EL PASO, TEXAS – If Georgia Tech A-back Jamal Paige plays in the Sun Bowl today, it probably won’t be for very long, and chances are it won’t be noticed by many. It wouldn’t be unfitting; he has played in 22 career games and only two this season.
And even though it’s Paige’s final game after five seasons, the first four of which he spent as a walk-on, he’s O.K. with it. Paige, who has all of four career carries to his credit, just wants to beat USC.
“(Playing in the Sun Bowl) doesn’t even matter to me,” he said. “I hope to, and finish my career the way that I want to, but if not, I’m all for it.”
The greatest contributions that Paige, a graduate of Woodward Academy, has made have mostly been on the practice fields with the scout team.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” coach Paul Johnson said. “He’s going to be successful in whatever he does.”
Paige is the rare walk-on who has stuck it out this long. Most who don’t receive playing time eventually turn in their pads to give more attention to studies and to be relieved of the grind. Including Paige and defensive lineman Ben Keith, whom Johnson awarded with scholarships last August as thanks for their efforts, there are 32 walk-ons on the roster. By eligibility, 20 are freshmen, seven are sophomores, three are juniors. Only kicker Chris Tanner and Paige have stuck it out as seniors.
Paige credits the bond formed with other 2008 freshmen and former players he grew up with in southwest Atlanta, notably Morgan Burnett and Mario Edwards, with helping him endure.
“Those bonds that I started early, being around those guys, that pushed me,” he said. “It was very motivating for me and every time that I had a thought of being down or whatever, those guys always picked me up.”
Paige even practiced his way through a season in which he knew there was no chance he would get on the field. Last year, because of a credit mix-up, Paige was ineligible to play. He stuck it out anyway.
“I knew I had to finish,” Paige said. “I came to college with that mindset that I would persevere regardless of the situation and be able to make it out on top.”
Johnson had actually recruited Paige to play at Navy, and he was also recruited by the Air Force Academy, UAB and Middle Tennessee State. He was expected to sign with Air Force, but had a late change of heart. Paige said that “I wanted to go to the place where I could get the best education and get the best experience on the field.”
Paige will graduate in the spring with an industrial engineering degree. He has his 2009 ACC champion ring as well as a past internship at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, not to mention the thanks of a grateful coach. Johnson called Paige to his office during fall camp last August, not typically a situation for glad tidings.
Johnson thanked Paige for his effort, encouraged him to keep it up and that, with a few scholarships to spare, told him he was going on scholarship.
Before he knew why he was called to Johnson’s office, “I was very uncertain about the whole deal,” Paige said. “I was kind of in shock a little bit.”
Paige actually ended up getting the most playing time as a freshman, on special teams for the 2009 team. He has played 11 games since, nine in 2010 and two this year. He has made the largest contribution with his effort at practice.
“Jamal’s been great,” Johnson said. “He’s come to work every day.”
Paige stands by the choice he made almost five years ago as a Woodward senior.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” he said. “It’s definitely made me the man I am today.”
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog