Jeff George open to NFL return
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CHAMPAIGN – Spencer Atkins, who recently graduated from eighth grade, wasn't even alive when Jeff George broke into the NFL as the top overall pick in the 1990 draft.
He was in diapers when the former Illini had his infamous shouting match on the sideline with June Jones, his head coach with the Falcons in 1996 that led to his release.
And he could barely write his own name when George threw his last pass in the NFL as a member of the Washington Redskins in 2001.
"I haven't seen a whole lot of him. I know he was pretty good," said Atkins, an aspiring quarterback whom George has tutored on a handful of occasions this summer in Champaign.
If George has his way, Atkins, a freshman-to-be at St. Thomas More, won't have to dust off an old cassette to see him play next. The 41-year-old is hoping Atkins, and other football fans alike, can flip on the television or head to a nearby NFL venue to see him take his next snap as a quarterback somewhere in the league.
That's right, Jeff George is hoping for another shot in the NFL.
"I feel like I can still play, and if there's someone out there to give me a shot, that would be wonderful," George said last week on his way back home to Indianapolis from one of his frequent trips to Champaign, where he tutors Atkins and a couple of other young area quarterbacks.
But the trick is going to be getting that opportunity. At George's age, his phone isn't ringing off the hook with coaches and general managers on the other end fighting to land his services.
Getting another chance is a long shot, and George isn't naive enough to believe that it isn't. But George thinks he has enough in his rocket of a right arm to help someone in the league.
"You look throughout the league, you see 20 teams that need quarterbacks – 20 teams need starters – and probably everybody needs a backup," George said. "In my opinion, there's just not a lot of quality quarterbacks out there these days."
So far, George hasn't piqued much interest from any of the NFL's 32 teams, but in his recent workouts in Champaign, George has impressed at least one guy with experience as an NFL coach.
"I coached against him when I was in the National Football League, and he was out there just throwing the ball around and I was like, 'Holy smokes.' He looked like he did when I coached against him," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "He was throwing the ball on the money. He can throw all the balls. He looks about 25 years old, and I was very impressed with where he is right now."
Former San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions head coach Steve Mariucci wasn't so optimistic when discussing George's chances of landing a gig. Mariucci brought George in for a workout in 2005 during his final season with the Lions and came away impressed with the former Illini's arm strength and physical fitness. But not enough to sign him.
"The good news is he's rested and healthy; he hasn't been taking a pounding," Mariucci said of George, who had tryouts with the Seahawks (2002) and Bears (2004). "The bad news is he's not been with the flow of things and the camp and the rigors of practicing every day and competing at that level.
"Speed and quickness can't be duplicated on a high school field working out. Day in and day out and (practicing with a team) is the best way to stay sharp."
So given the opportunity, would Mariucci sign George if he were calling the shots for an NFL franchise?
"It depends on the alternative. What's the salary cap situation? Who else is on the roster? Did we draft a guy?" said Mariucci, now an analyst with the NFL Network. "Everyone's situation is a little different. I would be willing to give him a workout, not suggesting I would sign him, though."
As far as George is concerned, his skills haven't diminished much since he entered the league 19 years ago. He's in what he calls the best shape of his life, having recently lost 20 pounds, and said he feels as strong as he did when he was 25.
His skills may or may not be what they once were. But the confidence that has always been a George trademark hasn't suffered one bit.
"I realize I'm not getting any younger, and a lot of people probably look at it and say, 'Man, you're too old to play a young man's game,' " George said. "I say to them, 'Put me against a young man and see who looks better.' Age is only a number. It's about how you feel and how you feel when you keep throwing."
The confidence remains, but what about the brashness and sometimes-defiant behavior that got him in trouble as a player? George's stay with the Colts ended on bad terms after he and the staff had differences; he was traded to Atlanta. There, he and Jones had it out on the sideline during a game and he was subsequently suspended three games into the season and later released.
Those around the quarterback seem to think he has grown up quite a bit.
"I think he'd go back and change some things, but I think everyone in athletics would go back and change some things," said good friend and former Illinois teammate Shawn Wax. "In youth sports, high school and college, the coach is the absolute power. That's not the case in pro sports. It's much more of a working relationship and I think if he could go back, maybe he would handle those a little differently. I don't think he would change his competitiveness or his passion for it."
Even young Spencer Atkins can attest to a more mellowed George.
"He's really nice," Atkins said. "He teaches you, he understands everything and if you do something wrong he'll go back, slow it down for you. He never raises his voice and just does everything right."
The maturity is something that has developed over time, and if there is one benefit to growing old in the world of competitive sports, that's it.
"For him, I think it's helpful that he's had some kids," Wax said. "He's coached them and taught them a little bit about sports, and there's no question he's a different person today than he was when he was 25, 26 years old. Just in terms of how he handles things and his perspective on life."
George's three children, son Jeffrey (12), daughter Jordan (10) and son Jayden (8), give him something outside of football to focus on. If he doesn't get a shot, it's all right, he can watch them grow up.
Like he did last month at the football camp Illinois hosted for middle-school kids. Jeffrey, a quarterback, attended the camp with some of his buddies from the Indianapolis area, and George was thrilled to sit back and watch his boy play.
"That was a cool experience to see your own kid out there on the field that I spent three years on. That was a big rush for me," George said. "He brought some receivers and some running backs, and they kind of wanted to experience what college football life was all about. That was so cool to me."
He also heads up a breast cancer foundation, which was inspired by his mom's own fight with the disease, and he's enjoying being able to come back to his alma mater and contribute to the football program.
"Here's a guy who was the first pick in the draft and we want him to feel good about the university and we've connected with him," Zook said. "He spoke to the team in the spring. Anybody wants to see their former team have success. He's kind of excited about the direction the program is going."
There's even preliminary talks about George making a donation to the program, like he did shortly after he signed the $15 million deal with Indianapolis after being the top pick in the draft.
But until then, he'll hold out hope that someone will give him a shot.
"If someone calls, I'll definitely be ready," he said. "We'll just see what happens."