Catching Up with Wycliffe Lovelace
Perhaps the MVP of Georgia's all-time “All-Name Team,” Wycliffe Lovelace arrived in Athens in 1984 as arguably the most highly-touted prospect from the state of Florida. Besides being a track star at Clewiston High School, Lovelace was a three-time first team All-State football player, even earning the recognition as a mere sophomore. He was believed to be, at the time, only the second sophomore football player in history to be named first team All-State in Florida.
Despite an injury-plagued career at Georgia, and often having to switch positions, Lovelace totaled 158 tackles (99 in 1988), four sacks, three other tackles for loss, and four fumble recoveries as a Bulldog. He also made two receptions, but is likely best remembered for the corralled pass he had versus Georgia Tech in 1988—his and head coach Vince Dooley’s final regular-season game. He returned the interception 33 yards for a touchdown in a Georgia victory.
UGASports recently caught up with Lovelace.
UGASports: We have to start off by asking, what’s the story—if any—behind your unique name, Wycliffe?
Lovelace: “My family and I came to the United States in 1977 from Jamaica. Jamaica was an English colony, and with the support of England came English books and literature. My mom came across the name ‘Wycliffe’ in an English book. It’s actually somewhat of a popular English name. The actual pronunciation is Wi-klif, but when we came to the States it started to be pronounced as WAI-klif. It’s funny, outside of family, the only person here who consistently pronounced my name correctly was Coach Dooley. And, I never told him the correct pronunciation. Coach Dooley just started calling me Wycliffe (WI-klif) from the first time he met me.”
UGASports: From old articles we discovered, it seems like you were extremely close with your family while growing up—correct?
Lovelace: “Yes, and we remain very close. My mom gave up everything she had to make life better for my two sisters, my brother, and me. In time, it wasn’t like we had to be good citizens to ‘pay her back,’ but we felt like we owed that to her for all that she gave up to give us a better opportunity. Still, we had to earn everything, stay humble, and work hard. When I was in high school, I’d play football on Friday nights, and then I was cutting lawns by 7 a.m. Saturday mornings. But, perhaps more so, we took care of one another. To this day, I talk to my mom and siblings three-four times per week.”
UGASports: In seventh grade, you knew nothing about football, just soccer; however, just three years later, you were recognized by the end of your tenth-grade year as perhaps the best football player ever at Clewiston High School. When did it finally “click” for you playing football—and when did colleges start recruiting you?
Lovelace: “Entering my sophomore year, I gained roughly 20 pounds over the summer and had gotten much stronger. I was starting at defensive end, but the team needed an offensive tackle. So I tried out for that position and started there too. That season, we played against a team where the opposing player I went up against really beat on me. He was bigger than me and it felt like he bashed my head in the entire game—but I held on for dear life. That Sunday, the Palm Beach Post honored me for my performance in that game with an award. And that’s who I became: the player who didn’t care about receiving credit, but was still going to work really hard. And, it was also around that time when the recruiting letters from schools started coming.”
UGASports: Where did you eventually make your recruiting visits?
Lovelace: “In order, Florida, Michigan, Georgia was third, Pitt, and finally Ohio State—and I went on an unofficial visit to Florida State. It’s funny, Bobby Bowden (then Florida State’s head coach) came to my house and sold my parents on everything. Right then, my mom pretty much said I was going to Florida State. But as I mentioned, I mowed lawns all day on Saturdays when I was young, so when I finally got to watch football in the evenings, usually only Big Ten and Pac-10 teams were on. So I grew up a big fan of Big Ten football—and Michigan is where I originally wanted to go.”
UGASports: So, why Michigan—and, in the end, why not Michigan?
Lovelace: “Everything about Michigan just felt good to me: the helmets, the jerseys, their tradition, the fact it was a prestigious university, etc. Also, from track and field in Clewiston, I got to know some kids from the Titusville (Fla.) area who'd gone to run track at Michigan. But when I went to Ann Arbor for my visit, honestly, everything just kind of fell apart. In those days, you really didn’t sign anything until Signing Day—but Michigan wanted me to sign with them on the spot. Yet I still had other visits to make. I felt like they tried to bargain with me, and pressure me into signing. So I decided to definitely keep my options open.”
UGASports: Why did you ultimately decide on Georgia?
Lovelace: “(Laughing) It definitely wasn’t UGA’s facilities! Seriously, this was the mid-1980s, or long before the program had the top-notch facilities it has now. Georgia had the worst facilities of all the schools I considered. But I didn’t care about that. To me, more than anything—like the facilities, or the school’s location, or if I was going to immediately play or not—it was about who I was going to be going on my journey with. I wanted to be with players and coaches I could relate to. It wasn’t about the glitz. When I visited Athens for a weekend and hung out with the team, I thought that these were the guys I’d like to play with. There was nothing flashy about them. They were just a bunch of common, down-to-earth, personable, hardworking guys, who supported each other. That’s who I wanted to be with for my journey through college.”
UGASports: You played immediately at Georgia as a true freshman. However, it surprisingly came at another position, right?
Lovelace: “Yes. I was recruited as a defensive end—my favorite position and the one I always wanted to play. But the summer before the start of my freshman season (1984), Coach Dooley approached me and said that our season opener against Southern Mississippi was in three weeks, and I needed to be ready—at defensive tackle. Well, I'd never played defensive tackle, or where my hand was ‘in the dirt’ while playing on the defensive front. Interestingly, one day soon after that, I got a call from the coach at Michigan who had recruited me. Apparently, he had seen on some sports-wire service that I had been moved to defensive tackle. I’ll never forget him saying over the phone to me, ‘Wycliffe, you’re a defensive end, and they (Georgia) are going to ruin you playing tackle.’ He told me that since school hadn’t started at UGA yet, I could leave right then, come to Michigan, and I could play football and attend school there. Well, I wasn’t going to transfer over that. Besides, I thought at the time that I was simply helping fill in gaps by playing defensive tackle, and I’d eventually be moved back to playing defensive end."
UGASports: Yet you did get moved after your freshman season, but it was to a position you hadn’t played—tight end. And this is after you had been one of the team’s top reserve defenders as a true freshman. That had to be a major change for you.
Lovelace: “Yeah, that was a big deal—a big change. Entering the 1985 season, we were thin at tight end, and Coach Dooley knew I had been a sprinter and offensive tackle in high school. Also, during some Thursday practices, the coaches would let us go to different position groups for fun. I’d always go play catch with the receivers, and I guess the coaches had seen that I could catch the ball pretty well. I remember Coach Dooley coming to me and saying, ‘Wycliffe, when we open up with Alabama on September 2, you’re going to be our starting tight end.’ I loved to hit people, and liked to block, but being a target [as a tight end] was honestly something I never wanted to be. Regardless, the conversation was over. I was the team’s starting tight end.”
UGASports: Describe the injuries you endured while at Georgia.
Lovelace: “I hurt my knee in the Florida game my freshman year, but I didn’t require surgery and returned before the season ended. In 1985, I had dislocated my shoulder, so I wore a harness on my back to keep my shoulders down and elbows in. In the fourth game of the season against South Carolina, I caught a pass where the tackler took my knees out. That Monday morning, I was having knee surgery. Later, I had to have surgery to have a screw put into my shoulder. That season, I was able to come back, but not until the final two games versus Georgia Tech and Arizona in the Sun Bowl. As a junior [in 1986], I was back to defensive tackle, where I started several games. However, against Georgia Tech, I tore ligaments in my knee and had to have my third surgery in a span of just a little over a year. Plus, since then, I've had four surgeries: two knee replacement surgeries and two surgeries on my shoulders.”
UGASports: So, when you were redshirted for the 1987 season altogether, was it because of an injury, or no?
Lovelace: “Yeah, that was kind of a crushing moment to get redshirted. I had played significantly for three years. That was hard to accept. At first, the idea was for me to just work out and get myself well to return as a fifth-year senior in 1988. But, next thing I know, I’m practicing with the team to help prepare them for games (chuckling), actually travelling, then dressing out and actually warming up for games—but I knew there was no way I was going to play. That might sound unusual, but Coach Dooley told me that since I was a team leader and was looked up to by younger teammates, it was important for me to be there [for practices and games]. I give Coach Dooley credit. He made me grow up quickly, but was always fair to me.” (Along with quarterback Derrick Harris, Lovelace was named Georgia’s Scout Team Player of the Year for 1987.)
UGASports: So, looking back, getting redshirted when you didn’t want to actually wound up being a good thing for you?
Lovelace: “Yes, because, simply, if I hadn't been redshirted in 1987, then the 1988 season wouldn't have happened for me. That season—Coach Dooley’s last year as Georgia’s head coach—was very special to me. I was able to stay healthy and truly show who I was. My last home game against Georgia Tech, I intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown, and we won [24-3]. I was so honored to be voted team defensive captain that year by my teammates. And we finished by beating Michigan State [34-27] in the Gator Bowl. It was a great year.”
UGASports: You mentioned the Gator Bowl. As you recall, leading up to it, you caused somewhat of a riff by saying Michigan State’s Tony Mandarich was “overrated.” Tell us all about that. (Despite weighing 65-70 pounds fewer than Mandarich, who would be selected No. 2 overall in the ’89 NFL Draft, Lovelace was assigned to defend the mammoth offensive tackle.)
Lovelace: “In the defense we ran, someone else, maybe our defensive guard, would have normally been assigned to Mandarich. But Coach Dooley, who always seemed to believe in my ability, announced at a team meeting that I’d be the one to go opposite of him. So, having about a month to prepare, I just started getting ready, watching film and all. Man, Mandarich was a beast, and a bully. On film, he was always driving his guy out of the play. And he’d do some dirty things, but usually the refs would just stand there and look at him. Yes, I might have said some things that he didn’t like—as he did, calling me ‘Linda Lovelace’ (in reference to the former pornographic actress and star of the famed film, Deep Throat). On the first play of that Gator Bowl, Mandarich and I collided, and afterwards, I said, ‘Hey, Tony, welcome to the Southeastern Conference. Tonight is not going to be easy.’ And, that’s about how it went. I held my own against him, and, most importantly, we won the game.” (Following the Gator Bowl, Lovelace on Mandarich: “I thought he gave up [in the latter part of the game]. He didn’t last against us.”)
UGASports: Was there any thought to playing football after college? And, tell us about your professional career.
Lovelace: “There were offers from NFL teams to be a free agent, or I could have played in Canada. But, from a health standpoint, I didn’t think playing professional football was a wise thing to do. I was close to graduating and I just wasn’t going to take that chance of getting injured again. So I chose the path to start a career, work-wise. I started off with an internship at Georgia Crown, owned by the Leeberns. I was hired full-time and eventually became a sales manager. I’m very grateful for that. Mr. Leebern and his son, Don III, gave me an opportunity and believed in me. I worked there for 23 years before taking a managerial job with Patrón Spirits, which was acquired by Bacardi U.S.A., Inc. So, I’ve worked in the spirit industry for the last 30-plus years.”
UGASports: Where do you live? Tell us a little about your family.
Lovelace: “I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. My wife’s name is Angela Morris Lovelace. And I have two boys: Winston Chase is a senior at Providence Christian Academy (Lilburn, Ga.), and Wycliffe Myles (not a junior—different middle name than his father) is a senior at Georgia College & State University (Milledgeville, Ga.).”
UGASports: Do you currently have any sort of association with the UGA football program?
Lovelace: “Oh, yeah. I’ve been a season-ticket holder for the last 30 years. So, I’m often in Athens during the falls. The last five-six years, I try to go to one-two road games per season, as well. I’ve also played in a lot of the lettermen golf tournaments. And, a couple of times I’ve been asked to speak to the team to share my story.”
UGASports: Finally, in looking back, despite all the injuries and position changes, was it worth it to you to have attended school and played football at the University of Georgia?
Lovelace: “Despite the injuries and position changes and how they just piled up, it was a great experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I met some really, really good people, friends. Dickey Clark (UGA assistant coach at the time), who recruited me, we’re still very close. I also remain close with Ray Goff (UGA assistant coach at the time) and, of course, Coach Dooley. I’m still friends with a lot of the guys I first met when I took my official visit as a 17-year-old back in January of 1984. It is these UGA people who made the difference for me. And, it doesn’t matter if we've just seen one another the day before, or if it's been years, we always welcome and embrace each other. That’s what I love the most about my time at UGA.”