Running back Eddie George has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Despite recent media speculation that he might sign with the Tennessee Titans for just one day so that he can retire with the team that served as his home for eight years, George has his sights set on playing for three to five more years.
Even though his one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys is over after a dismal year, he says he has no regrets about leaving Tennessee or joining Dallas. Now he's a free agent, a football player without a team, a situation he has not faced since he began playing football in seventh grade.
So it's off-season for George, 31, who returned in January with his pregnant wife, Tamara, 33, to their 5,000-square-foot contemporary home in Green Hills, where they will live permanently regardless of where his football career may take them. He spends the mornings exercising and the rest of the day conducting business from his downstairs office, preparing for the eventual life after football.
George, who has a degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State, owns The Edge Group, a land planning and landscape architect firm in his college town of Columbus, Ohio, that he wants to expand into Nashville. He is opening a sports bar in Columbus that is similar to Eddie's Sports Bar here, except he'll get an actual ownership percentage, instead of just a cut of food and merchandise sales. He is an investor in the Demonbreun Street retail strip and is forming a corporation with a friend to rehab homes.
"Your Plan A should not be a career in sports because it's unpredictable from day to day," George says. "You could have an injury or get caught in the business side of things. You just don't know, so it's best to take it on, spend your money wisely, don't take yourself seriously and enjoy the ride. The one thing I am not going to do is leave this game bitter. Football has been great to me."
Though he's considered by many to be an aging athlete, George thinks he has some good playing time left in him. He wants to play for a team in need of an experienced running back, such as Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Oakland or even Tennessee. He'll consider playing for the league minimum of $655,000, without a guarantee of a starting position. "That is the situation now no matter where I go," he says. "At this point, I know I have the ability to start, but the way the situation is right now, that probably isn't an ideal situation. It is not that I don't [want a starting position], but for me to have a job and an opportunity, I have to accept that and I welcome that."
For George, who is worth between $12 to $15 million, it's not about the money now; it's about the opportunity to play and continue building his legacy. His career tally is 10,441 yards, and he thinks a total of 11,000 to 12,000 yards would greatly improve his chances of eventually getting into the Hall of Fame.
"I want to go where I can be happy, where I can play, finish off strong and where we can win," he says. "I wouldn't mind coming back to Tennessee; I wouldn't mind that at all. I would understand my role. I have no ego about it. I just want to play football."
At this point in his career, finding the right fit is important. "The people I feel comfortable around," he says, pausing to think, "is Jeff Fisher. I love playing for Jeff. To go somewhere else and to have to start over and prove yourself, I don't know, it's just mentally draining."
He says his feelings toward Fisher didn't change after contract negotiations failed. After all, he says, it's just business, nothing personal. "I just laid in the background awhile, let things settle down and digest. I had to stay focused on what I was doing in Dallas and I knew about the struggles here. I didn't want to call. In fact, I got him a bottle of wine and said, 'I miss you and Merry Christmas.' Hopefully we'll have a chance to sit down and crack it open one day."
Titans spokesman Robbie Bohren says general manager Floyd Reese has no comment about the possibility of George returning. "After the draft, when all that shakes out, people needs are," Bohren says. "I don't think anything before that would ever happen."
Titans Coach Jeff Fisher, though, says "there is always a chance" of George returning. Setting aside things such as the salary cap and on-field performance, he says, "I think it would be great professionally. It would only be fitting."
But if George returnsand that's a big ifhe would be coming back to a very different team than the one he left. Gone are many of the key players, such as Jevon Kearse, Derrick Mason and Samari Rolle. "It wouldn't be the same team," George says. "My role would be different. To say that I would be the savior now, I wouldn't be the savior of anything. I would be there supporting and guiding and playing."
Fisher says it's unlikely a team will sign George before the April draft. "From Eddie's standpoint, my own personal opinion is that once the draft is over, his market value will increase," Fisher says. "Right now, everybody has the opinion that they will be able to fill the need in the draft, and that's not accurate. Not everybody will be able to fill their needs; they will have to go into the market."
There are two schools of thought about George's season at Dallas: one is his lack of playing time gave his body a much-needed break from the gridiron pounding so that it could grow stronger; the other is that he is now another year older. As each year goes by, the number of running backs competing with George only increases. "Every year, the clubs are evaluating anywhere from 15 to 30 running backs that may find themselves roster spots in the NFL, just from this year's [rookie] crop," Fisher says. "If you go back last year and the year before, the market is tremendous in size.
"Most clubs are looking to upgrade, and when they do, they go younger, and that is understandable," says Fisher, who disagrees with that philosophy. "I would like to have one on my team that has been there before that you can count on, that understands winning and big games and critical plays. Eddie understands these things."
George, however, has long defied the conventional NFL wisdom that contends running backs have a shelf life of only four or five years. He's aware his critics are now saying that his 1,000-yard years are behind him. But he says numbers don't tell the whole story.
In 2000, he says, he stopped getting the carries he'd had in the past. "The numbers were there, but the distribution was different, the circumstances were different," he says, noting that the team shifted from a run-oriented team to a pass-oriented team. "There were times when I felt like I was starting to get going and they were kicking my feet out from under me during the game. That went on and they were talking about my yards per carry and how that dropped off. I was like, 'If I'd get a more spread-out situation, I could hit the lanes like I need to hit them, as far as two-wide sets and third downs. I was defended differently than most backs. I would see eight and nine in the front, which makes it difficult to get anything, especially early in the game.
"I don't think I've lost a step, not when Jerome Bettis is still doing the same things he's doing," George says. "People say he's lost a step, but when he gets the ball in the games, he regains that step." He notes that New York Jet Curtis Martin led the league in rushing at age 31his ageand New England Patriot Corey Dillon, 30, had a 1,600-plus-yard year. "To say I've lost a step is insane because I never had the opportunities that I had since 2000," he says. "All I am looking for is an opportunity, and that's what keeps me going. I see guys that have played longer than I have, or just as long, taking a fair amount of hits and are still productive in this league. The only thing I lack at this point is opportunity. I have to find a way to get it."
Perhaps George's detractors don't take into consideration his almost super-human body, which has managed to thrive in the NFL for nearly a decade without any major injuries. Other than toe surgery four years ago, George has remained healthy, a testament to his legendary training regimen. He now devotes at least four hours a day, four days a week, to working outabout three hours sprinting and lifting weights, followed by an hour of yoga. "He has probably more discipline than any athlete I've ever worked with," says George's personal trainer, Marathon Fitness' Joe Johnson. "He is incredibly hungry, which usually becomes more difficult the longer you are in anything. He is probably just as hungry as any rookie, and on top of that, he has more discipline."
At 6-foot-three, he's weighing in at 242 pounds, on his way down to his college weight of 235. "He probably has the body of a 22-year-old," Johnson says. He can do 10 lunges on each leg with 315 pounds without pausing. "Everybody knows that Eddie is strong," Johnson says. "But we want him to be stronger at other things. The goal is not to make him any bigger than he is or more beautiful than what he is. The goal is to hit on the weaknesses that he hasif you can believe itand it's not an easy thing to spot weaknesses on Eddie. We are talking about explosion, which is that initial first step that's a combination of speed and power. It's that takeoff we're working on. Instead of taking 20 carries to get him warmed up, he'll be warmed up after five or 10."
George's punishing workouts are influenced by veteran receiver Jerry Rice, with whom George trained during the 2003 off-season. "He just has a desire to always win," George says. "That is the one thing he always told me: 'No matter how old you are, how old you become, don't lose your fire to play, don't lose your fire to compete.' He's still doing it, and he was supposed to retire three or four years ago, but he still had a Pro Bowl year with the Raiders."
Fisher says that what separates George from his competition is his unrelenting drive. "Some players have it and some are born with it and some develop it," Fisher says. "Eddie had it from day one. He had it well before he got here, and he understands the importance of pushing yourself. That is what he did, not only through a series in a game, but also through the workout in the off-season.
Fisher believes a key factor in George's self-motivation is the fear of failure, and George nods knowingly about Fisher's assessment. "There's truth to that," he says. "I hated to fail; I hated to lose. I never want to be considered a failure, and I went through every drastic measure to make sure that wouldn't and doesn't happen.
"Failure is not losing or not accomplishing something; failure is stopping, to me, to stop being who you are and what you believe in. You are always going to not win or be what you want, but it's being persistent, to still persist without exception. It's finding that seed of how you can work it in the next time you get the opportunity. So I may have lost, things may not have gone my way, but those are experiences that I am going to take with me when I meet that situation again."
Facing doubters and new challenges has become a familiar situation for George, who was raised by a single working mother in Philadelphia. George's father left home when he was 2, so his mother, Donna, was forced to take on several jobsTWA flight attendant, Ford plant worker, hotel waitress, modelto support George and his older sister, Leslie. "I grew up predominantly with my grandmother and my mom," he says. "Not having the guidance of my father early in my life was pretty tough. I always wanted him to just be there. I was experiencing a lot as a young player and young man and I was having some success in high school. He would pick me up and take me to high school games, but he wasn't there full-time. I always loved him and respected him; I never hated him. He has had his difficulties in his childhood, which probably led to a lot of the problems he faced early on in his life. I never held that against him." In fact, George and his father, a disabled veteran who lives in Pennsylvania, slowly repaired the relationship and, for the last six years, they have spoken almost every day.
George says he can't remember a time when he didn't love football. He always held a ball in his hand, and spent his afternoons challenging invisible players in his backyard. His father would regale him with tales of Jim Brown, and the young boy had already become infatuated with Walter Payton. "I've always wanted to pattern myself behind him, both his running style and how he carried himself off the field," George says. When he was just 8, he told his mother he would win the Heisman Trophy and then play pro football.
"I wanted football to be my ticket out. Football was everything to me. I wanted to be like Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson. I wanted to be mentioned with those great players."
But somewhere along the way, perhaps because there was no father in the house, George lost focus and grew into a lazy, disrespectful teenager. "I had a mind of my own," he says. "I didn't care about other people's feelings. I didn't care about authority."
That all changed when the 15-year-old got caught lying to his mother. He told her that he wanted her to pay for a summer school course to better himself in math, but in reality, he had to pass the course or fail the year. When he began failing the course midway through, the entire scheme unraveled when his mother learned the truth.
Although he ultimately passed the course, that was the last straw for his mother. Afraid of losing her son to the crime- and drug-infested streets of Philadelphia, she enrolled him in Fork Union Military Academy, an all-male school in Virginia that was eight hours and a world away.
The skinny, baby-faced teenager stood at the school doors, petrified about what was in store for him on the other side. Overcoming his urge to go home, he entered those doors, and his life was forever changed. After about 18 months, he transformed into a highly disciplined young man whose deep passion for football would ultimately turn him into one of the finest running backs in the game.
"It was a great experience because I found out real quick what I had to do to survive down there," he says. "It wasn't easy at all. I had a great deal of challenges. There was doubt; there were a lot of things going against me.... There were a lot of people around me saying, 'You can't do this, you can't do that. He's an OK athlete, but he won't go Division One.' That was a big thing. I wanted to go to a big-time school and play in a great program, but no one necessarily believed it but me."
He says he read daily from the book Think and Grow Rich. "I just applied that to my life, just the positive affirmations, day after day of thinking and believingyou think first and then you believe, and that's part of faith. Now it has come full circle because I find myself in the same situation to this day. It's just a state of transition."
He wasn't an obvious star in his early high school years. "My coach told me, 'You're too slow, you're too small. So what are you going to do about it?' " George recalls. "He presented that challenge to me, and I met it head on." Growing into a new body, he spent countless hours in the weight room. The hard work paid off: George produced about 1,500 yards and more than 20 touchdowns his senior year. But as his early doubters predicted, he didn't land any full scholarship offers.
So he stayed in high school another year. In that prep school league, athletes were allowed to play a post-graduate year without affecting their college eligibility, so George returned and garnered 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns in the first six games. The performance was good enough to catch the eye of league officialswho then changed their position and ruled George ineligible for the rest of the yearand college scouts from Ohio State, Penn State and Virginia.
He chose Ohio State and quickly succeeded in his desire to earn significant playing time as a freshman. "In fact, my debut was against Syracuse, and I scored three touchdowns on national television," he says. Two weeks later, Ohio State played the University of Illinois, a team that quickly became George's nemesis. "I fumbled twice, and we lost the game," he says. "I was shut down after that until my junior year. They didn't let me play again."
Students taunted him, asking if he needed help carrying his books. "It was terrible," he says. "I was considering transferring to another school." His mother would support any decision he made, but she encouraged him to stay and meet the challenge. "I had to make the decision to press forward and work harder and have something to prove or just fold, so I chose to work harder."
He got a second chance two years later. "People still weren't overexcited about me then, to say the least," he says. "I still rushed for over 1,400 yards and 15-some-odd touchdowns, and there were still doubters. They still didn't think I was the guy to go to." He soon changed their mindsand his hairstyle. He began shaving his head in college"I thought it was a better look for me, and it's easier to keep"and continues that practice every two or three days now.
During his senior year, George emerged as a serious contender for the Heisman trophy, along with Nebraska's Tommy Frazier and Florida's Danny Wuerffel, after a 207-yard running game against Nebraska. What pulled him ahead of the pack was a 314-yard day during Ohio State's 41-3 victory over Illinois, which helped him set an Ohio State record of 1,846 yards and a nation-leading 24 touchdowns.
In December 1995, his childhood dream became a reality when he was named the 61st Heisman Trophy winner at New York City's Downtown Athletic Club. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I was just overwhelmed. It was the greatest experience of my life because there are only a few [recipients]. I knew that I had only one shot that year to get it done, and that was my goal."
That winter day turned out to be life-changing in more than one way. Hours later at a club, he met Tamara Johnson, a beautiful singer with a delightful disposition and contagious enthusiasm. "I guess she was upset because she had broken up with her boyfriend," he says. "We met and became friends first. Maybe two or three years after that, we started dating."
George and Johnson, who lived in California, quietly dated for about seven years and married in June 2004. "I never really put it out there, but she would come to games. She has been coming here since 1997."
George says he married her "because of her commitment to me." He says, "She is the type that will be in the trenches with you and fight for you and stick behind you and support you. She tells me when I'm wrong, she tells me when I'm right, but it's a sense of accountability that is genuine. She's a people person, and she's a happy person. But more importantly, she challenges me to be the best man I can be."
Besides the obvious, Tamara says she is attracted to the private, silly side of George that few see. "He's a nut!" she says. "He loves to play all day. He is constantly plucking me like that little boy who likes you in second grade that won't leave you alone. People don't see the part where we are here making up routines because we love to dance. Before our reception, we had this whole little routine put together, and we had everybody doing it with us. But people don't see that side because he is always so serious and football- and business-driven."
Because his private life was not on display publicly, rumors persisted about George's love lifeand even his sexuality. "I've had to laugh at quite a few of them," he says. "The gay thing, I don't know where that came from. That's not even worth me talking about because, first of all, I'm not, and, secondly, I don't understand why people would question me. I'm not going to sit up here and act like I'm a saint," he says, addressing other rumors involving women. "I've done just about anything I would possibly want to do in a single life. I've done that, but I've gone on to a new life, and I have a wife and a son."
The Heisman only added to George's growing mystique, and the running back became the 14th pick in the first round of the 1996 NFL draft. While some teams passed on George because they didn't believe he had the speed to make it in the NFL, the Houston Oilers believed that he would live up to his hype. He was offered a five-year deal worth nearly $7 million.
George's mother was scheduled to work for TWA the day of his signing, but he convinced her to take a day off and come to San Antonio for the monumental event. That gesture of appreciation ended up saving her life. Donna was scheduled to work as a flight attendant that day on Flight 800, which crashed and killed all 230 people onboard. "That was a deep time for me," he says. "Knowing that I almost lost my mom was just devastating. It was just an amazing story."
For the first time in his life, George had financial security. His first big check was an $80,000 payment for a commercial. "I bought a Range Rover and kept the rest," he says. "I still had an apartment. I have never been one to try to get a lot anyway. I love nice thingsI have expensive tastebut I try to keep it all in perspective. I always thought long term."
George didn't have to worry about a short-lived pro career for long. After his first season with the Oilers (who by then had announced their plans to move to Tennessee), he was named NFL Rookie of the Year for rushing 1,368 yards, with an average of 4.1 yards per carry, and scoring eight touchdowns.
For seven more years, George, 31, was the beloved 1,000-yard-a-year rusher for the Tennessee Titans (and its predecessor team, the Houston Oilers). He ran for 10,009 yards, with an average of 21 carries per game, and started all 128 games of his career, a feat second only to his hero Walter Payton's 170. He led the team to its 2000 Super Bowl appearance, and then followed that with a career-high 1,509 yards the next season.
But in July 2004, he was released from the only pro team for which he'd ever played after he rejected the Titans' offer of a base salary of $1.5 million. At issue was the $1 million roster bonus the Titans paid George in March 2004: the Titans wanted it to count as part of his 2004 salary, while George believed that it fell under the terms of his previous contract.
In this instance, George says it was about the money, because that offer would have made him vulnerable to be released the next year because of salary cap requirements. "It didn't guarantee me anything over the long term other than being in the situation that I'm in today. It was not just about the year; it was about the next few years and being in that position. I didn't feel like they were going to allow me to finish my career here. There was really no guarantee to that. I just didn't feel like I would've been happy here had I stayed under the circumstances."
He was in a Columbus hotel room when he saw the Titans' televised press conference announcing his departure. "It was a rough day for me," he says. "I was relieved that it was resolved, but in my heart I said, 'Man, I left a great situation as far as my teammates and the community. And it just came to an end.' It was like, 'Wow, it was a hell of a ride.'
Soon after, he signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys for a $1.5 million contract that offered incentives worth more than $4.5 million. Dallas appealed to George because he thought the team had a great chance of winning a Super Bowl and the coaches would give him ample playing time. "In the back of my mind, I was thinking Dallas would be the place for me to finish up my career," he says.
Before training camp ended, he realized things weren't going to work out like he'd hoped. George, a potential Hall of Fame candidate, lost his starting position to rookie Julius Jonesthus ending his starting streak. "I was more Jerry Jones, the owner's, guy, than I was [coach] Bill Parcells' guy. I don't think it was anything like he didn't like me; I just wasn't a fit."
To make matters worse, Tamara was extremely sick the first five months of her pregnancy, so George would come home at night and cook and take care of her and their two dogs. "I would just be quiet a lot, not say too much, read a lot," he says. He tried not to burden her with his troubles, "but she could see in me and in my face and just my whole demeanor. She is my rock."
"He has learned to truly endure," says Tamara, a former member of the singing group SWV who holds a marketing degree and is now pursuing a career in that field. "He has had a charmed career since he came out of college. He was the Heisman Trophy winner, Rookie of the Year. The first five years it was, 'Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.' He had to go through the transition of people doubting him 24 hours a day. He had to go through the transition of going to Dallas, where the world doubted him. We would turn on the TV and it was like, 'He is washed up. He is no good.' He had to go through a lot, and it just gave him a sense of endurance because it can tear you to pieces if you can let it.
"I always tell him, 'Eddie, never let anybody devalue you. When you are ready to stop, that is when you stop. Do not ever let anybody knock you down.' He'll listen to me, and he keeps going every day. My husband can take a lot; can't nobody knock him down, especially not with me behind him because I'm always going to hold him up."
George says it was difficult to wear the Dallas jersey and stand on the opposite sidelines from the Titans during a Monday Night Football matchup. "It just didn't seem right," he recalls. I just felt like, 'There are my friends.' I know the situation and that it's a business, but just the things we had accomplished and how far we had come. Now it's a new situation, and I'm trying to establish myself again somewhere else."
But the lowest point came when he was placed on the inactive list, which meant he didn't dress on game day. "To not dress, they really don't have a need for you," he says. "I felt like what could happen next was I could be released or I'm moving on. There's really no need for me to be there."
A season so full of hope ended in disappointment (only 432 yards), and it all happened in a strange city that seemed so far away from his warm Nashville home. "It was a humbling experience," he says. "I questioned, 'Why am I going through this? What did I do to deserve this?' All I wanted to do was earn a living, play some football and help a team win a championship. I didn't want to get caught up in the middle of the game, and unfortunately I did. It was a lesson learned that you've got to be a dog in this business; you've got to be a shark. It was a good time for me, though. It allowed me to grow up quick."
It forever changed his perspective. "My priorities have changed. My relationship with God is first, my family comes underneath that, and me, my mental and physical health, and then my career. My career is going to be forever changing. A person has three or four different careers in a lifetime, and that's how I'm looking at it."
He's eagerly anticipating the April birth of his new son, already named Eric Michael, while his son Jaire, who turns 8 next week, is staying with him for a while. George, who would like to have one more child, vows to be the father he didn't have as a boy. "I would like to think I've left a great legacy, but in my mind it is not over. I want my legacy to be one that I was resilient and a man that persisted without exception for a dream that I've had since childhood. My legacy will continue through my sons. I will teach them to seek perfection and wisdom, to be well educated, to be humble and to follow God. So that is how my legacy will be determined."
He is making daily preparations for life after football, and he says he will willingly accept the day he makes his final walk off the field. "Football is not going to define Eddie George," he says. "It is not going to be the end of me when I retire. I'm not going to be sitting at a bar somewhere eating peanuts, talking about, 'Yeah, back in 1999, we had a Super Bowl run,' and still living off of those days.
"They were great times, but I have other goals and opportunities. It just opens the doors for other opportunities, and that's what excites me. That is what keeps me going. Looking at my wife and my son keeps me going. Just walking outside and seeing growth keeps me going because I want to be part of it. I want to be part of something successful."
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