BROXTON, Ga.—With one of the most anticipated Georgia football games in recent memory looming against Alabama, I decided to take a different approach from the customary “beat story.” I reached out to a true rarity—an individual who not only could provide insight on a much-heralded game pitting Georgia and Alabama, but someone familiar with the series firsthand, having produced one of the greatest offensive outings ever by a Bulldog against the Crimson Tide.
“Where I’m from, playing a rival like the Florida Gators is a really big deal,” Andre “Pulpwood” Smith informed me from his home in Broxton, a small town in South Georgia located just outside of his hometown of Douglas. “As far as Alabama, I respected them, but never looked at them as a rivalry of Georgia. So, when we were about to play Alabama in ’84, I didn’t see it as a big-time game.”
To hear Pulpwood tell it, the hoopla surrounding the meeting between the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide more than 30 years ago was a sharp contrast to that of this Saturday’s highly-publicized game in Athens.
A highly-touted tailback out of Coffee County High School in Douglas, Pulpwood initially signed with Texas A&M. However, he suddenly changing his mind, whereupon he was released from his grant-in-aid and arrived at the University of Georgia just prior to the start of the 1983 football season.
As a true freshman, Pulpwood appeared in just one game. And, entering his sophomore year, Georgia’s stable of backs was filled to capacity. Similarly to how the Bulldogs feature tailbacks Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Keith Marshall, and Brendan Douglas this season, Lars Tate, Cleveland Gary, Tron Jackson, and Tony Mangram were slotted at the position in 1984. There was no room for Pulpwood, so he was moved to fullback.
During the first three games of the season, Pulpwood had his moments, like a 50-yard run against Southern Mississippi for a touchdown. However, he was a fullback playing for “Tailback U,” and a school whose playbook essentially didn’t call for the fullback to run the ball—just block—until the offense reached past the 50-yard line on the opponent’s side of the field. Entering Georgia’s meeting with Alabama, Pulpwood had yet to carry the ball more than 10 times in a game.
This year, a significant matchup will be the Bulldogs’ rushing attack against the Tide’s stout defense, which was also the case in 1984. Opposing Tate, Gary, Jackson, and Mangram were All-Americans linebacker Cornelius Bennett and defensive tackle Jon Hand, and six other defenders who would eventually play in the NFL.
So, how does a strong running game have success against a stellar defense? According to Pulpwood, it comes down to one word, one simple word—“weapons.”
“If an offense has weapons, a running game can overcome a great run defense,” Pulpwood declared. “And, Georgia’s offense has a weapon up the middle, one around the ends, and another on the outside: Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Malcolm Mitchell.”
In Birmingham in 1984, the Bulldogs also had a weapon up the middle: Pulpwood.
On its opening series, Georgia moved the ball to the 44-yard line—notably, Alabama’s 44-yard line—allowing the Bulldog offense “by the book” to start mixing in the fullback dive play. Pulpwood was given the ball on a simple dive off the option series and, just like that, he was gone—off to the races on a scoring jaunt. Roughly two minutes later, Georgia had possession on the Crimson Tide’s 34-yard line, and Pulpwood was given the ball on the exact same play call, resulting the exact same way—touchdown.
Beginning with the Alabama game through the regular season, Pulpwood led Georgia in rushing in five of eight games. Gaining a team-high 655 rushing yards, he averaged 6.0 yards per carry, and led the Bulldogs in touchdowns scored (and, probably the number of times a player provoked the coaching staff to alter the tailback-oriented playbook). Pulpwood’s 1984 season remains likely the greatest campaign the last half-century by a Bulldog who solely played the fullback position.
But, Pulpwood’s sophomore season—one in which he was recognized as MVP of the team—would be his final one at Georgia. In the off-season, he flunked out of school.
No longer seeking an education and playing football at Georgia, Pulpwood admittedly had way too much time on his hands. And, that’s when he really got into trouble—big trouble—as his life spiraled out of control.
“With no football, I went down the wrong path,” Pulpwood said. “Today’s players can learn from my mistakes, and cherish the fact they’re attending and playing football for the University of Georgia. It’s like heaven, not like real life. And, if you came from the other side of the tracks, it can keep you from having to return to the other side of the tracks.
“Man, I’d scare them out of their shoes,” Pulpwood continued, envisioning if he had the opportunity to speak to troubled players heading down the wrong path. “They’d be scared to leave the locker room.”
After roughly 15 years struggling with drug addiction, a life of crime, homelessness, and even getting shot and wounded, Pulpwood completely turned his life around, which included getting reacquainted with the program he turned his back on 30 years ago.
“UGA football gave me the opportunity to succeed, but then I let the program down,” Pulpwood said. “But, Coach [Mark] Richt and the Bulldogs gave me another chance to be part of the program. They welcomed me back like nothing bad had happened before.”
Today, Pulpwood works in Douglas, where he also regularly attends church. In addition, he coaches and counsels Coffee County’s youth, attempting to guide them down the right path. Still, he finds time to be part of the UGA football program, including regularly playing in the letterman’s flag football game each spring at Sanford Stadium, reminiscing about his playing days as a Bulldog, or providing much insight into the current team from his home in Broxton.
“If Georgia is ever going to beat Alabama, it’s this year—this year, baby,” Pulpwood responded when I asked him to close our interview by predicting the outcome of tomorrow’s game. “And, if the Bulldogs win this big-time game—beat ‘Bama—they’re back where they belong: with the spotlight on them.”
Beating ‘Bama, and being in the spotlight: a couple of things Pulpwood should know about.