ATLANTA - It was natural.
Eddie Lee Ivery was just doing what he did best.
What he'd done as a boy playing in the back yard. What he'd done as the best football player in Thomson High School's history. What he'd done as an NCAA record-setter at Georgia Tech. What he'd done, despite three major surgeries, for nine years in the National Football League.
Eddie Lee Ivery ran.
Only now it wasn't the bruising bullies of the college ranks or the NFL that he sought to elude.
It was someone more intimidating, a lurking, unfamiliar foe that his soul had warned him he would meet one day.
That day came in late 1998 when, after a night of binge drinking and drug use, Eddie Lee stumbled into his aunt's bathroom and was caught by a mirror.
What a curious reflection greeted him in his haze of marijuana and a half-case of beer.
Who was this individual staring back? No one he'd ever seen, he thought.
He first saw the unshaven stubble, pock marks and frizzed-out hair.
Then he looked into the mirror, behind the bloodshot eyes. He saw anger, pain and shame.
"I didn't know who I was looking at," he said. "I really didn't."
That was the first encounter between Eddie Lee Ivery the football player, a celebrated hero and role model to masses, and Eddie Lee Ivery the person, a broken-down man with no sense of direction.
The meeting came nearly 10 years after his football career had passed. It almost came too late.
His wife and two children had walked out on him several years earlier. He bounced from unstable job to unstable job. His addictions to drugs and alcohol were devouring him, conquering more of him with each passing day.
"The things that I loved were my family and football. The things that I knew were all gone," he said. "Once that was gone, it was, ëWhere's Eddie Lee Ivery the person?' I'd always lived on the hype of Eddie Lee Ivery the football player. I'd never dealt with Eddie Lee Ivery the person.
"I couldn't go on like that anymore."
Deep into the night of Oct. 28, 1998, Eddie Lee walked out the front door of his aunt's home, fell to his knees a few steps later and began to cry out to God, asking for help.
He went to Atlanta the next day and checked into a long-term addiction treatment facility.
Eddie Lee Ivery had stopped running.
Thomson always loved Eddie Lee Ivery.
That's why so many will show up tonight for the 7:30 game against Elbert County, when he will become only the second player in Bulldogs football history to have his jersey retired. Legendary punter Ray Guy was the first.
It's far more than a night of recognition. It's not just a ceremony to honor an NFL great.
Tonight, a community will fully re-embrace a hero it thought it had lost.
"I think it's a realization that most of us here in Thomson believe he's truly turned his life around," said John Barnett, who played with Ivery in high school and now is a Bulldogs assistant coach. "He's become the person we always thought he was."
Barnett says his blocking as an offensive lineman had little to do with Ivery's success as a Bulldog.
"He did fine on his own," he said. "We tried to stay out of the way more than anything else."
His senior year, Ivery rushed for more than 1,700 yards in 10 games.
Barnett and everyone else in McDuffie County watched every Georgia Tech and Green Bay game they could find on television. They checked box scores. They cut out each article that mentioned his name.
Thomson could not get enough of their humble hometown lad doing well for himself.
After Ivery retired from the NFL in 1988, they heard he was trying to get into coaching somewhere in Florida. They wished he'd come back and help out with the Bulldogs. He did in 1990.
Ivery went back to Georgia Tech a couple of years later to finish up his degree with the hopes of one day coaching somewhere near his hometown ñ maybe even in it.
Ivery didn't come back after he graduated. When he did, he wasn't coaching anymore.
Some people heard he was on drugs. Others heard his family had moved to Florida to get away from him. Everyone knew he wasn't the same man who left town a couple of years earlier.
"No one saw him a lot during those years, even when he was here," Barnett said. "There were lots of rumors going around about what he was doing. I was mostly just saddened by it all. I was just hoping he'd pull himself out of it."
Several years passed, and then Barnett received a phone call from someone telling him that Ivery was in treatment in Atlanta.
Then the old Ivery started showing up again. He was at football games. In restaurants. Just around.
He was jovial. He was funny. He was himself.
"The last few years when I've seen him, he has a great appreciation for life," Barnett said. "He knows he had it all, and blew it, and he is trying to make a difference. He seems happy and at peace with himself."
Georgia Tech always loved Eddie Lee Ivery.
So much that when Ivery had already verbally committed to Georgia, the school pushed to get him anyway.
Dick Bestwick, who was an assistant at the time, showed up at Thomson the Friday before signing day and pulled Ivery out of class. Bestwick told Ivery that Georgia Tech would look out for him ñ beyond football.
"There's a lot of other schools out there that once you go through your football career, they're done with you," Ivery said, quoting Bestwick. "We at Tech are committed to helping you graduate."
The Yellow Jackets weren't too upset with the football player they got, either.
Ivery is best known for his game against the Air Force on Nov. 11, 1978.
On a frozen field in Colorado that used snow as yard lines, Ivery rushed for 356 yards, an NCAA record at the time. He scored touchdowns on runs of 80, 73 and 57 yards.
He set what was then the single-season rushing record of 1,562 yards. His 3,517 yards are the third most in school history.
He was drafted in the first round by Green Bay, where he played from 1979-1986. He finished his career with 2,933 rushing yards and 1,612 receiving yards. He did it despite dealing with two major knee surgeries and a serious back operation that eventually forced him to retire.
After his retirement, Ivery heard from Bestwick, who was true to his word.
He called Ivery while he was coaching in Thomson - 13 years after he had left school for the NFL, without his degree - and told him he "needed to get his butt back in school."
"I said, "OK, Coach,'" Ivery said.
The National Consortium for Academics and Sports paid Ivery's way back to Georgia Tech. He graduated in June 1992 with a degree in industrial management .
The bold move to return to school after more than a decade earned Ivery the National Student-Athlete Day Giant Steps Award.
But it didn't net him very much self-respect. After graduating, he moved to Alexander City, Ala., to work for Russell Athletics.
He stayed only six months before returning to Thomson, where he settled into a life of "drinking and drugging," becoming just like the alcoholic father that he never knew.
After five years of partying, the epiphany Ivery had at his aunt's house sent him into the rehab facility.
Even at the Oakhurst Recovery Center in Decatur, Georgia Tech hadn't forgotten about Ivery.
Dave Braine and Jack Thompson had lunch with him regularly.
Braine is now Georgia Tech's athletic director. Thompson is in charge of much of the school's fund-raising efforts.
"We decided if we could ever do anything to give him a second chance, we were going to do that," said Thompson, who has worked at Georgia Tech for 36 years and known Ivery since he was 17.
The two men got that opportunity when Ivery completed treatment and then called asking if they knew a way he could get back into coaching.
After thinking and talking at length about it, Braine offered Ivery a job in the school's strength and conditioning program.
Today, he helps train the Yellow Jackets' football, tennis and swimming and diving teams.
Tauvia always loved Eddie Lee Ivery.
Even though there were too many days to count that she woke up feeling sad, alone and abandoned, Tauvia Ivery said she was never felt like she wasn't Daddy's Little Girl.
Tauvia was 13 years old when her mom moved the family to Tampa, Fla., to start over without Eddie Lee.
"That was the worst day of my life," Tauvia said. "I cried all the way to Florida."
Tauvia, now 23, said she was very aware of her dad's battle with substance abuse, but she couldn't understand why a move was necessary, why they couldn't stay and help him.
"I didn't know that he had to help himself," she said .
By the time his health was improving, Tauvia had matured into a young woman.
In 2002, she graduated from Florida A&M with a degree in hospital administration, but she was still susceptible to making mistakes.
She said the call to her father, telling him that she was pregnant out of wedlock, was the most difficult one she's ever had to make.
His response, a hurt but compassionate dose of understanding, surprised Tauvia. That was when she knew her father had changed.
"The dad I knew growing up would have killed me," she said.
Instead, he embraced her. After Tauvia graduated, she and baby Angel moved to Atlanta to live with her father.
"I got down on my knees and said ëthank God I have somewhere for her to come and stay,' " Eddie Lee said. "What a great feeling. I was depended on."
Tauvia said she didn't take her dad's struggles nearly as hard as her younger brother, Eddie Jr., did, mostly because of a deep-rooted father-son bond.
Getting a football scholarship to Georgia Tech has helped to heal some of those wounds. They see each other at practice and around campus. Senior said he tries to treat Junior like a friend, someone to pal around with who always is willing to listen to whatever's going on in his life.
"Things are a lot better now," said Eddie Lee Jr., who might see time this season at receiver. "I can see a big change in my dad. I know what he's been through, and I respect him for that."
Eddie Lee Ivery never loved himself until Oct. 28, 1998.
That's why he was living in a world of uncertainty, drugs and alcohol .
"I was hiding," he said. "I didn't want to know me."
In the wake of that world left behind is a man who beams about his kids, his job and his pending marriage. Antoinette Young, who was willing to accept Eddie Lee's past because of who he is today, will become Ivery's wife in eight days.
There's strength in those things, Ivery says, but there's even more in instilling strength into others.
He helps some people with physical strength: He says one of the biggest kicks he gets is seeing one of his athletes get stronger.
He helps others with mental strength: He says he goes back to Oakhurst as much as three or four times a week to encourage current patients to beat their addictions with his story of hope .
He also clears his schedule whenever an organization or a school asks him to speak to a group of children.
Eddie Lee's running again, just not from anything.
"I have a story to tell," Ivery says. "That's my job. If I can help just one person by my words or my actions, my mission is accomplished. But I want to help a lot more than one."
He'll keep running until he does.
Reach Travis Haney at (706) 823-3304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.