Pat Douglas -- an Augusta financial advisor and former Aquinas star -- was the first scholarship player and Geolone senior among 98 freshmen on Erk Russell's start-up team at Georgia Southern in 1982. The Eagles will honor Russell's "original runt" along with former national champion coach Paul Johnson and five others in Class of 2010 induction ceremonies this weekend in Statesboro, Ga.
"It means a whole lot because those memories we have there are unbelievable and it's kind of like going home when we go back there," said Douglas of the school he and his wife, Maggie, attended and where one of his sons, John, is currently following in his football footsteps. "We're appreciative of everything Georgia Southern did for us and is still doing for the Douglas family."
Douglas certainly did his part as the first Georgia Southern football captain to help establish the "Gnat Pack" that laid the foundation for one of the most storied programs in Division I-AA. In one season as a player and three more as an assistant coach, he set the example for those freshmen to look up to as they became national champions in four short years. He epitomized one of Russell's rallying slogans -- "Runts try harder."
"I wasn't any runtier than the rest of them," Douglas said.
"In essence he was hand selected by Erk Russell to be the 'original runt' -- the guy he wanted as the first team captain and the guy he wanted the future Eagle players to model themselves after," said Randy Griffin, the program's first punter. "Tracy Ham, Gerald Harris, all the other Eagle greats that followed got to see how you act, how you treat people, from Pat. Chemistry on a team is something coaches dream of. Pat's primary job that he did very well was to set that tone for team chemistry."
Douglas was recruited by Georgia among others while at Aquinas before blowing out an ankle in the second game of his senior prep season. He ended up walking on at Georgia instead and was relegated to the scout team for three years, including the 1980 national championship team.
But when he heard that Georgia Southern was restarting its dormant program and that the legendary Bulldogs defensive coach might be taking over, Douglas was keen to transfer.
"I thought if coach Russell goes I'm going to go," Douglas said. "I had coaching aspirations, too, and thought I could go there and play out my eligibility and stay on there as a coach and see how the program was built."
Russell gave Douglas his first football scholarship to play safety and return punts. He led the team in interceptions (6) and was fourth in tackles (48), but it was his experience and role as captain that offered the Eagles the most.
"I think Erk knew what kind of person he was and what kind of character and work ethic he had and I'm sure he felt that that was a great foundation to build a program with," said Johnson, now the Georgia Tech head coach who roomed with Douglas on the road when they served as assistants together.
"He was a natural leader and someone everyone rallied around in those early days," said Jay Russell, Erk's son who was a graduate assistant on the first Eagles team. "Dad used to say when he had tryouts that there were 150 of the worst athletes he'd ever seen. Pat was a cut above most of them."
It was a role that came naturally to Douglas.
"I knew I would have a leadership role, already knowing the defense that coach Russell was going to run," he said. "I kind of felt like I was a little bit of a coach on the field when we started it up. That was a lot of fun working with the younger guys, teaching, coaching, motivating and stuff."
Taking coach down
Dusting off memories of the experience 28 years later, Douglas remembers mostly the enjoyment of being part of something brand new.
"It was such a fun time with a great group of guys," he said. "Not sure in a lot of situations that kids have as much fun playing college football nowadays as they used to."
He jokes about the time he and Johnson once found and drank the six-pack of beer Russell had left to chill in the snow in Northern Iowa.
Then there was the time he repaid Russell's confidence in him by knocking out the coach's teeth.
Shortly before Georgia Southern's first season opener, an ABC-TV crew came to Statesboro to report a segment on small- college football and the program Russell was building from scratch.
During practice, Russell moved between offense and defense. He had a habit of picking a weed to chew on while he was thinking. He picked a bad time to do it as Douglas was in a back-pedaling drill.
"I was backing up as fast as I could and all of the sudden I felt this round hard thing on the small of my back," Douglas said of the collision with his coach's bald head.
"I turn around and coach Russell is sprawled out. I started to walk over and he's on all fours and shaking his head all woosy. I see a couple of teeth in the grass and blood coming out of his mouth. I was just put on scholarship and thinking, 'I have laid out Big Bad Erk.' "
Russell waved off a helping hand from Douglas and told him to get back to work. That's what the coach did as well instead of going to the hospital to get checked out. After finishing practice, Russell called his team together for what is now called a teachable moment.
"We always tell y'all to be alert and pay attention on the football field," Russell said through his broken and bloodied teeth. "Anytime you start to loaf or daydream or not give it 100 percent of your focus something bad can happen. And it happened to me. Let me be an example."
Then Russell did his interview with the TV crew before getting treatment.
"He did tease me the next day," Douglas said. "He said, 'Douglas, I spent three hours in the dentist's chair last night because of you.' "
After graduating, Douglas pursued his coaching desires. He spent three years as a graduate assistant, long enough to be the secondary coach on the Eagles' first Division I-AA championship team in 1985. It was more than he expected was possible when he followed Russell there just four years earlier.
"There's no way anybody could have fathomed building that kind of monster in that record speed," Douglas said.
Despite learning from Russell and alongside Johnson, Douglas veered from the coaching life once he and Maggie had the first of their nine children.
"My wife and I really wanted to have a large family," said Douglas, who had four brothers and a sister growing up.
"We thought coaching and the moving around and not being real certain where you'd be from year to year, maybe I ought to look into doing something else. So I got into selling stocks."
The Douglases have six boys who still carry on the family football legacy.
John, the oldest, transferred from Auburn to finish his college career at Georgia Southern. Denis and Brendan currently play at Aquinas, while 11-year-old Joseph serves as water boy for the Fighting Irish and 6-year-old Kevin is the last in line.
Lincoln County's legendary coach Larry Campbell asked Maggie how many more they had after Brendan rushed for 153 yards against his Red Devils.
"I wouldn't care if I never saw another Douglas boy," quipped Campbell. "They're all tough as nails."
Now the Georgia Southern original has the Hall of Fame credentials to prove it.