In football, it can be a minute distinction, the difference between that-sure-didn’t-feel-good and something-is-really-wrong, but Kregg Lumpkin can tell. The story of how he came by that knowledge is not entirely a happy one.
Lumpkin has had the chance twice this season, his final one as a Georgia tailback, to put that knowledge to use. It started in the first game of the year, when he put his hand down to break a fall and broke his thumb instead. That cost him four games.
He returned for the Tennessee game but one week later, against Vanderbilt, had that sinking feeling again.
“I remember everything,” Lumpkin said. “I went through the line. I felt a hit low and then I get hit up high. I got bent awkward. As soon as I was on the ground, I felt a bunch of sharp pain running all the way down my leg, so I thought it was my ankle. I hopped off the field and as soon as I hopped on the bench, that’s when everything started.”
It turned out to be knee and ankle injuries, which ended Lumpkin’s regular season after nine carries and 37 yards. He has missed seven games and been limited to special teams duty in two more this year.
“I thought, ‘Why me? Why at this time?’” Lumpkin said. “Sometimes you just have to go along with the punches you know, keep fighting back. That’s what I’m doing know, just keeping my faith in God, keeping my strong family around me. I’ve just got to keep fighting toward my goal.”
Lumpkin will return to the No. 4 Bulldogs’ active lineup on Tuesday when Georgia (10-2) takes on No. 10 Hawaii (12-0) in the Sugar Bowl in the Louisiana Superdome. It seems sadly appropriate that Lumpkin is nursing a hamstring injury this week, but his knee and ankle are near full strength, and he will be ready to play against the Warriors, head coach Mark Richt said.
Lumpkin, who will be the third-string tailback behind Knowshon Moreno and Thomas Brown, will not play due to sentiment, Richt said, but running backs coach Tony Ball isn’t certain he can keep his feelings for Lumpkin out of the equation completely.
“Obviously, he’s done a great deal for the program, and, in my mind, in my heart, that will be a thought process, but I also have to ask myself, ‘Where are we in executing the game plan?’” Ball said.
Lumpkin wants a chance to get on the field to prove to himself, and to NFL talent evaluators, that he has made a full recovery from his injuries.
“I’m playing for my teammates, trying to help them for next year, but also for myself, trying to prove to myself that I am capable and ready to play at the next level if given the chance to,” he said.
Lumpkin knows he’ll probably be tagged as “injury-prone” by NFL teams, and he’s eager for a chance to silence any doubters.
“If you go in free agency and you get a chance, you just have to prove yourself again,” he said, “start at the bottom and work your way up.”
Lumpkin looked like a sure-fire NFL back when he came to the Bulldogs out of Stephenson High School. He was rated one of the top high school running backs in the country and became Georgia’s starter by the end of his freshman season. He started the Capital One Bowl that year and racked up 27 carries for 90 yards and a touchdown. That game still stands as his career-high in carries.
If Lumpkin doesn’t find a home in pro football, he has a backup plan. He has earned two degrees, in housing and consumer economics.
“He has been a tremendous example of what a student athlete should look like,” Richt said. “I remember during two-a-days he talked about how important (education) was to him and his family in front of the whole team.”
Lumpkin hopes his career has set an example for his teammates in two ways, he said.
“It was very important just to be able to go back out there and wear the G on my head again and play for my teammates, show my teammates that you can bounce back from injury, any adversity you have, you can bounce back from it,” Lumpkin said. “If there’s one thing they can look up to me (for), it’s that. I’ve fought through injuries, an up-and-down career and also I graduated.”
As Lumpkin prepares to leave school, Richt has found himself comparing the running back to former quarterback D.J. Shockley, who faced obstacles in his playing career with a similar attitude.
“When football is over for (Lumpkin), he’s going to do great,” Richt said. “He was brought up right, and I think his experience at Georgia helped too. He’s just a really fine example of what you want here.”