To call Eddie George a Renascence Man might be selling the multi-talented Ohio State icon short. Since leaving Columbus with a truckload of awards, including a slightly damaged Heisman Trophy, after the 1995 season, his life has taken him to places that not even he would have imagined.
First and foremost was a nine-year NFL career that took him to the Super Bowl and four Pro Bowls, but after his playing career ended, OSU’s single season rushing leader went to graduate school, opened a landscaping business, became a restaurateur, worked as an football analyst, and earlier this year, starred in a Broadway musical.
While each experience presented its own individual challenges and rewards, for George each was about working hard to accomplish a goal.
“Every experience was different,” he said. “Football was everything to me; so to play in front of Ohio Stadium was special, (especially) the energy of the crowd. The same thing holds true for the NFL… to play in the Super Bowl was amazing.”
“But, you go on a Broadway stage to perform, really out of my comfort zone in terms of singing and dancing and acting on a nightly basis in front of audiences from all over the world, (that) was something unto itself.”
Despite his far flung interests, football has always remained at the center of his life, either as an analyst on television and radio, or as a fan. With Ohio State’s match-up against Oklahoma coming up tonight, George is anxious to see how his alma mater will handle stepping into the spotlight for its first big game of the season.
“For the Bucks, we're gonna find out just who they are,” he said. “There's nothing like going on the road to face adversity, and being in a tough environment trying to face a team whose back is against the wall.”
Both teams in the game entered the season with goals of making the College Football Playoff, and while Ohio State might still be playing with house money, the Sooners are looking to resuscitate their postseason chances after an opening week 33-23 loss to Houston.
“Oklahoma, for all intents and purposes, their season is on the line,” George said. “The playoffs for them starts now… So, Ohio State, with their young, but talented, group, they're gonna find out exactly who they are when they go up against Oklahoma.”
As one of the greatest running backs in college football history, George understands that the position is different than it was when he was wearing his Scarlet and Grey crop-top.
“The game has changed, it's a bit faster, it's more open, it's more innovative,” he said. “It's more creative than when I played in the I-formation coming straight down hill; that was predictable.”
Putting his analyst hat back on, George said that Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is especially skilled at taking advantage of these changes to the game in order to maximize the recruiting and talent advantages that his Buckeye team has over most opponents.
“Urban's been a master at really exploiting defenses, but more importantly, spreading the ball around and getting it to his playmakers’ hands, and Ohio State has a ton of playmakers,” George said. “Mike Weber is the in-between-the-tackles guy who can get outside sometimes, and you have Curtis Samuel who uses speed to attack the edge. You want to get the best players on the field, and this is a way that you can get the best players on the field.”
Though he didn’t volunteer a pick at first, when pressed, The Varsity “O” Hall of Famer came down on the side of the Buckeye’s veteran signal caller.
“I think Ohio State pulls it out,” he said. “J.T. Barrett has been in these situations before, he's been on the road, he can really right the ship… I think Ohio State wins a close one, 24-21.”
Despite George’s prediction, because of the new College Football Playoff format, even if the Buckeyes lose in Norman today, he doesn’t think that it would be a death knell for their season.
“I think you can only get credit going on the road or hosting a team of note,” George said of early season, intersectional games. “I think it's great for the fans, it's great for the competition of college football, and it really sets the table up beautifully for what you're going to see throughout the course of the year, because now, the stakes are extremely high.”
Those stakes are especially high for the teams at the top of the Associated Press poll this week, because for the first time in college football history, the top three AP teams will all go on the road to play ranked opponents; this weekend will undoubtedly have massive ramifications when the Playoff Committee makes its final decision.
However, despite the new format’s improvements over previous systems, George believes that we are one or two tweaks away from getting it just right.
“I think eight teams is the right number,” he said, speaking of the Championship tournament. “Systematically, I think it works out for an eight team playoff, where you have the Power 5 conferences’ (champions) and three at-large (teams).
“I think they still have to figure out not putting too many games on these kids. We're right at 15, 16 ballgames for teams that advance in the playoffs, and that's an NFL season. These kids are student-athletes, they’re not professionals, so you've gotta be really conscious of how much volume they're exposed to, especially with the wear and tear and the pounding, (because) hopefully some of them will go on to the next level.”
Taking the handoff from Archie
In addition to all of the other roles that George juggles on a daily basis, this season he is also taking on the responsibility of replacing another Buckeye legend as the face of one of the most visible awards in high school sports. Buckeye great, and College Football’s only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin has worked with the Wendy’s High School Heisman since its inception.
Now, Wendy’s, a Central Ohio based and founded company, is turning to George to get the word out about changes to it’s program this year. While every running back who’s come to Columbus since 1976 knows that it’s impossible to fully step out of Griffin’s increasingly long shadow, George understands what an honor it is to follow in his footsteps yet again.
“Archie has been the face, the ambassador of this program, and it's an honor to help to deliver the message, and really get the message out, about the Wendy's High School Heisman,” he said.
After winning the collegiate version of the Heisman in 1995, George attended the Wendy’s high school ceremony the following year and remembers meeting the impressive student athletes selected for the honor. Unlike the version that he won, the Wendy’s High School Heisman, which was first presented in 1994, encompasses more than just athletic achievement.
“It's designed to celebrate their accomplishments on the field, in the classroom, and in the community;” George explained, “we're going to the total person. The brand Wendy's, the Heisman Trophy, and me personally, our core values are in harmony with each other; working hard, sharing passion, being a leader in your community.”
Already one of the most prestigious honors a high school athlete can receive, George was especially excited that this year, the selected winners would be awarded $10,000 towards their future education. In the past the monetary prize was presented to the student-athlete’s school.
With the Monday, October 3rd deadline quickly approaching, George wants to make sure that no deserving high school student misses out on this opportunity.
“It's very important. They've got to get their applications in by that time,” he said. “We don't want any high school senior to be left out that's deserving for the recognition and the opportunity to apply money to their future education.”
Finding a new stage in his life
When his football playing career ended, George knew that he needed to find another passion to pursue. Having played on the biggest stages in sports, the former Tennessee Titan found himself pulled to an actual stage for his next chapter.
After years of performing in Columbus and Nashville theatres, George was called up to the big leagues in January, when he made his Broadway debut as fast talking lawyer Billy Flynn in the long-running musical “Chicago.” While George knew that he had stumbled into a special opportunity, he didn’t quite understand just how special.
“Every night was a Super Bowl,” he said with a special excitement in his voice. “Every single night under the Broadway lights, on that stage in the Ambassador Theatre, an historic venue, was a Super Bowl. I mean, you are exhausted eight shows a week, but putting out that same energy and being enveloped in that is something unto itself.”
While the process of performing on Broadway, especially in a musical, was new to him, George relied on his football experience and his wife, singer and actress Tamara Johnson-George, to get prepared.
“She's my toughest critic,” he said of his wife while laughing. “When I was practicing in the house, I would go out of her range so she couldn't hear me, because she's like, ‘Oh, you're flat!’ or ‘You've gotta drop your jaw,’ or something along those lines. Always critiquing me.”
His wife was eventually moved to tears by his first Broadway performance, and the power of the experience is one that George says that he will never forget.
“It takes a lot out of you,” he said, “but it does so much for the human spirit that I crave the day when I can go back out and hit the boards on Broadway; whether it's doing a musical, a dramatic piece, Shakespeare. That is something that I relish doing at this point and time in my life.”
If past results are the greatest predictor of future results, there is little doubt that George will find a way to make this goal a reality.