Former Georgia running back Jasper Sanks didn’t need to meet Isaiah Crowell to feel a sort of kinship with him.
They came from the same town and wore the same number while playing the same position at the same high school.
They were considered by many recruiters to be the top running backs in the country when they signed with the Bullodgs 14 years apart.
Unfortunately, they also have spent time living under the same microscope.
That scares Sanks, who knows all about the attention Crowell receives and the vitriol each misstep spawns.
“Honestly, it was what drove me away from football,” said Sanks, now an oil engineer living in Texas. “I love the game of football, but I hated all the attention. I just wanted to be normal, and I never could be that.”
The two athletes’ careers to this point are chock-full of similarities.
Sanks’ time at Georgia has been widely written off as a bust even though he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and racked up 1,651 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns from 1998-2001.
He never lived up to the billing he received, some say. His work ethic never matched his talent. His attitude didn’t jibe with the team. He was ruled academically ineligible before his freshman season, criticized for showing up out of shape, was arrested on a drug charge that was later dropped, and his career at Georgia eventually ended in 2001 when coach Mark Richt dismissed him for violating a team rule.
If it feels like you just heard part of this story, it’s because you have.
Crowell’s freshman season has touched on several of the same issues, leading many to connect the dots and project a career similar to Sanks’.
The true freshman from Carver-Columbus has had highlight-worthy performances — and with 847 rushing yards and five touchdowns, a 1,000-yard season is still within reach when Georgia and Michigan State play in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla.
But overshadowing many of his accomplishments are his two suspensions — one for a half-game against Tennessee for an undisclosed reason and a full-game suspension against New Mexico State for reportedly failing a drug test. The court of public opinion has been fickle as he has dealt with questions about his conditioning, injuries, attitude and abilities.
“The bad things always erase all the good, and it’s hard to live like that,” Sanks said. “It tough to come into Georgia as the top running back out of high school. Then he gets a suspension, supposedly for marijuana, and now he has to live with that and be linked to me because of it. That’s pressure. At that age, that’s tough.”
No doubt, the weight of it all has affected Crowell. In high school, he was often among the last players on the bus to leave the stadium, stopping to chat with fans and never turning down a request for a photo or interview, typically smiling and bright.
Through his freshman season at Georgia, his answers have gotten shorter and more vague as everything he says is parsed for hidden meanings and motives.
Meanwhile, Crowell said he has to worry about being photographed in public, and rumors swirl regarding poor grades, discipline issues and even interest in transferring.
This is the point where the two careers can split paths, Sanks said.
“(Facing the pressure and attention) is going to do one of two things: It’s going to make you excel or it’s going to cause you to spiral out of control,” he said. “It’s never one of the two. That type of pressure, I can’t even explain it, but that’s what it does to you.”
Crowell’s time at Georgia has yet to play out, but Sanks said he saw his own career fall on the unfortunate side of that scenario.
Fortunately, Sanks turned out no worse for the wear. He has a good job, is content with his life and said he became a better man from the lessons reaped from his mistakes.
But he feels for Crowell, who he said is just a kid feeling his way through a major life change in the spotlight.
He occasionally reaches out to Crowell to offer some advice, typically in the form of a text message.
Don’t blow off classes, view football as a job, study for class and for games and don’t overlook the opportunity that exists to give yourself and your family better lifestyles. Those are just a few examples of the wisdom passed down.
“Look at my testimony,” Sanks said. “I may not be able to tell him what to do to make it, but I can definitely tell him what not to do. I know he has a lot of people in his ear, so I try not to say too much, but I’ve been where he is.”
It’s easy to write someone off, particularly if he comes with lofty expectations he didn’t create for himself. But there comes a time when it makes more sense to forgive and forget rather than allow a single season to define a career let alone a person’s worth.
“If a guy makes a mistake in college, you can’t hold that against him forever,” Sanks said. “Isaiah made some mistakes, but he’s not the first guy to make them and still be able to go on and be successful. It’s time to really rally around him and help him see his opportunity.”