ATHENS, Ga. — A flock of cameras surrounded Matthew Stafford as he bent down to tie his shoe at Georgia’s pro day Thursday. The former Bulldogs quarterback pulled the knot tight, stood up and waved away the reporters with a laugh.
“Show’s over, guys,” he said.
No matter how mundane the detail these days, when Stafford does it, it’s news.
From Detroit to Dallas to Athens and nearly everywhere in between, strong-armed Texan has been the focus of a football-crazed public expecting him to be the first-overall selection in next month’s NFL draft.
Under the hot spotlight of impending NFL stardom, he has kept his cool.
“I’m the same guy I’ve been here for three years and before that,” he said. “I’m not going to change. I’m just going to be myself, and I can’t control what other people say.”
That doesn’t mean the process hasn’t been exhausting.
On television, ESPN’s draft experts argue about Stafford’s pro potential. In NFL cities around the country, fans do the same. From the moment he set foot on campus at Georgia, Stafford was a god among fans. From the moment he left school, his ability has been the central topic of debate. Everyone seems to be chipping in with their opinions and wanting more and more from Stafford.
“It’s a little crazy; it is,” Stafford said. “It’s different, but it’s a lot of fun, and I’ve had a great time with it.”
Wherever he goes, Stafford draws attention now, but at the NFL combine, the quarterback made a point of ducking the cameras — and the scouts.
What makes Stafford so special is his cannon arm, a weapon few recent draft prospects could match. So it should come as no surprise that fans and scouts were eager to watch him show off his gun.
Instead, Stafford sat out the throwing drills at the event in Indianapolis, keeping his rifle arm under wraps and keeping the hordes of curious pundits at bay for a while longer.
The suspense came to an end last week, when Stafford finally dropped back and zipped passes to his former teammates at Georgia’s pro day, and the cameras recorded every throw.
If tying his shoe drew a crowd, his post-workout question-and-answer session created a circus. Reporters and cameramen crowded around him in numbers that seemed to envelop even the 6-foot-2, 225-pound quarterback.
A few feet away, his former teammate Demiko Goodman laughed at all the attention.
“That’s a star right there,” Goodman said, “so we’re all used to it.”
Stafford is used to it, too.
From the time he was 14 years old, he was the center of attention. From hometown hero to national phenomenon to college superstar, Stafford has run the gamut of celebrity, and he learned quickly that the glare of the spotlight could be his best asset or his worst enemy. To fight the attention is to invite more of it. To pay his dues, he accepts the fame and appreciates the occasions when he can relax with friends who keep him sane.
“In his recruitment, he didn’t need a bunch of fanfare or a nutty press conference,” coach Mark Richt said. “He enjoys being just another guy.
“He knows that his life is changing,” Richt said. “Even when he came to Georgia, it changed. He couldn’t walk around campus or go to the cafeteria or go around town or a baseball game — he can’t just sit and be a regular guy, and he enjoys that part of his life. He just wants to keep as much sanity as he can.”
Sanity is a relative term for Stafford these days. He simply has accepted the fame as part of the fabric of his normal life.
For the past two months, Stafford spent most of his time in Arizona, training for the combine and preparing for the draft. He would phone his friends back in Athens, however, and during one conversation with former roommate Kris Durham, his call-waiting buzzed. It was a producer from ESPN on the other line. Durham would have to sit on hold for a few minutes while Stafford did an interview for “SportsCenter.” When the conversation resumed, it was as if nothing had happened.
“He doesn’t really talk about it a whole lot,” Durham said. “I’ve talked to him a little bit about how his life is so hectic, but he’s just kind of taking it in stride the way he does everything else.”
That’s the drill these days. The hype follows him nearly everywhere. Sanity needs to be appreciated wherever Stafford can find it. When the cameras are off, fame is miles away. Normalcy is a treasured asset.
“I’m really just hanging at the house with my buddies,” Stafford said.
As much as his extraordinary high school and college careers were meant to prepare him for the rigors of life in the NFL, they equipped him for the tribulations of life away from the field, too.
Whether a burly defensive end is bearing down on him or a disheveled TV cameraman is invading his personal space, Stafford remains the coolest guy in the room.
The relaxed demeanor isn’t always an asset, however. As scouts and pundits look for reasons to doubt Stafford, searching for chinks in the armor before deciding to invest tens of millions of dollars in his immense potential, his calm personality can be interpreted as passivity. He’s good, no doubt, and he knows it. The question then becomes, does he want to get better?
It’s a hot-button issue for those closest to him. In the middle of discussing Stafford’s calm in the face of chaos, Richt stopped himself. He didn’t want to throw fuel on the fire. He knows the criticism, and he won’t even tacitly endorse it.
“He’s a super competitive guy, and he wants to be great,” Richt said. “He’s willing to do the things it takes to be great. His personality is a little laid-back, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have fire.”In Athens last Thursday, the crowd gathered to see Stafford throw included scouts and executives from all 32 NFL teams, along with dozens of former Georgia players now in the NFL and cameras from several national and local television stations broadcasting live. Stafford’s decision to pass up the chance to throw at the combine had generated a buzz around campus that Richt said he had never seen in his time at Georgia. Strength and conditioning coordinator Dave Van Halanger said the excitement of watching a potential No. 1 draft pick was something he had never experienced in more than a quarter-century of coaching. It was an event.
Of course, the hype that Stafford generated created an opportunity for his teammates. With so many scouts there to see the big-armed quarterback throw, Van Halanger specifically moved Stafford’s passing drills to the end of the day’s festivities to give the other players a bigger audience for their workouts.
For more than four hours, Stafford waited to toss 50 balls to receivers he had thrown to thousands of times before. These throws, however, could be the difference between being the first overall draft pick and simply being another first rounder. Each pass could have millions of dollars riding on it.
“I told him before he threw,” Richt said, “even your bad days are better than everybody else’s good days, so just relax and have fun.”
That’s exactly what Stafford did. For four hours, he worked the crowd like a politician running for office. He shook hands with former teammates. He chatted with scouts and coaches from NFL teams. He joked with family members of the other players who basked in Stafford’s spotlight in order to up their own draft stock.
And when he finally dropped back and zipped his first pass down the field in front of a horde of curious spectators, it was obvious why so much attention had been thrust upon him during the past two months.
“That arm is different,” Van Halanger said. “I was talking to a guy who is a vice president of one of the teams, and he said, ‘Wow, we don’t even have that in our league.’”
Not every pass was perfect.
Through 50 throws, Stafford showed little emotion. After missing one pass to Kenneth Harris, however, he slapped his leg, a gregarious gesture by his standard. He wanted to connect perfectly on every pass, and he hated knowing he’d missed one he was capable of making.
“I hit that 1,000 times when I was here,” Stafford said before quickly collecting himself. “It’s no big deal though. They’ve seen it 100 times on film.”
Proof positive that the camera can be your friend, too. The film shows all, and Stafford has plenty of highlight footage, which makes it easy to relax.
“He was cool, but that’s how he’s been since he’s been here,” Goodman said. “He’s a cool cat.”