No one really knew much about Danny Ware until Danny Ware figured a lot of things out for himself. Ware was shoved into the spotlight in early August when sophomore Kregg Lumpkin, the presumed starting tailback for Georgia's highly anticipated 2004 team, went down for the season with a torn ACL.
"Lump was like my role-dog, my mentor," said Ware of Lumpkin moments after the injury in a post-practice clutter of reporters. "He was teaching me the ropes as he was learning, too. I'm just going to try and take it in stride, try to go out and play hard, and do my best and learn a little bit on my own now."
Ware was on his own, again. But this time he was alone at the top of the Georgia depth chart rather than in the obscurity of a Virginia military prep school.
Ware was supposed to be in the same recruiting class as Lumpkin, but he took a different road to Georgia. Ware did not qualify academically and was forced to play one season of prep school football at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Ware – having to go to Hargrave. He thought he would be in Athens for the fall of 2003, but instead he was playing football in small stadiums in middle-of-nowhere, Virginia.
"It was hard for him, but he was determined to do what he needed to do to get to Georgia," said Ware's mother Tammy. "That was his dream, to be at Georgia."
Ware's mother described him as "a little dynamo on the field." She said: "He'd get that ball and just run his little heart out. He was always full of energy."
Although Ware no longer keeps in touch with anyone from Hargrave, his semester spent in Virginia did give him some valuable experience. On the football field he rushed for 653 yards on 56 carries with four touchdowns. And in the classroom, he finally made the grade to make it to Athens.
"Hargrave was an eye opener for me. I never would have thought I would have had to go up there. If you would have asked me a year and a half ago I would have said I was going to Georgia. But everything didn't work out like that. It made me work harder to get there. I wouldn't want to go through it again, but I understand what it did for me. They prepared me for the SAT and got me ready."
Ware dodged the question about going back to visit Hargrave by saying: "That's a long drive."
"If he wasn't here in the spring and through mat drills it would be difficult for him to be the starter," said Richt before the Georgia Southern game. "We'd be excited about what we thought he could do, but not ready to move him into that kind of a role. I think that's made a huge difference for him."
"He has handled it all very well," said Richt of the newcomer's transition from no name to starter. "Danny is not your typical true freshman – he went to prep school for a semester and played in a very tough league. The speed of the game for him was not as bad. There is a bigger difference between high school and Hargrave than between Hargrave and Georgia."
"He came to us at Christmas break," Richt continued, "and did some bowl practice with us; he got all of spring ball; and he got all of our conditioning program. He had a lot of work in practices – he didn't miss any practices."
Ware, admittedly, should have known better than to wait so long to make certain of his academic acceptance to Georgia. He grew up in Rockmart, a small town near Rome. It's a community that is saddled with many problems. And, according to Ware, it's a place where many people have wasted opportunities before him.
"I had family members that should have come to college, but either had babies and changed their mind about going to school, or, got in trouble and went to jail," Ware said.
"There are running backs in my family (deep breath) that could run so well," he said painfully of those from his hometown that did not make good on their talents. Ware did not intend to fall into the same trap; he didn't – exactly. But he did wind up at Hargrave, not at Georgia where he wanted to be. He wound up there because he didn't realize he was not going to qualify until it was too late.
"I thought I had it taken care of; I thought I was doing everything I could to keep my grades right," said Ware of his final semester at Rockmart. He also said those surrounding him, specifically the administration, teachers, and coaches at Rockmart did not make him aware of his academic shortcomings in time to correct them.
"They told me: ‘You're going to be good; you'll be alright.' They told me I was on the right path, and everything was looking good," he said disappointedly.
"I was going in after school for study halls, and going in before school to do extra work, but it didn't work out," he said.
Begrudgingly, Ware headed north, past Athens, to Virginia. At Hargrave he took it upon himself to make certain he qualified academically. He wanted no more of Hargrave than he had to take; he wanted to be in Athens, but he knew his ticket back to Georgia meant marching in military formations early in the morning and academic work other times of the day.
But marching wasn't the only thing Ware learned to do in Virginia. He also broadened his skills as a running back. Ware, originally recruited by Georgia as a fullback, impressed the Georgia coaches with the tailbacking skills he learned at Hargrave during the team's annual spring drills. Ware was thought to be an extraordinarily skilled fullback who could be used as a powerful lead blocker, pass receiver, and blitz pick up man.
Surprised a little, Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt quickly saw last spring it would be a mistake to leave Ware at fullback all the time. Injuries sped up Ware's amount of repetitions in the spring, which positioned him to make a charge for the starting tailback spot in the fall.
"He's a great one-back set type of back. We had him pegged as a one-back/fullback when we recruited him because we knew he was a physical guy and we thought he would grow into about what he looks like now. But when he arrived he had better tailback skills than I thought he had. He probably had a lot of those skills before going to Hargrave, but I am sure he honed his skills in Virginia," said the head coach.
After Lumpkin's ACL injury, as well as sophomore Michael Cooper and junior Tony Milton's continuing struggles with nagging injuries, Ware asserted himself as starter mid-way through Georgia's fall camp.
"When everybody was hurt, Thomas (Brown) had the pulled hamstring and Cooper with his Achilles," said Ware. "It was me and Tyson (Browning), and then he hyper-extended his knee. I looked around and was like, ‘Well, I'm the only one here right now.' I imagined I was in a game and that happened. I just tried to step up and lead the team by myself."
Ware arrived in Athens with three other players in December of 2003, just before the 2004 Capital One Bowl. A.J. Bryant, one of three that arrived early, said Ware's leadership was the thing he noticed that changed the most from December to now.
"He has always been a great guy from the time I first met him, but he just changed into a whole different person as far as on and off the field (in terms of leadership). I think it's because he knew he had to play. The team had to depend on him to run the rock. That changed him," Bryant said.
"I love the opportunity that I got, because they put me in at number one right now," said Ware at an August practice. "I'm definitely ready to try and step in, to make some improvements, try to be the first 100 yard rusher. I'm just going to take it one game at a time and see how it goes."
Ware felt certain he was the right choice to replace his injured teammate, because he and Lumpkin are very similar players.
"I just think that we two are the same runners, really," said Ware. "We both have the same style, both powerful, bruising runners – got a little speed on us, too. I feel like I'm his twin coming in. I just hope to do a little bit more."
But Ware didn't make good on that promise – instead of a little more, the true freshman has done a lot more. He's done more than any other Georgia tailback in the past two years. He ran for over 100 yards in one game – no one did that before him, and no one accomplished that while he was gone. Georgia's first 100-yard rusher in more than a year pounded Georgia Southern for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries.
"It's a monkey off our back that we don't have to hear about now," said Richt of Ware's 100-yard performance after the game.
Tailback U. found itself another running back that day.
"I wasn't surprised by (his performance)," said Richt after the Bulldog win. "I thought Danny would run well. One thing I learned about him was as the game went on: He may not have gotten stronger, but he may have stayed stronger than the rest of the guys playing around him. I thought he broke tackles even better as the game went on."
"We condition so much and my engine keeps running and running," said Ware. I guess that's because I'm young. As the game goes on I try to improve and go harder and harder. I try to fight through the fatigue," he said.
"I'm like Bo Jackson; I like to run over you," said Ware. "I can step to the side and get away from you, but I really prefer just to run over you. Weighing 218 and running a 4.4, I figure I probably feel like about 315 pounds when I hit you."
Some are already comparing Ware to Georgia great Herschel Walker, but the freshman says, although flattering, the comparison is way off.
"I listen to what people say, but I don't get caught up in it. I'm only as good as I practice and work. I want to be known as a Herschel Walker-type running back, but comparing us right now I can't do that. If it comes down to me coming close to being the type of runner he was – that's great. I would love that. I would like to talk with him just about how to handle the pressure and about running techniques, but I haven't met him yet."
"I've seen highlights of (Walker). He can make people miss, and he can outrun people. I saw him just run over one guy and it just rolled the guy up and Herschel kept going," Ware said.
Ware's talk of Walker and his achievements while in Athens leads to the question of cockiness. It's a valid question.
"I am a little cocky, but you have to be cocky. People can go out there and intimidate you. I am not going to say I am as cocky as David Pollack," said Ware as he smiled.
All the recognition that goes along with being the star running back is new for Ware, but his friends have not quite caught on to that yet either.
"People were calling me during the game as they were watching it," said Ware. "They were saying: ‘pick up the phone'," he said as he laughed. "They were all friends from back home that were watching the game. We turn off our cell phones before we get to the stadium."
Despite his brilliant offensive performance in Georgia's opener against Georgia Southern, Ware had a rather unselfish response when asked if he would rather run for 135 yards or protect his quarterback.
"I never knew what was going to happen," said Ware of his shot up the depth chart to eventual starting status. "I just knew I wanted to come over here and get in the mix immediately and try to help the team."
"I've seen him for the last six months, or so, and I know what he can do. I knew he was going to be a good back. It was not a surprise to me," senior quarterback David Greene said.
If Ware had any problems making the grade at Rockmart, it didn't carry over to the football field in Athens. The freshman learned quickly what was most important in the Bulldogs' offense.
He talked about making certain he was blocking properly in Georgia's offense, and how important it was to the way the Bulldogs attack opposing defenses.
"It's 100% [most important]," said Ware. "If you don't block, you won't play. That's it. I feel good about the blocking. I'm just trying to put it all together; have a good running game and a good blocking game."
"Greene and (D.J.) Shockley both are just very professional in their work," said Ware. "I think they're both perfectionists. They like to get everything done perfect. They work with me and help me out and tell me if I mess up on anything they make sure I know what I've done, to get it right for the next play, the next series. If we give them time, they can go out there and pick anybody apart. I'm that confident in both of them."
The freshman admitted picking up the nuances of the tailback's responsibilities in protecting the quarterback was a difficult thing to do.
"Personally, I thought it was about the hardest thing in the world," he said. "Coach Bobo sat down with me and talked with me and just explained what everything was. When we started scrimmaging, he'd do walk-throughs with me and the quarterback. It helped me out a lot. Everything started being a lot clearer and easier."
"I don't mind blocking at all," said Ware. "It's very important, because if we don't block and the quarterback gets killed then we don't have anything. We can't have an offense without a quarterback, so blocking is really the number one thing to do."
"Playing linebacker [in high school] probably got me as physical as I am, but I hated playing linebacker," said Ware. "I wanted to do anything to help my team, so I tried to be a perfectionist. The linebacker mentality, I bring that to the table at running back now. Instead of being a back my whole life I bring more depth to my resume."
Even before the rest of the national media caught on to Ware's skills at tailback, ESPN's Trev Alberts was impressed with the way Ware handled himself during fall camp when the network visited for practice before the start of the season. Alberts pointed out early and often that Ware very much looked the part of a dominant SEC running back.
Ware's performance against Georgia Southern did little to dispute Alberts' claim.
But even though he grabbed a lot of attention after the Bulldogs' 48-28 win, the struggle was not over for Ware.
Eight carries and 41 yards into his first ever conference game, Ware left the field with a bruised lung. He attempted to enter the game after being taken out, but was not allowed because he coughed up blood on the sideline. By the end of the game Ware was in street clothes, and was forced to watch the Bulldogs struggle past South Carolina 20-16. Cooper and Browning filled in for Ware and gave good effort all night, but Ware gave Richt something Browning and Cooper couldn't: the ability to have one player in the game that was equal in running in between the tackles as well as protecting the quarterback in blitzing situations. It is something Richt has been wanting from his tailbacks since Musa Smith left.
"He's the type of back you fear the most," said South Carolina Head Coach Lou Holtz. "Georgia has always had great backs; they have always been very productive with their backs, but they have not been the breakaway type of back that Ware is. It's just another weapon Richt has."
Ware was disappointed after the game. It seemed that he knew the struggle the team would have without him; after all he had just witnessed it. But he was disappointed for himself as well; and understandably so. After the struggle to get everything in place to be in Athens, Ware's long road had another sharp curve in it.
He described watching from the sidelines as "difficult".
"It was tearing me up. I wanted to get out there and help my team. I wanted to go to war with them. Not being able to play hurt me," he said.
"I was sitting on the sideline biting my nails wishing I could get in," Ware said of watching the Bulldogs struggle on offense against South Carolina and Marshall. "I wanted to tell coach: ‘I am going to suit up; go ahead and put me in.' I wanted to help the team as much as I could, but I had to suck it up and realize there wasn't anything I could do. I had to let the injury heal up. I had to trust in the team to get the job done."
And they did; the Bulldogs struggled offensively, but still managed to get to 3-0 just in time for Ware to come back to play against defending national champions LSU, a game he called "one where everyone looks at you to see what you can do."
Even though Ware was hurt early in the season, he's doesn't think about getting hurt again. "I'm not nervous about getting hurt again. I know I have to go practice hard. If I get nervous, then maybe I'll tense up and get hurt again."
Danny's parents Tammy and Danny, Sr. have been watching him for a long time. Unlike many children in Rockmart, Ware was raised by two parents. He attributes his success thus far to being raised by both parents rather than one.
"Growing up I had it good because I had both my parents in my life," he said. "They pushed me to strive to be the best. They made me work harder than everyone else growing up. I guess that's why I work so hard now. My dad would never let me quit, and my mom got on to me telling me that I can't be a quitter."
"I knew kids growing up that didn't even have either parent in their life. You need both. I guess some people get by with one, but I think it's better when you have both in your life. You can get perspective from both sides. You can have a father figure to push you and make you work; and you know you need your mamma's love."
"It was a positive influence for him," said Danny's mother Tammy. "Even kids who have both parents, maybe one of them isn't really in the picture or steps back most of the time. It was a positive experience for him to have both of us around."
Ware said he missed his parents greatly while he was in Virginia. He went home often this summer to visit with them. It was nice for the family to be united again, but although Ware's parents loved seeing him, they were worried something negative could happen while Danny was visiting Rockmart. The student-athlete soon agreed; he understood why.
"I went home a lot this summer to see my momma and daddy. I went home to relax. I don't miss home as much – it's not as bad as it was. I went home so much then because I started off at Hargrave, and I missed the time at home. Now, I'm so close I can go home any time I want to."
"I just try to stay away now because there's a little bit of trouble back home. My parents want me to stay away from it, and I think I had better do that. They want the best for me, so to stay away from home, and stay out of trouble, away from the drug dealers and the shootings – that's all that's going on back home."
"There really wasn't anyone here, and I just wanted to get home and see some familiar faces that I knew – to see people that I knew I could talk to," said Ware
"He was torn," said Ware's mother. "He wanted to be in Athens, but he wanted to be home, too. One time he asked me ‘Momma, why don't you just move to Athens so you can be closer to me?' I guess he was just like any other child their first time being away from home. He just wanted both."
A move was not practical. Ware is learning to grow up on his own in an environment that is not familiar to him. No one in his family has gone to college. It's an accomplishment and a challenge Ware takes to heart.
"I am the first one," he said pausing to take a moment, "to come to college. I know I have got to get done everything I am supposed to do both on and off the field."
When Richt talks about Ware not being a "true" freshman, this is what makes the head coach believe that. Ware understands because of his mistakes, as well as those people that have made mistakes around him, that it is his responsibility to himself, as well as his family, to do the best he can at Georgia. His struggle to get there has been too great to let himself or his family down.