Catching Up With... DAVID JACOBS
Perhaps most UGA football enthusiasts familiar with David Jacobs know of him more than anything else as the Georgia player who suffered a near-fatal stroke during the 2001 season. The stroke hit the left side of the defensive lineman’s brain, paralyzing his entire right side, temporarily confining him to a wheelchair, while ending his football playing career altogether.
But, more so, Jacobs was a highly-recruited defensive end coming out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, who was part of one of the most touted signing classes (1998) in UGA football history. After playing somewhat of an obscure role his first two seasons as a Bulldog, the end-turned-tackle was leading the team in tackles for loss (10) and quarterback pressures (21) through the first eight games of 2001 from his nose tackle position. Jacobs was heading for perhaps an all-conference campaign as a junior, a senior year whereby Georgia would win an SEC title, and likely an opportunity to play pro football before suffering the stroke.
Although his football career was over, Jacobs became an inspiration to many as he battled back from paralysis to join his teammates on the sidelines as an observer during the 2002 championship season. Given to the player(s) who most portrays courage, spirit, character, and determination, the David Jacobs Award was established in his honor, and has been bestowed to 21 recipients over the last 17 years.
During that time, Jacobs has worked in two primary professional fields, lives in Cherokee County (Ga.) with his family, while still recuperating from the stroke. I recently caught up with David Jacobs:
PG: David, during your senior year at Westlake, it was a foregone conclusion that you were going to Tennessee—in fact, you had committed to Tennessee. Why the sudden change of heart?
DJ: Coach Rodney Garner was the primary reason why me and a few other teammates decided to come to Georgia (Garner, a defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, had been at Tennessee until early January of 1998 when he was lured away and hired by Georgia.). We had a good relationship with him. Once Coach Garner came to Georgia; plus, I looked and saw that [UGA] was only an hour and fifteen minutes away, I decided to change my mind.
PG: In 1998, you were redshirted, in which some true freshmen cannot stand the thought of, whereas others are satisfied with redshirting if it means more playing time later, more time to learn the defense, to get bigger, stronger, etc. How did you feel?
DJ: At first, I saw some of my Westlake teammates going to other schools and playing as true freshmen, and I didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing. But now, I’m glad I got redshirted. Sometimes incoming linemen—offensive and defensive—come into college and aren’t ready yet to “jump in the fire”—catch up to the speed of the college game. I was like that as a true freshman.
PG: As a redshirt freshman in 1999, you started the first several games before being demoted in favor of Charles Grant. The next year, you started just one game as the backup to Richard Seymour. Grant and Seymour would each be eventual first-round picks; still, it must have been disheartening to lose your starting job and be a reserve.
DJ: Yeah, when I was a redshirt freshman, I started the first five or six games, but then lost my job. Sometimes it’s good to sit back on the sidelines at first (not starting), and you see [starters] make mistakes, which then you try not to make when you get to go out there. That probably should have been me at first (instead of starting). But, it was when I lost my job, I told myself in my mind that if I ever got to be a starter again, I’m going to feel like someone is always trying to take my starting position—always feel like someone is on my back.
PG: In 2001 under new head coach Mark Richt, you established yourself as a starting, standout nose tackle. Which game from that season was most memorable for you?
DJ: To be honest, that whole 2001 season stands out. I started to make some plays, and it kind of came out of nowhere. As far as a specific game, I’d say when we played up in Tennessee that season, when Verron Haynes caught the game-winning touchdown pass from David Greene. In that [26-24] upset win, I think I had around 11 tackles.
PG: Your stroke in mid-November of your junior season was thoroughly reported, so I won’t ask you to rehash it. Still, when you were fully aware of the fact, how did it feel that your football career was suddenly over?
DJ: Well, my situation was a lot different than most other people when they realize their football career is over. My career was over because half of my body was paralyzed. So, for me when it was over, I instantly had to start “playing the game of life.” When teammates would come visit me in the hospital, walking around, I would think that here I was just walking around with them recently. Still, including myself, no one felt sorry for me. At the time, I had no regrets that I couldn’t play football anymore because I had to start playing, and fighting for, the game of life. And, I still have no regrets.
PG: Briefly describe your Senior Day ceremony (2002 Georgia Tech game) when, although you hadn’t played football in over a year, you were still honored as the last player to be called to run onto the field representing that season’s senior class.
DJ: It felt great to go out there on the field with many of the teammates I had entered school with. But, to go out there by running out there—and not being pushed in a wheelchair—was a feeling like no other.
PG: So, how long did it take until you could walk again? And, how long was it until you recuperated from the stroke?
DJ: Well, I started back walking after about six months. But, as far as recuperating, that’s a process—I’m still recuperating right now. My right side still isn’t as strong as it was before, so I’m still dealing with those issues. But, I just keep working out, keep rehabbing, while never getting to a point where I think I’m satisfied.
PG: After you got back on your feet, didn’t you have the opportunity of coming back to UGA to help out/coach the team?
DJ: Yes, sir. Georgia wanted me to come back and be on the staff, but I felt it would be too emotional for me to do so. I didn’t want to be helping out and coaching the same teammates I had just been playing football with. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. So, I coached at Clarke Central [High School] in Athens for about two years. But, you know, sometimes people come to Athens when they’re 18 years old, and get stuck there, not leaving until they’re about 65 years old (chuckling). So, at the time, I kind of wanted to leave Athens, but I still had some classes left to take until I graduated. Therefore, I thought the best thing for me was to move halfway between Athens and the Atlanta area, where I would coach and be a substitute teacher at Parkview High School in Gwinnett County while finishing up my classes at UGA. I was at Parkview for about two-three years before going to Tucker (Ga.) High School.
PG: And soon after that, you got into a different line of work, right?
DJ: Yes, while at Tucker, I got married and we started having kids. We moved to Cherokee County, where I got into the mortgage business. I’ve been in this business for about 11-12 years, including with my current company, Southeast Mortgage located in Gwinnett, for about three years.
PG: Speaking of your wife, do you have any kids? If so, do you see them becoming like dad and playing for the “Dawgs”?
DJ: My wife is Desiree Jacobs, and we have two boys—David and Dawson—ages nine and about to be eight. Honestly, I think they both have the ability to continue playing football, and we’re working on instilling in them that you have to “go out there and pay the price.” You know, most kids are different now than when we were growing up. Now, with some kids who have the ability to play football well, you have to drag that ability out of them. To be good at football, you got to get out there and work. You can’t get good by sitting inside playing PlayStation. You got to get out there and pay the price.
PG: Along with the annual David Jacobs Award, how else are you able to associate yourself with the UGA football program?
DJ: I wish I could do so much more, but when you got kids playing sports, it’s hard to get over to Athens. I do talk to old friends from time to time. Also, I get over there at least once a year to see a practice, or something like that. And, of course, every year, I go to the end of the year banquet, when my award is given out. This year, it went to both Reggie Carter and Jeb Blazevich.
PG: Last question, and I totally forgot to ask this earlier, but we talked about your 2002 Senior Day. For that game, you obviously didn’t play but wore your uniform on the sideline. When Georgia won, you joined a couple of other players and dumped water in celebration on Coach Richt. It was widely reported that you and Coach Richt were close.
DJ: When Coach Richt came to Georgia in 2001, I soon had a great relationship with him both on and off the field. We have continued to be close. He’s my oldest son’s godfather. Coach Richt believed in me, had my back, and gave me an opportunity—and I think I played even harder because of it.