ATHENS, Ga. — When your job, play after play after play, is to get pushed and slammed by at least two 300-pound guys, pain generally comes with the territory.
John Atkins doesn’t have time for pain. He covers it in casts and tape and whatever balms Georgia’s training staff administers and steps back in at nose tackle every game to do it all over again.
“My whole body hurts,” Atkins said. “But I got to come to practice every day and just bring it. Because my dreams don’t care how I feel. So I’ve just got to keep going.”
Atkins’ dreams have taken him from Thomson to the Rose Bowl this week. The 305-pound graduate student hopes the collegiate chapter of his career ends with a national championship to go with the Southeastern Conference ring he collected earlier this month.
“I’m glad it happened my last year,” Atkins said of the Bulldogs’ inaugural run into the college football playoffs. “I definitely love coming back now. We’ve got a chance to go out and have the most wins within a season of any senior class. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
With Georgia playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 75 years, Atkins wasn’t about to let an accumulation of aches and pains keep him down. He’s played all season with a cast on his left wrist, covering up some kind of sprain discovered in the preseason that won’t properly heal until he shuts down for a break.
During the SEC Championship in Atlanta, Atkins suffered a toe injury but trotted back out to finish the game like he always does. He called the status of that ailment “pretty much back to normal,” but Atkins’ normal has a higher tolerance threshold than most.
“He’s been able to practice, but he’s had to push through and be limited in his reps,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of the player he calls “the anchor of the trench.”
“You can’t lay down or give up,” Atkins reiterated. “Your work ethic, like I said, don’t care how you feel. You’ve got to come out and do it every day.”
Atkins is arguably the most unsung hero of a defense that is the backbone of Georgia’s 12-1 run to the postseason. The Bulldogs’ odd three-man front pretty much guarantees that Atkins is going to have both hands full of blockers as he strives to plug the middle of the line.
“I know nine times out of 10 I’m going to take two blockers,” Atkins said. “That’s going to free up a linebacker.”
That selflessness and unbent work ethic is what Smart admires most about Atkins.
“A lot of our defense is predicated off not being able to move him,” Smart said. “And the less people move him the more success we have. And he takes a lot of pride in that. And there is no glory in what he does. He’s got thumbs and ankles and wrists. He’s battered. But he loves it. And he never complains.”
Atkins has never been to California before, and his week in California includes a little R&R like Wednesday’s team excursion to Disneyland.
His focus, however, is trained keenly on the New Year’s Day date with Oklahoma.
“It’s a business trip,” he said. “You can have a little fun but you have to be able to tone it down because you’re there for a reason. It’s a special game but we’ve got to look at it from the perspective we’ve never been here so we’ve got to go there and handle our business.”
The priority order of business for Georgia’s defense will be containing prolific Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Bulldogs have faced their share of elusive quarterbacks this season, but none the caliber of Mayfield.
“You want to play your best game anyway no matter who you play,” Atkins said. “Going against the Heisman we have to show each other. He’s going to have to show us why he won the Heisman and we’re going to have to show him why we’re also the best defense. It’s going to come down to showing every play.”
As the only team in the playoffs that hasn’t been at this stage before, Atkins believes the Bulldogs will be fueled by hunger. As prestigious as the Rose Bowl is, that’s not where he and his fellow seniors who came back for this kind of opportunity want to end their Georgia experience.
“I don’t think it could have worked out any better for all of us,” Atkins said. “I want to win it all. 12-1 is a really great year. We’ve got to keep building on that. We can’t just get comfortable going to the Rose Bowl. We have to win the Rose Bowl.”