Commentary

This is how it starts

They are underdogs and fighters. Now, finally, they are the Georgia State Panthers

Updated: August 26, 2010, 12:32 PM ET
By Justin Heckert | ESPN The Magazine

The dreamer found a home in the hallways.

He was first, before the desks were assembled and the office key fit the lock, before the coaches lined family portraits on their windowsills.

The long shot closed his eyes and saw the historic opening kickoff, the ball falling out of the air. He pictured running downfield in those opening seconds at the Georgia Dome, making that first tackle.

The project was the first player to say yes to this team that has never played a game. He was certain he was ready.

The gamer was done with football. He crammed his belongings into his Crown Victoria and drove home to Georgia, to start a new life.

The scholar was at his cousin's graduation, listening to a speech. The coach was at the mic, his crown of gray hair swept perfectly to the side.

The brothers arrived, wild hair growing long down their backs. All the coaches knew about one of them is what they'd gleaned from video.

The transfer had won it all, as the backup quarterback for Alabama. At the BCS title game, confetti collecting on his shoulder pads, he realized that if he was ever to start, he had to start over.

For the past two years, our How to Build a Program in Two Short Years series has documented, online and in print, head coach Bill Curry's efforts to build the Georgia State football program from scratch. On Sept. 2, the Panthers will finally debut, against Shorter College. Curry will be commanding 108 players from the sideline.

This is how eight wound up at his side.

The Dreamer

After the press conference to introduce him as Georgia State's first head coach in June 2008, Curry turns from the podium and meets an extended hand. It does not belong to his athletic director or school president; it is the hand of a freshman, no taller than Curry's shoulders. "Hi, my name's Jamall McMillan. I'm your first player." Then he gives Curry a playbook he's drawn on construction paper. Curry, excited about getting back in the game 12 years after his last head coaching job, at Kentucky, thanks McMillan, tells him he's impressed. He later jokes with some writers that he's just accepted the school's first player.

The next month, on his first day at work, Curry sits to eat a salad in the student cafeteria. He looks up and standing next to him is Jamall. Curry remembers his name. McMillan is the first person ever to show an interest in the coach's new team, and this strikes Curry as special, no matter that Jamall is 5'8" and maybe 165 pounds.

As Curry hires his staff and the bookstore stocks football apparel, McMillan rides the elevator to the ninth floor of the Citizens Trust Bank building in downtown Atlanta nearly every day. He walks through the unmarked door to the program's temporary office, backpack draped over his small shoulders, and says hello to the secretary, who calls him by name. Curry, who's worked with kids most of his life, makes time for the 20-year-old. When Curry isn't there, McMillan walks the hall, sticking his head into the assistants' offices. They stop what they're doing to talk, give advice and rib him for being there so often, sometimes rolling their eyes as he leaves.

Peter Yang for ESPN The MagazineMcMillan (seated) and Aribo aren't giving up on their football dreams.

An aspiring artist who wants to major in graphic design, McMillan makes a binder of renderings for the new uniforms. The AD even considers his sketches for a new school logo. But he isn't a good enough athlete to play, no matter how bad he wants it. He's too small, too slow; he's dreaming if he thinks he'll get on the field. So he wears a suit and tie to the office to look like he means business. He tells anyone who'll listen that he will play, and when the first prospects send highlight tapes, McMillan brings in a home video of himself catching balls and running routes in a gym. Some of the coaches watch it and snicker. Curry never does. "He and I have a brutally honest relationship," Curry says. "I look at him and say, 'Jamall, it doesn't make sense for you to subject your body to this kind of stress with your size and foot speed.' He struggles with every aspect of the game, except that he loves it."

The team holds three open tryouts, and McMillan shows up to them all. He doesn't run great routes. He doesn't make catching passes look easy. But he keeps coming back. When the coaches can't figure out how to dissuade him from playing, they talk to him about their families and how he would make a terrific graphic designer.

In a meeting last year to finalize the walk-on roster spots, Coach Curry sits in his leather chair at the end of the table and says: "Jamall will have a place on this team." But if he wants to be a wideout and not a student-manager or equipment assistant, he must earn it in August, when the Panthers report for their first preseason practices.

The Long Shot

In the silver womb of a C-17 transport plane, Rontaverous Aribo thinks about coming home. He has been in the military three years, often running air transports over Iraq to deliver armored MRAP vehicles, drowning out the hum of the engines with his iPod. During his tour, Aribo sits at Camp Anaconda and takes online classes. When he comes home, he wants to go to college.

In the fall of 2008, his tour over, he enrolls at GSU and sees a flyer tacked to a corkboard: "Georgia State Football Walk-On Tryouts. All participants must register by Oct. 13. No exceptions."

He excelled as a wrestler at Stone Mountain (Ga.) High School and ran track for a state championship team. But football is his love. When he was a senior he was courted as a linebacker by Lane College in Tennessee and Lincoln in Missouri. But his mom was sick with thyroid cancer, so he opted for the military's guaranteed money and sent some of it back to her.

At the tryout at James R. Hallford Stadium, a rented high school field, the GSU staff figures finding someone decent is a long shot, but they bring cones and whistles and gifts of white T-shirts. Aribo, in black gym shorts and cleats, runs the 40 in 4.68. He's 5'10", 205 pounds. And he is a 22-year-old sophomore. "He was an impressive-looking guy," says John Thompson, GSU's defensive coordinator. "He busted his tail. You don't forget."

Aribo earns a spot as a walk-on linebacker, becomes president of his fraternity and even performs a step show at a team mixer thrown at Coach Thompson's house. His teammates hoot and clap. He dances in a hip-hop video a student makes to promote the team. He asks questions during meetings and hosts recruits when they visit town.

"I want that first tackle," Aribo often says. He plans for how it will feel, knows the vision by heart. This past June at the end of a voluntary workout at the Panthers' practice field, he does a backflip after a 100-yard sprint. He can't help himself, because he is so happy -- Mom is in complete remission, he is on course to graduate, and with two years of eligibility left, he has a real chance of starting on special teams. When he lands, he hears a pop in his left foot.

With only three months until the first game, he has torn his left Achilles tendon.

The Project

The house is still decorated for Christmas. It is Jan. 21 in Charleston, S.C., two weeks away from signing day 2009. Eduardo Curry's mom and dad are there, as are his brother and sister. His grandparents too. His aunt, his uncle. Friends of friends, teachers from his school. Everyone is eating barbecue wings and quiche when the famous coach pulls up in a Buick and walks through the front door. Eduardo Curry stands at the edge of his living room, in awe of the man leaning against the fireplace.

"That was the dangdest recruiting visit I've ever made in my life," recalls Coach Curry (no relation). "Everyone was quiet. I talked about the way Eduardo would be treated. Nobody had to sell us on him. We knew that we were going to have to take some players who you see on tape and everyone looks at one another, and says, 'This guy will be a project, but he's got raw ability.'"

That summer, on Aug. 11, most of the Curry family piles into a Suburban for a 300-mile predawn ride to Atlanta. They talk about Coach Curry in the car. "He remembered everyone's names," says Eduardo's mom, Tamara. "He was genuine and unpretentious. We respect him."

At 7:45 a.m., sunlight bounces off blue benches in the dorm's courtyard and sparkles through the windows. Eduardo, a tall, wide teen with perpetual dimples, wipes sweat from his forehead and helps his dad push a laundry bin from the parking garage. Defensive line coach Chris Ward meets them, puts an arm around Curry's broad neck and says, "You made it!"

But at an overweight 6'3", 300 pounds, Eduardo still has a long way to go as a run-stuffing D-lineman. He lollygags through some practice drills, and then, during others, no one can block him. The frustrated coaches bark at him to stay low, keep his feet moving, to go on a diet. "He's a true 3-4 defensive nose tackle, and I still believe he can be a good one," says Coach Thompson. "But Eduardo is learning that there's a whole lot more to college football than showing up and being big. He just hasn't figured out how to do that yet. There's a football player in that body, somewhere."

The Gamer

It's not the kind of surprise Ben Jacoby's dad wants to hear. His son is quitting football and moving from Indiana back to suburban Georgia. Jacoby, a 6'2", 275-pound center, has a full ride to Ball State; his father and former Cardinals head coach Brady Hoke were teammates in college and are good friends. But Hoke left before last season for San Diego State. So, after a 2008 in which he played sparingly, Ben is moving home. He will apply to Georgia Gwinnett College, which is five minutes from the house, and study information technology. "I told him not to quit," Doug Jacoby says. "But he said, 'Dad, I'm coming home.' I said, 'If you give up a scholarship, you can live here, but you're going to pay for your own school.'"

Doug suggests Ben write an e-mail to Mike Riddle, offensive line coach at Georgia State. Doug has heard they are starting a team. The father tells his son that before he quits for good, he might as well meet Coach Curry, a man known for having cared about his players when he was the head man at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky. Ben sets up a meeting with the coaches, not expecting much. At the meeting, Riddle asks him what he still loves about the game. The coach gets the player to open up about what football means to him. "He starts talking about team and camaraderie," says Riddle, "and I see the light still in his eyes." Coach Curry walks into the meeting room, looks the big kid up and down. Neither Curry nor Riddle has seen a highlight tape. Jacoby reiterates that he isn't sure that his future includes football. "Well," Curry says to Jacoby, "I can tell you this: If you don't at least find out you might regret it the rest of your life."

Peter Yang for ESPN The MagazineBill Curry and his team are preparing for their first game ever.

Two days later, Ben calls Riddle to talk; a few months after that, he enrolls at GSU. "I'm such a huge nerd," Jacoby says, leaning in a chair in his unkempt dorm, an Alienware computer monitor glowing in front of him. Describing in detail how to earn the Grand Black War Mammoth in World of Warcraft, Jacoby stops himself and laughs. He could play WoW 15 hours a day; he'd seen Avatar four times in IMAX during one month over the winter; he's just received a box of Naruto Japanese manga novels from Amazon.

Curry now knows Jacoby is also a gamer on the field. He can move quickly off the snap, can transform from a guy who talks about Grand Black War Mammoths into someone who hits like one. He hasn't lost his desire for the game. Everywhere he looks, from the Georgia Dome to the shiny pads in the workout room to the brand-new practice field out by the Marta track, Jacoby sees something that inspires him. Everything is new. He plays nearly every single snap at center during spring practice, and when Curry sees him walking, the coach calls him by his name, not just his number. It feels right.

This April, as the only player with experience on an O-line of freshmen, he earns a plaque that reads: No. 62 Ben Jacoby. Center. Best Offensive Performer, Spring 2010. After the spring game at the Georgia Dome, Jacoby's parents walk toward him on the field. Curry stops them for a moment: "I just want you to know, your son is the savior of our line."

The Scholar

There is only one thing Michael Davis has ever wanted to be. As a 3-year-old, he draws pictures of engines; by the time he's 9 he is reading Motor Trend and visiting a Ford plant in Detroit. His grandfathers were engineers; his mother is too. He grows up in the country a few miles outside of Decatur, Ga., on five acres where his dad makes him walk the horses before dawn with a flashlight to teach him discipline. He wants to study at Georgia Tech. His parents even buy him golden hats and T-shirts; it is decided.

By his sophomore year at Chamblee High, Davis is tall and heavy. He starts to excel as an offensive lineman but still maintains a 4.0 GPA. His senior year, he gets an offer to play for Cornell; he's also been invited to walk on at Tech. He waffles for the first time. In December 2009, his head swimming with possibilities, Davis goes to the Georgia Dome with his family to see a cousin graduate from Georgia State. Coach Curry is delivering the commencement. The family aren't familiar with him, but his speech about perseverance and moments of truth touches them. When it is over, Mike Sr. leans over to his son and says, "Now, this is a man you want to play for."

A couple of months after signing day, with his son still uncommitted, Mike Sr. goes to the GSU football offices to give a highlight tape to the coaches. He sees Curry wheeling his suitcase out the door. Mike Sr. stops him, squeezes his hand and tells him about Michael. A few weeks later, Curry is sitting across from the high school senior. "I looked at his grades and said, 'You're trying to come here?'" Curry says. "I couldn't believe I was meeting a young man like him after signing day. He was the first kid who was actually concerned about the curriculum. We offered him a half-scholarship and told him he could earn the other half."

The Davis family talks about what to do. Mike Sr. has already paid a $250 deposit on the Georgia Tech dorm. Should Michael really give up his dream of being an engineer? He won't be able to get the degree he always wanted, because Georgia State doesn't offer it. In the end, he wants that half-scholarship -- and to play for Curry.

"They're humble. When they arrived they asked if they had to pay for the food. I said, 'No, enjoy. You're on scholarship.'"

"Though he really hadn't been recruited, he could help us," Coach Riddle says. "For his size, he moves his feet well. He has some pretty solid punch to him."

Davis lost 30 pounds in his first three months, down to 295. He's a business major, earning a 3.83 GPA in his first semester and a 4.02 in his second. And he has the other half of that scholarship.

The Brothers

The boys sleep on piles of clothes in the back of their family's Chevy Astro in parking lots around Los Angeles. They share cans of tuna and saltines, brush their teeth at a drinking fountain, wet a washrag at a garage sink and wipe beneath their arms before school. They are raised to believe in God and to pray. After their dad passed away, they drove with their mom to Phoenix before settling in Sierra Vista. They move into low-income housing, sneaking school cafeteria food home to Mom.

Samoan and proud, they grow to be big kids, with long hair, thick arms and dark eyes. They star in the defensive backfield at Buena High. Louie Muasau, older by a year, hits hard and is afraid of no one; his brother Jake is rocket fast.

Louie moves three hours away to play at Phoenix College after high school, while his family still struggles to put food on the table. Without his big brother around, Jake goes astray and is busted selling a small amount of prescription drugs. In the middle of his senior year, Jake faces expulsion as he stands before a panel of teachers and school board members. He tells them, in his soft voice, that he did it only so he and his mother could eat. Two local women, both juvenile probation officers, know Jake and speak on his behalf, asking that he be able to complete his studies at home rather than be expelled and lose his chance before he even has one. The vote is 12-to-1 against expulsion.

With the guidance and tutelage of these women, Jake graduates and enrolls at Phoenix College in 2008, where Louie, after redshirting as a freshman, has become a fierce 235-pound linebacker. Jake also becomes a linebacker, and the Muasaus start side by side for two years. But both brothers are sick with the flu when GSU assistant Chris Ward makes his recruiting rounds in September 2009. He sees film of Louie, but Jake hasn't made a reel yet, so only Louie gets invited for an official visit that December.

All Louie talks about on that trip to Atlanta is Jake. "My brother's better. You need to see him," he keeps saying. Coach Ward and Coach Thompson don't know if Louie is pushing Jake because they're brothers or if he's telling the truth. "Their coach said they were both great," Ward says, "and that they didn't want to leave each other's side. We fell in love with Louie on his visit. He called himself Louie the Lion and had this personality, this long hair -- he brought in something we didn't have. He wanted to be a king, the leader."

When they get tape of Jake from the 2009 season that winter, "everybody's jaws drop," Thompson remembers. "He was a phenomenal player." They call Louie and offer them both spots.

Nine months before the program's debut, the Muasau boys move to Atlanta, where Louie soon takes over the defensive huddle. Players listen to him, because he demands attention. Now 6'1", 243 pounds, Jake is still as fast in person as he is on film. The brothers play side by side, teaching their teammates the Haka dance. In July, Louie is named to the FCS All­Independent Team in Phil Steele's preseason magazine.

"They're humble guys, appreciative," Ward says. "When they first came here, they said, 'Coach, do we have to pay for this food?' And I said, 'No, Louie. Y'all don't have to pay for it. Y'all are on scholarship. Enjoy it.'"

The Transfer

The announcement this June is big news. Star Jackson, a sophomore backup quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide, can no longer play in the shadow of Greg McElroy, who led the team to a national title. Jackson is transferring; he will become a Georgia State Panther.

All spring practice, none of the other GSU QBs -- Kelton Hill, Drew Little or Bo Schlechter, part of the same recruiting class in '09 -- has distinguished himself. "We were starting to get a clearer picture, but nothing was certain," says Coach Bond. "Still, those guys have 75 practices as a Panther. Star has none. They won't roll over."

Jackson picked Alabama because of Nick Saban. He says he thought it would be like playing in the NFL, under a man who'd sent dozens of guys to the league. He wasn't wrong. "Bama is a machine," Jackson says. "You do it like this, and if you don't -- your ass isn't playing."

Peter Yang for ESPN The MagazineBill Curry is excited for his team's first season.

At Alabama, Jackson never backed down during the disciplined practices. He just couldn't unseat McElroy. During the national title game, Jackson stood on the sideline, feeling as if he weren't even there. On the flight home he thought about the upcoming season, imagined that same feeling again. He decided his career at Alabama was over. When he got his championship ring, he gave it to his mom.

As a star at Lake Worth High, in Florida, Jackson had been close to Anthony Midget, then Lake Worth's defensive coordinator and now GSU's defensive backs coach. Midget would sometimes take Jackson home from school or out to eat hot wings. Midget and the head coach, Errick Lowe, remain close friends. When Lowe drops the idea that Jackson wants to transfer, Midget is thrilled. He talks to Jackson, tells him about the new program, describes what it'll be like. But Midget also says that his new coaches will be hard on him. Jackson buys in.

"I watched him play in Alabama's spring game, and in my view, he was the best QB," says Curry, whose roster features 28 transfers, including six from FBS schools. "But I told him that we wouldn't just hand it to him. His response was important to me. He said, 'I know that. I just want a chance to help you build the program you want.' That was exactly the right answer."

The transfer sits on campus, wearing a T-shirt and Stewie Griffin pajama pants. "I'm blue now," he says, referring to his new team color. He can't help but think ahead to that very last game in November, when he will go back to Tuscaloosa as the Panthers take on the Tide.

The brothers live in the same dorm room. They go to class, to the cafeteria, to the bank, to Mary Mac's restaurant -- and people recognize them, the hair and tattoos, the guys from the new football team who look like Troy Polamalu.

The scholar represents the team at the Pigskin Preview in Macon, Ga., in June; Coach Curry has picked him as one of two players most deserving to speak for the Panthers. He wears a navy blazer, khaki pants, a striped tie. He wants to make the coach proud.

The gamer runs as hard as he can. In the spring, with the bees swarming, he stretches, huffing, nose still trickling blood from earlier in practice. "You love it out here?" Curry asks. "Every minute of it," he says.

The project almost gives up. His mom suffers an aneurysm, and he ponders quitting to be with her. It's a choice: Stay or give up -- which is the choice he's always had to make. Be the player they thought he could be or leave.

The long shot walks with crutches, his foot hanging just above the ground in a thick black cast. He has never been injured. The coaches say they want him on the sideline to motivate the team, just as he did when he was healthy. He doesn't know if he wants to play next year.

The dreamer applies, then reapplies, to GSU's graphic design program. His coaches can't believe he doesn't make the cut. Maybe it's not meant to be. But what is? He walks beneath the highway overpass near the sports arena, wearing that same backpack, a muscle T-shirt, his cleats scraping the ground. He's headed to the coaches' office. It feels like home.

Justin Heckert is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.