legendary career (like so many others, he and his father watched TV broadcasts of Georgia games while listening to Munson on the radio).
He knows Georgia football history in its entirety. By his own admission, he may not love Georgia any more than his teammates. He has “just been invested longer.”
“When I was a kid, I always dreamed,” Wheeling said. “You know kids, dreaming of playing in the World Series, dreaming about hitting a home run in Game 7 of the World Series, bottom of the ninth. (Playing football for Georgia) has been like that for me. So that dream that every kid had, it’s come true for me. So I definitely feel like I’m lucky. I’m very grateful for the way things turned out.”
And things have turned out pretty well for Wheeling.
His dad hasn’t found another job yet, but his family’s making it, helped out by his scholarship.
Wheeling has played in six of the Bulldogs’ eight games this season, and he’s likely to see plenty of reps Saturday at homecoming.
His father, like always, will be in the stands.