The Georgia football team was dealing with some injuries prior to the National Championship Game, but success and pain sometimes go hand-in-hand.
Georgia football fans knew how crucial it was having both wide receiver Ladd McConkey and tight end Darnell Washington on the field Monday for the National Championship game.
The questions persisted all week leading up to the game. Would McConkey, Washington, and others be able to go? After a nervy wait, once both made it onto the field at SoFi you could hear thousands of collective sighs of relief from Bulldogs fans.
And what a difference these two players made to the team and to the end result.
Georgia football is everything to guys like Ladd McConkey
Ladd McConkey’s importance to the Bulldogs was clear heading into this game. Prior to the championship game, the Sophomore from Chatsworth, Georgia had 53 catches for 674 yards and 5 touchdowns along with rushing for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Outside of tight end wunderkind Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey had become Stetson Bennett’s go-to guy.
And him making the National Championship game was essential for Georgia. In a sensational first half, Ladd had 4 catches for 74 yards and two touchdowns. In the end, McConkey finished the National Championship Game with five catches for 88 yards and 2 touchdowns. Not bad for a player who was nursing injuries in both knees.
The Georgia medical staff confirmed to ESPN that McConkey had been battling a sprained MCL in his left knee and a bone bruise in his right knee. Neither of these injuries was inconsequential and could easily have kept Georgia’s best wide receiver out of the game.
Except they didn’t.
The news that McConkey was on the field was music to Kirby Smart and everyone else associated with Georgia football. However, it wasn’t until after the game that the extent to which McConkey’s sacrifice became evident.
ESPN’s Holly Rowe reported the extent to which McConkey’s injuries were restricting him and what was required to get him onto the field and participate.
"“He said he’s been doing a ton of rehab and therapy, but he does take a pain-management shot before the game. So part of their plan is to go to him early because that can wear of in the early stages of the game”"
Given Rowe’s comments it was unsurprising that the vast majority of McConkey’s production came in the first half.
Darnell Washington is the epitome of a Georgia football warrior
Darnell Washington’s place in the team was a mystery right up until the final moments. The dual tight end scheme that Georgia operates is no secret, so the importance of having the big man from Las Vegas was paramount to Georgia’s success.
Washington picked up a left ankle injury in the Peach Bowl against Ohio State. He did not practice ahead of traveling to Los Angeles and was limited in reps ahead of the game.
Head coach Kirby Smart spoke passionately about the role that Washington played against the Horned Frogs.
"“he (Darnell) played selflessly last night,” said Smart. ” Not a lot of throws targeted for Darnell. It was blocking and covering people up. And that part will always hold a special place in my heart for the sacrifices he made for our team”."
Two things jumped off the page from this quote. First is that it is unusual for Kirby Smart to be so emotional about his players openly and publicly. However Smart and Georgia had just achieved something no other Dawgs team had ever done before. They made history.
Secondly, this is a special team. There are no divas or superstars. This is not a team that lives on social media or spends its time in the public eye. Kirby Smart has garnered a rare breed in this new climate of College football, where some players are more interested in where the next NIL deal is coming from. You don’t hear that talk around Athens.
But this is not the first time that Darnell has played through the pain barrier. against Missouri earlier in the season, Washington dislocated his shoulder but refused to be taken out of the game. In the SEC Championship game as he was subject to some rough treatment from the LSU Tigers. On both occasions, wild horses couldn’t keep Washington from going back into the game.
“I had to suck it up – it was the last game of the season. I had to come out and do what I had to do”, Washington told Fox News on the field after the game.
Asked about what it takes to repeat the National Championship victory from last season, Washington was at pains to talk about the hard work it takes to be back-to-back Champions.
“It’s as tough as hell. It comes with lots of preparation – lots of summer workouts, lots of winter workouts, whatever it may be. It’s a long journey”.
One awesome side story to come out of the Championship game was that Darnell’s mom made it to SoFi Stadium to see him play for the first time. She wasn’t able to see her son play in the Peach Bowl but made it to Los Angeles.
Playing for each other, their head coach, and the Georgia football program is what this team does. The sign of a truly great team is the selfishness that they collectively provide for the common good. And this Georgia side has it in bucket loads.
Of course, this is a culture that Kirby Smart and his coaching staff have instilled. This means that the next crop of young talent observes what brings success to Athens and buys into it. They copy. This is good. The future is bright.
But let’s not forget the sacrifices that the current group of players gave. They are legends.