ATHENS, Ga. --- The flags outside the athletics department offices at the University of Georgia were flying at half staff on Wednesday, a seemingly appropriate tone for a Bulldog Nation losing two of its biggest football stars prematurely.
The simultaneous decisions by junior quarterback Matthew Stafford and redshirt sophomore running back Knowshon Moreno to forfeit their remaining eligibility to chase the dream of playing in the NFL were not the real reason the flags were lowered. The passing of former U.S. attorney general Griffin Bell triggered the statewide tribute.
It was nonetheless that kind of somber mood that surrounded the expected announcement of two of the Bulldogs' biggest football stars -- at least until the two young men entered the auditorium to face the cameras and make it official. Moreno, dressed sharply in a light gray suit with a salmon pink necktie and handkerchief, and Stafford, likewise sartorially resplendent in dark blue with a red tie and handkerchief, were beaming in their professional attire.
"This is by far the best I've ever seen them look," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was sitting between his two former stars wearing the usual dark gray coaching sweatshirt over a red turtleneck.
First Moreno, then Stafford said their thanks and stated their peace with the "tough" decisions to move on. They called playing in the NFL "lifelong dreams" which will become reality in April after the draft. They called playing in front of Georgia's fans a blessing. They promised to return someday to get their degrees.
"Any team will do well to take them as high on the board as you can," Richt said. "Trade up for them."
You can say what you want about school loyalty and the collegiate experience and sticking around to fulfill championship aspirations, but these choices were in fact no-brainers. Anyone of us would and should have done the same thing. It would have been negligent to choose otherwise. Both young men are ready for the next level. Sticking around another season in Sanford Stadium would endanger their opportunities as much as they might enhance them.
Stafford filled out the paperwork to get an assessment from NFL Draft experts, and the consensus was that he will be a first-round pick. Some have speculated as high as No. 1 overall.
"I know this is the right decision for me," said the Southeastern Conference's leading passer last season. "I know I'm ready for it."
Moreno neglected to fill out his paperwork in time, and as such made his decision on faith that the SEC's leading rusher will be one of the best running backs in the draft mix. His confidence won't be proven wrong.
"I don't think Shon really thought about the paperwork," said his mother, Varashon McQueen. "One thing for sure is the paper didn't impact his decision."
The reason Moreno's choice was so sound is that running backs typically have the shortest career expectancy. It's rare for a top-shelf tailback to remain productive past the age of 30. Moreno will turn 22 before training camp and he got the benefit of a redshirt season to maintain his health, so the quicker he leaves the more prime earning potential he has.
"Like Stafford said, I only have so many hits in me," Moreno said.
We can make educated guesses, but there's no telling how good these two talented players might be at the next level. So much will depend on circumstances. There's a chance that Stafford could ended up getting the call from winless Detroit, where it will take much more than him throwing to former Georgia Tech superstar Calvin Johnson to make the perennially woeful Lions a contender. There's no way to predict yet where Moreno might go or how soon he'll get a chance to prove himself.
It's almost as hard assessing their legacies at Georgia. In the three seasons since they both arrived on campus, the Bulldogs never won the SEC East, never played in the conference championship game and never got the chance to win a national title that some expected of them. They never got to play behind a healthy and experienced offensive line. They never got the benefit of some of the Bulldogs' greatest defenses (as David Greene and D.J. Shockley did).
On the other hand, they produced consecutive 10-win seasons, won an electrifying game against Florida last year, won a Sugar Bowl and led Georgia to its highest season-ending ranking (No. 2) since the 1980 national championship season and the school's first-ever preseason No. 1 ranking.
"I think what they've done is very significant here," said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. "It's a credit to those guys what they were able to do."
Both players insisted that they have no regrets about the team goals they didn't accomplish under the circumstances they were dealt.
"It's been a journey," Moreno said.
"I had an outstanding time here at Georgia," Stafford said.
And Richt said that Georgia got what it expected out of two of the finest athletes to ever play their positions between the hedges. Those benefits will continue even after they're gone.
"When guys like this come out of our program and have success, it bodes well for the whole program," Richt said.
So, despite the disappointment fans have that two of the best won't be leading the effort to unseat Florida in 2009, there's no reason to mourn their loss or curse their missed opportunities. Stafford and Moreno gave Georgia all they had, and this is a reward they richly earned.
Moreno's mother may have said it best.
"Today is like a holiday," McQueen said. "He's on a new mission. We all are."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.