Detroit Lions quarterback, Matthew Stafford was in Athens during spring practice as a UGA coaching clinic guest speaker. Stafford took time from his scheduled to chat with the press before his clinic engagement.
Have you seen Jacob Eason play quarterback and do you have a relationship with him yet?
“I haven’t had too much contact with him. I’m going to stick around today and watch a little practice. Last time I was here, maybe a month or so ago, I was walking around and peeked into the QB room and one of the coaches there put a tape on. He looks like he has a bunch of talent. Obviously he was a very highly recruited kid. But it’s a lot of fun, I know it was for me, coming from a long way away and kind of immersing myself in the culture and Georgia and I’m sure he’s going to have a good time doing it and I’m looking forward to watching him play. I’ll have a chance to do it today and I’m excited. So, we’ll see.”
What do you think about the fact that people, going back to Jacob’s junior year, have been comparing him to you? Does that put a lot of pressure on the young man?
“I don’t think so. I wasn’t very good (smiling). Nah, he’s a super talented kid. As far as the comparisons go, everybody’s their own player. I’m sure he’s bigger than I am, can probably throw it farther than I can and all that kind of stuff. I’m just happy for him to get an opportunity to play here. It’s a special place to play. I know it was a great time playing and being a student-athlete here like I did. I’m just happy for him, the team and the whole program.”
How about your experience coming in early and competing with guys for the job that were already here?
“Yeah, it wasn’t always easy. I had a bunch of ups and downs, especially my freshman year, but it was worth it. I didn’t want to sit out, wanted to play as soon as I could so that’s why I came as an early enrollee. It was difficult for me, leaving your buddies back home in high school but it was worth it and am sure it will be worth it for him. And more and more kids are doing it. But it worked out for me and I enjoyed every bit of it.”
What was your big “welcome to the SEC” moment?
“Oh, man, that’s a tough one. I’ve taken so many hits it’s hard to remember. But maybe my freshman year at Kentucky when we lost. My helmet was ripped off and my face was bloodied. There’s been a lot of them but that was a tough one for me, for sure.”
You seem to spend a lot of time in Atlanta. Do you and your wife live in Atlanta in the offseason and I understand you recently had a church league basketball championship with Matt Ryan (Falcons quarterback on the team)?
“We do live in Atlanta in the offseason. I met Ryan at the Pro Bowl a couple of years ago. We didn’t know it but we lived right around the corner from each other. We just started talking and played golf together and he’s a good hoops player, and so we went out there and won us a church league championship for a second year in a row. It’s a lot of fun and just a fun way to stay active and doing something beside going into the gym and running.”
Today, the spotlight on recruiting with Jacob seems to be even so much more intense than it was 10 years ago when you were being recruited. Are you glad you didn’t do it now?
“Yeah, I’m glad, as old as I am (again smiling). That’s a heck of a spotlight to be under. I felt like even when I came out, there was a ton of pressure. Everywhere you went a picture could be taken and you would be asked, whatever it was, and it has only intensified since then so for those guys coming out, from high school to college, it’s an eye-opener. It’s tough for those guys to make right decisions all the time and it’s something that is not going to go away. If they play football at a high level the spotlight is only going to grow and it’s something they have to get used to and adjust to.”
You went through it twice, being a top recruit here and being a top pick in the draft, where everywhere you go people know who you are, “hey, are you going to start?” and so on. How about dealing with that at such a young age?
“I don’t know, I guess I was brought up by two parents that prepared me in those things. So I’m kind of lucky but you have to live it and just do your best. That’s what I tried to do and I’m not saying I did it perfect all the time but just kind of trying to be as good a person, as good a teammate, as good a friend as I could be and that helped me get through those because it wasn’t easy all the time and there were times that I’m sure I didn’t make the right decisions. But you’ve got to learn from it and try not to make that same mistake again.”
I’m assuming you’ve met with Kirby. What are your initial thoughts on his vision for the program?
“I don’t know we’ve gotten deep enough to talk about vision for the program but I saw him a little bit ago and talked to him a little bit. It was just good to see him. Really, he was on the staff when I was being recruited and left a little bit soon as I got here, in that spring semester or whatever it was. But obviously in his career at Alabama, he learned under a great coach and he was a great player in his own right so I’m confident he’s going to get this program − not that it was going in the wrong direction winning 10 games every year − but maybe he can help us get over that next step and compete for championships. That’s what playing sports are about, winning, and I’m sure he’s motivated to do that.
Do you have a subject matter you’re talking about today with the coaches?
“I do, red-zone offense, and it’s going to be thrilling (again drawing laughter).”
How are the Lions going to do without Calvin Johnson (former Ga. Tech and all-pro receiver)?
“It will look different, obviously. He was a player that not only drew attention in the red zone but all over the field. He was a guy that led that receiver group, showed those young guys what it was like to work and what it was like to take over and dominate a game. Obviously, we’ve replaced with some pieces but no one player is going to replace a player like that but I’m confident that with our players and our coaches we’re going to be fine. But you’re going to miss a player like that. He was making plays that only maybe three players in the league can make and he’s been doing it consistently over a long period of time. It’ll be difficult to start with but we’ll find ways to still be explosive, still score touchdowns and all that kind of stuff.”
Were you shocked when Calvin said he was done?
“No. Not to say I was expecting it but I wasn’t shocked, either. I’ve known Calvin for seven years and know the effort and attitude he plays with. It takes a toll on people. From an offensive standpoint, he was catching quite a few passes and getting hit quite a bunch and it does take a toll. He catches the ball and carries the ball as much as anybody and I knew the NFL was kind of wearing on him. I just told him when he told me he was done that ‘I’m happy for you if you’re happy,’ and that’s what you want. He was a guy who gave everything to the game and wanted to walk away on his own terms and know that he had done the right thing.”
Is the pro sport, now that you’re in a business, different and less fun than when you were in high school or here?
“No, I still love it. I’m sure some people think it’s less fun. But I love it. I enjoy playing the game, I enjoy the preparation, the hard work that goes into it … the teamwork, the camaraderie. Obviously, winning
is a lot of fun. But it’s different. People come and go at a rapid pace. I remember my rookie year when we were just coming off the 0-16 season and we didn’t play so hot. I felt like I had three new teammates every week. We were just shuffling in guys, trying to find who can help us. That’s a unique experience and was a rude awakening to the business of the NFL. If you don’t win, bad things happen and if you do win, good things happen, and that’s not only on the field but throughout the organization. So it’s a tough deal, it’s a tough business but I personally wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
When you went to Detroit, there was a whole lot of pressure on you to revitalize not only the Lions but turn the whole city on so what has it been like trying to turn the team around and sort of be the poster boy for Detroit?
“It’s a big responsibility at a young age. I just turned 21 when I got drafted so I wasn’t a wily veteran. But for me the best thing was just to focus on football, at that point just try to be the best I could be to help our team. There were a lot of things going on in the city, within the organization at that point … we had a new coach and some new things going on. But for me in the seven years I’ve been in the NFL the biggest thing I’ve taken away is just to control what you can control because there’s a lot of variables out there that you can’t. People are going to like you or dislike you for whatever reason … I wore my hat forwards today so people like me; if I wear it backwards people don’t like me. Just little things you can’t control but you just try to be as good a football player as you can be and just be yourself. You do that and the rest will take care of itself.”
Have you talked with Mike (Bobo) or Joe (Cox) in Colorado?
“I have. Actually, Joe just got married a couple of weeks ago and I saw Coach Bobo there and saw a bunch of old guys we played with. I was happy for them. I’ve kind of watched them from afar. Actually in pro football, we don’t get to watch much college football because Saturdays are travel days or meeting days but I was happy for their success (at Colorado State).”
How about the same thing with Coach Richt? Have you been able to keep up with him?
“Yeah, I watched Georgia as much as I could. I really enjoyed playing for him. He did a lot of great things for this school, this organization, but obviously they made a change. Obviously I was far removed from that but I’m just happy Coach Richt got another opportunity, which is what he wanted. It seemed like once he was let go here he wanted another opportunity and he got it at his alma mater, which is a pretty awesome opportunity.”
You obviously came here and played with some talent and you left here as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. How much did Georgia have to do with that? Do you feel like your choice of coming to Georgia elevated you to the point where you could be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft or would you have been what you are as a player if you had gone anywhere?
“That’s tough to say. Part of what drew me to Georgia at the time was getting to play in a system that was going to get me ready to play in the NFL. I didn’t dream of playing high school or college football, it was always wanting to get to the NFL and play at a high level there. So I wanted to go to a place that I knew could prepare me and at the time, and I think it’s still very true, that Georgia is a program that can do that. Now could I have gone to another program and still been the top draft pick? I don’t know, that’s a tough one. But I know it worked out for me and I’m happy it happened.”
You think the coaching change at Georgia will possibly lead to more championships?
“I don’t know, we’ll see. You know, it’s all about getting as good a players as you can possibly get in here and then winning as many games as you possibly can. You know, the SEC’s no joke. It’s a tough conference to win. We obviously know that. We never won it (SEC title) while I was here, but I hope so. I hope that Kirby can bring that SEC championship run at Alabama, however many years it’s been, to Georgia. I hope Kirby can do that. You just have to have great players and players making the right plays at the right time. That’s what it’s all about.”