This Tech spring practice offers lessons in life, death and football

New Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins practices his exhortations at the start of spring drills. (Photo by Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech)

There’s so much different about the ritual of spring football practice at Georgia Tech, given the new coaching staff, the new system and the energy of change.

In one case, profoundly, heartbreakingly different. For bookending each practice now is a solemn salute to one of their own, dead too soon.

Their first act on the field, and their last each day, is to come together to remember the defensive tackle who collapsed and died Sunday at the age of 21, Brandon Adams. “Big B” they call him. In unison they beat their chests. They spell out his No. 90 by holding up four fingers, then five – add them together you get the nine – and then clenched fists for the zero. And then as one they call out one last “Big B!” heavenward before scattering to their tasks.

“We’ve been getting through it, and I think we’ve been doing right by him so far,” junior quarterback Lucas Johnson said.

“It’s been tough,” sophomore quarterback Tobias Oliver said. “Some guys are dealing with it better than others. The guys who are dealing with it are picking the other guys up. As a team we’re uplifting (each other), we’re doing it all for Brandon.”

These are confusing days at Tech, where the shock of Adams’ death coexists alongside the exuberance of spring practice. The beginning of the Geoff Collins coaching era – one that had been marked by a great upwelling of optimism – has been detoured into the dark alley of grief.

So, one moment, new offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude is schooling this one-time option team in the intricacies of the forward pass.

And the next he is offering advice on real loss, not the fleeting kind that might visit in-season.

“I told them in the last meeting, nothing in life is going to prepare you for what just happened,” Patenaude said Thursday. “The healing comes when we stay together and we mourn together and we play together and shed a tear together and we bond together. We come together and put one foot in front of the next.”

Thursday was the second practice of spring for the Yellow Jackets, and the first open to the media.

There was, during the last half hour open to inspection, all the usual sights and sounds of a football practice, beneath a perfect blue sky, humidity low and spirits high. A dozen raised voices barking at once from one end of the field to the other. A constant choreographed swirl of movement. The smoldering aggression (even a skirmish or two even on a day without pads). The never-ending imploring to do things quicker and better.

With a few new twists, for Tech.

Like more footballs in the air than at any time at any practice in the last decade. What a strange sight to see. “For a team that has been a triple-option team for the last 10 years, if you didn’t know that and you just came and watched our practice today, you’d say, that’s a pretty good spread team,” Patenaude said.

And there was music, neither country nor western to be sure, to liven up the proceedings. Paul Johnson never worked to that same beat.

If nothing else was achieved this day in spring, Tech had reached for a measure normalcy and found it. And as practice ended on a fumble recovery and long return, there was all this joy coming from a defense that had been knocked on its back just a few days ago.

When Tech decided to go ahead with practice as scheduled, this was how it had to go. This was how life on a football team goes on even through the pain.

“This is how we practice around here. This is the level of intensity, the level of engagement, the level of competition,” Collins said.

“These kids are amazing, for what we’ve gone through in the last four days, to come out here and the way they work and the way they positively affect each other,” Collins said.

“They genuinely love Brandon Adams,” he said. “They have come out here and really attacked the work, paid respect to Brandon every single morning before we go and paid respect to him before we leave.”

There is another tribute due Adams. On Saturday the team will board a bus to attend services in Nashville. One more sad, strange twist: Collins’ first road trip with his new team will be a funeral.

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