The headlines will all read that Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings is returning from a two-game suspension, but for the former Westside star it’s been more like an eight-month sentence since his arrest Jan. 21.
Eight months of having his name linked to the phrase “domestic violence” in the media. Eight months of whispers and speculation as his reputation for being a hard worker and soft-spoken guy got shredded by a police report that garnered instant judgment in the court of public opinion.
“That was the biggest punishment – what I had to go through off the field, what I put my family through, all of that,” Commings said Tuesday in his first interview after his suspension was finally lifted. “Missing the games, that was probably the easiest part of the punishment.”
Commings, who started every game last season for the Bulldogs and was tied for fourth on the team with 55 tackles, was arrested on the morning of Jan. 21 on charges of domestic violence and simple battery after police said he hit a woman in downtown Athens.
His friends who were there painted a different picture of the altercation – that the woman who had lived with Commings initiated the contact by grabbing him and he tried to shove her hand away. But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that he’s a 215-pound football player involved in a physical altercation with a woman.
Commings easily could have been dismissed from the Georgia team as many other players have been since coach Mark Richt’s tolerance for off-field transgressions has grown thinner. But Richt listened to Commings’ side and felt strongly that his senior cornerback warranted a second chance.
“I’ll just say that I think Sanders, after listening to everything and hearing everything, I felt like he did deserve to stay on the team,” Richt said. “He needed to be disciplined for what he did. The amount of time that he was suspended was appropriate. It’s one thing to miss a game, and that hurts them. They don’t like it.
“But also part of the punishment is what you have to live with as a person because of all the attention that it gets. You have to look your parents in the eye. You have to look your teammates and coaches in the eye. You have to go to class. There is a lot of embarrassment to what happens when everything comes to light and is talked about over and over and over. He certainly didn’t behave the way he should, and he’s paid his debt to society, he’s paid his debt to the program, in my opinion. I’m glad he’s handled everything the way he’s handled it, and I think he’ll move forward and be a positive person and a positive teammate.”
Commings pleaded guilty as a first-time offender in March on misdemeanor charges of simple battery and disorderly conduct. He received 12 months’ probation, was fined $200 plus surcharges, and ordered to serve 40 hours of community service and undergo substance abuse and anger management counseling.
Commings had to go through all the hard work day after day through the spring and the preseason only to watch his team start his senior season without him.
“It’s been tough, but at the same time I’ve just been patiently waiting and practicing hard and making sure I’m ready for when I finally got to come back,” he said.
That he returns to a team that went 2-0 while he and three other defensive starters were suspended left him more relieved than disappointed that he wasn’t a part of it. He said the reserves who filled in “played lights out.”
“I would have felt really down if we had lost and I could have contributed,” he said.
He’ll return to the lineup Saturday night when the Bulldogs play Florida Atlantic, but what role he’ll play in the secondary that could use his experience at corner and safety hasn’t been determined.
“I think he’s ready,” Richt said. “He’s in good condition, and he stayed focused. He worked hard, but you only get so much work once you get into the game planning of the opponents. You have to rep the guys who are going to play, so he hasn’t had a whole lot of reps. So we’ll see what kind of rust there is.”
Commings insists there isn’t any rust.
“I don’t feel any more or less prepared than if I’d played the last two Saturdays,” he said.
There were rumors last week that Commings might have his suspension shortened, but he said his appeal for a reduction was too late and would have sent the wrong message if he’d returned for a critical Southeastern Conference opener at Missouri.
“There was a chance, but we didn’t want it to seem like I was coming back just so we would win,” Commings said. “If they had flipped it the last second, it would have seemed like I was coming back just to ensure we’d win, rather than if I had done it months ago.”
For now, Commings said his coaches have forgiven him for his mistake and that “it’s over and done with and we’re moving forward.”
“It was a learning experience and now I’ve just got to move forward,” he said. “I’ve learned that I need to put myself around people that bring the best out of me.”
He chose to confront it with reporters at the first opportunity Tuesday as the last step toward a fresh beginning.
“You can’t run forever,” he said. “You might as well just get it over with.”
Now all that’s left is getting back on the field between the hedges at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night.
“I’m just anxious more than anything,” he said. “I’m not trying to go out there and show off. I’m just trying to do what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here: work hard in practice and go out and execute on Saturdays.”
After eight months in purgatory, it’s the best scenario Commings could expect.