STATESBORO, Ga. - Although his college playing days are now over on the gridiron due to an injury, Justin Callaway has now landed a new role at Georgia Southern University. He is a player/coach assigned to the defensive unit.
Prior to the season-opener against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Callaway, a 2004 graduate of Thomson High School, injured his left shoulder during a practice session. A few weeks later - after seeing some playing time on special teams against the Dogs - Callaway made the difficult decision to end his playing career.
"Several people talked to me and we all decided it was best for me to shut it down," said the 22-year-old Callaway during an interview with The McDuffie Mirror following Georgia Southern's 38-37 overtime loss to the Wofford Terriers.
In games like the one played Sept. 27, "Everybody's a coach," said Callaway. "A lot of people will say different things about what we should have done. But really, you just have to trust your head coach in games like that one. Sometimes you win close games and sometimes you lose close games."
Although Callaway is no longer a player, he's enjoying his new role as a player/coach. He even looks the part. Donning a collared shirt and wearing a headset during the game, Callaway appeared to get as fired up on the sideline in his new capacity as he did when he was a player.
"There's a lot of emotion out there during a game," said Callaway, a former standout football player at Briarwood Academy his freshman, sophomore and junior years before transferring to Thomson High School. At Thomson, he played linebacker for Defensive Coordinator John Barnett.
Prior to transferring his senior year, Callaway approached Coach Barnett about his plans. Almost immediately, he was hit hard with the comment, "'It's going to be tough,"' recalled Callaway, a finance major at Georgia Southern. "'It's not the same kind of football you've been playing."'
Knowing himself that it would be a tough transition, Callaway transferred. But he had to work hard - extra hard to make the team. It wasn't a given, just because he had been a star football player at Briarwood Academy. Instead, Callaway had to prove himself and prove himself, he did.
The player and the coach formed a friendship which still lingers today.
"Coach Barnett helped me become a much better football player and he's given me a lot of advice," said Callaway. "I'll never forget that that man gave me a chance to play at Thomson High School. I love that man to death."
One of the highlights this season was playing the Georgia Bulldogs - who at the time were ranked as the No. 1 team in college football. More than 92,000 fans attended that game - the largest crowd that the Georgia Southern Eagles have ever played in front of in school history.
"It was awesome playing in front of that many people at Sanford Stadium,' said Callaway. "I'll never forget that experience."
Callaway, who is the son of Donnie Callaway and Pam Capps and stepson of Jim Capps, all of Thomson, said he looks forward to completing the season at Georgia Southern as a player/coach.
"It's been very rewarding," said Callaway. "I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."