ATHENS - Although he stands 6-foot-4, weighs close to 200 pounds and played for several seasons on the offensive line for the Thomson Bulldogs, Billy Brunson knew he didn't have the necessary size to play Division I college football.
"I played center in high school, but my ability had taken me about as far as it would go," said Brunson, who graduated from Thomson in 2005. "I really wanted to go to the University of Georgia and I knew there was no way I could ever play, especially with my size. So I never thought about (playing) again."
Brunson, 18, was well aware he couldn't play for his beloved Bulldogs, so he did the next best thing.
"I got lucky and met a guy who knew somebody who was a manager for the football team," he said. "I found out there were some managers who were graduating and there would be some spots to fill. I applied and talked with (equipment manager) Dave Allen and got my name on the list. It was lucky for me that I already knew someone who was working for the team. This isn't the kind of job they advertise for."
The son of Charles and Tammy Kay Brunson began his collegiate football career as a Bulldog manager earlier this year and is already feeling at home with the team. He credits Harlem native Ray Fulcher and senior linebacker Danny Verdun Wheeler (Thomson Class of 2003) for helping him quickly acclimate to his surroundings.
"Ray is a manager who helped me get the job," said Brunson. "And Danny and I played together in high school and he introduced me to a lot of the guys. They've really helped me feel comfortable."
Last week, Brunson solidified his relationship with the entire program by joining the Georgia players, coaches, trainers and managers for early morning "mat drills," perhaps the off-season bane to the existence of every player and perhaps one of the reasons the Bulldogs have been so successful in the Mark Richt era.
"I get up around 3:30 in the morning, jump in the shower and then head to the Ramsey Center, where they'll hold mat drills at 5 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for the next several weeks. The managers get there by 4 to set everything up, and then the players come in. The drills last about an hour so I'm back in my room by 6:45 at the latest."
Now in his second semester of college, Brunson is learning how to balance his schedule between academics, football and a social life. He has no problem with rising before the chickens, but the rest of the day often proves problematic.
"I like it; it's not bad when I'm there," he said. "But the rest of the day is tough."
After the grueling mat drills have passed, the Bulldogs will begin spring practice on March 4, take a week out for Spring Break, then practice for two more weeks before the annual G-Day Game, which is set for Saturday, April 8. Brunson's responsibilities will change, and he'll be matched up with an assistant coach for the rest of the season. Given that he was a lineman and hopes to coach football one day, Brunson hopes he'll hook on with offensive line coach Neil Callaway, whose student manager graduated last year.
"I'm excited about that," Brunson said. "I'm really looking forward to it. I love football - it's a great learning experience for me. It'll be great for me to see (Callaway) coach and to see how his line blocks."
A longtime fan of Georgia (he said his grandmother began bringing him to Bulldogs games when he "was 5 or 6."), Brunson joins the Bulldog Nation in anxiously awaiting the unfolding of the next college football season, but he'll experience it from an entirely different perspective for the next couple of seasons.
"I'm not sure what I'll be doing (on game days), but I'll be on the sidelines and travel with the team," said Brunson, who is pursuing a double major in history and social science and education. "I couldn't ask for a better situation. When it came time for me to pick a college, there wasn't any choice. Georgia was the only place I applied. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I'm going to make it work.
"The players - the same guys I was watching on TV last fall - have been really nice and have made me feel welcome. This is an awesome experience to be a part of. I'm really looking forward to coming through that tunnel with the players on Saturdays. That hasn't really sunk in yet."
The defending Southeastern Conference champion Georgia Bulldogs kick off the 2006 season on Sept. 2 against Central Florida at Sanford Stadium.