ATHENS, Ga. — It was the Fourth of July before Aron White’s freshman year at Georgia when he took a trip home to Columbia, Mo., for the holiday. Throughout the visit, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t supposed to leave. Many of his friends were in school at Missouri, and being home was like old times. He missed family, he missed friends, he missed normalcy. Being home felt right.
Nearly four months passed before White made another trip home, this time during Georgia’s off week in 2007. He hadn’t played a down, while fellow freshman Bruce Figgins (Shaw High) earned praise from coaches and fans for his early contributions.
But that second trip home was different. Many of his friends were occupied with school. Most had made new friends he didn’t know. The His childhood bedroom felt foreign. The bed wasn’t as comfortable. The décor wasn’t his own.
He missed Georgia.
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“It was home, but it was just like, I knew by the end of that weekend I wanted to go back, I missed people,” White said. “I went home and slept in my old room, and it wasn’t the same. … That was definitely the point I realized that if I were to leave Georgia, I’d definitely miss it.”
White’s story is hardly unique. It’s an annual rite of passage for Georgia’s freshmen, but it’s never a simple process, and the transition can be tough.
“You definitely second-guess yourself sometimes,” freshman tight end Arthur Lynch said in a New England accent. “It’s not the easiest thing, and it’s something you can’t really adjust to because it’s so different than where I’m from. But you get used to it after a while.”
Athens is one of the most beloved college towns in the country, but for players such as Lynch or place-kicker Brandon Bogotay, a San Diego native, it’s a world apart from where he grew up.
For other players, however, the culture shock isn’t so much about the weather or the slang. It’s about family and security.
Defensive end Montez Robinson grew up in Indiana, then moved to Alabama when he was in grade school. His family life was difficult, but he was always close with his brothers. His father died when he was young, and he and his brothers became wards of the state. After his sophomore year in high school, he moved back to Indiana. He committed first to Auburn, then to Georgia, and through his first few months in Athens, home seemed a world away.
“At first it was hard being away from home,” Robinson said. “There’s a couple other guys that are far from home, and we were always talking about how much we missed our families.”
As many times as coaches have seen it happen, tight ends coach John Lilly said there’s no universal solution to getting a player past that point. They’re all different, but there is support.
Lilly said the coaching staff tries to talk to players families and friends, asking them to offer encouragement rather than reminders of what was left behind.
Head coach Mark Richt has worked hard to create a family environment around the team, too. Coaches’ wives and children are frequent visitors, with the team holding a weekly family night after practice when they all share a meal together.
But while encouragement is offered, the job of most coaches is to impart discipline and demand excellence. They rely on the other players to handle the role of friend.
“It’s a difficult thing when you’re riding someone and you’re pushing them, you can’t be their buddy,” said Jon Fabris, Robinson’s position coach. “Yet you understand that there are players that have been there, and you can tell them, ‘Hey, keep an eye on this guy.’ I think you can get better support through their peers because who hasn’t gone through that?”
Robinson’s experience was more turbulent than some others. He wasn’t playing, and there were too many days when going home seemed a far better option than going to practice.
But things change. They always do.
Robinson got his first serious playing time last week against Tennessee Tech. He finished the game with the first five tackles of his career, including two sacks. He won the SEC’s defensive lineman of the week award two days later, and his foster father cried when he heard the news.
“You know when you can do something like that and the gratitude that people give you and the feeling you get afterwards, it eases things down a little bit, and it makes you want to work harder for things like that,” Robinson said.
It’s probably too soon to call the game a turning point for Robinson, but sometimes it happens that quickly. That was true for White when he visited Missouri back in 2007 and realized it wasn’t home anymore. It has been true for dozens of others before White and Robinson decided Georgia was the right place for them after all.
“You realize that home changes,” Lilly said. “You have all these great memories of high school and those kinds of things, and then when you do get back, it’s nice to go home and see people, but as the years go by you realize that home really is where you go to school. That’s where all your friends are and where your life really is at that point.”
Things change. Home is wherever you make it. It’s a conclusion everyone comes to eventually.
In fact, while Robinson was considering leaving Georgia just a few weeks ago, he’s now busy recruiting his brothers to join him in Athens.
It changes that fast, White said. Whether from a big play or a sudden change in perspective, Georgia always ends up feeling like home.
“They’ll come around,” White said. “(Lynch), Montez, Bogotay, they’ll all come around.
“Because there are guys who live 45 minutes away that don’t want to go home on weekends. It’s too much fun being here.”