If all goes according to plan, Jaylend Ratliffe, his mother, his twin brothers and his grandmother will pile into the car on Jan. 10 and make the roughly 5 1/2-hour drive from their home in Laurinburg, N.C., to enroll him at Georgia Tech. Of course, plans are subject to change, and that is at the heart of Ratliffe’s journey.
Two years ago, he was a hot-commodity high-school quarterback, eventually giving his commitment to play for the Yellow Jackets. A year and a half ago, an ATV accident caused a brain injury, left him near death and put his well-being, to say nothing of his football career, in peril. In February, on the way back to a remarkable recovery, he signed his letter of intent with Tech, which honored its pre-accident scholarship offer despite his uncertain future.
Now, Ratliffe is on the verge of enrolling at Tech. He said his neurosurgeon cleared him to play football. And what was once highly anticipated, and then entirely uncertain, is days from becoming reality.
“I think I’ll get homesick at first, but I’m going to have to suck it up,” said Ratliffe, a homebody who chose to spend prom night with his family rather than partying with his friends. “Atlanta will be my home. That’s why I chose (Tech). Because when I went to Atlanta, it felt like home.”
Put on hold
It’s been a long wait. Before the accident, he planned to enroll early at Tech, in January 2015. The accident, caused by him losing control of an ATV in July 2014, threw plans off course. The accident caused bleeding on the brain and brain swelling to the point that a portion of his skull had to be removed. He was induced into a coma. From such severe trauma, he made an inspiring comeback, but after signing with Tech, his enrollment was pushed back to January 2016.
On one level, Ratliffe was thankful to be alive. On another, he was frustrated to be on pause for 12 months.
“He was upset,” said his mother, Sharon McIntyre. “He didn’t get to graduate early and go ahead and play. He was very upset with that.”
To prepare himself, Ratliffe has been lifting weights and running in Laurinburg, just across the South Carolina border in a county of about 35,500. Sometimes he runs at the field or track at Scotland High. Sometimes, he runs sprints on Sneads Grove Road, the two-lane country road where Ratliffe and his family live. Ratliffe will measure off the distance by putting a branch or stick on the ground as a marker, or run mailbox to mailbox.
He also took two classes at nearby Richmond Community College (American history and art appreciation) and took a job at Floors Galore, a flooring company.
It may sound as if Ratliffe has been the picture of dedication and can-do positive spirit. But, while possessing Christian faith and the competitive drive that helped land him the scholarship offer in the first place, Ratliffe is a person and not a Disney movie. With no coaches to push him, he slacked off on his workouts for a few months. His rehabilitation, while near miraculous, did not return fine motor skills to his left hand, a problem for a left-handed quarterback. As his high-school classmates left for college and he was left behind, he didn’t see the decision to delay his enrollment as a benefit.
“I stayed in that mindset forever,” Ratliffe said.
Gaining energy at Tech
In the early fall, though, his attitude began to improve, he said.
“I thought, ‘God didn’t put me in this position for no reason, for everything to just go,’” he said. “That’s when I had to suck it up. … Being out of shape for so long and going out there and running, that just makes you want to quit. But it’s always something in the back of my head telling me it’s going to be good at the end.”
He gained energy from his visits to Tech. He was at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the Florida State game (much to his regret, to beat traffic for the long drive home, he and his mother left the stadium before the miraculous final play) and again for the Georgia game.
“I saw coach (Paul) Johnson,” Ratliffe said. “He was so pumped for me to get here. I was just thinking, ‘These people are really believing in me.’ I had to believe in myself.”
His mother noticed the change in attitude as January has approached.
“These last two, three months, he’s been like, Whooo!” McIntyre said. “Like he won a million bucks.”
It was before the Georgia game that he broke news about his hand to quarterbacks and B-backs coach Bryan Cook.
“He said, ‘How’s that left hand coming around?’” Ratliffe said. “I said, ‘Coach, I don’t think I’ll be able to play quarterback.’”
Cook had been anticipating the possibility, Ratliffe said, and suggested B-back or outside linebacker. (Ratliffe is 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds.) Ratliffe’s dream has been to play quarterback in college, and he isn’t letting the dream die. He still tries to spin spirals to his twin brothers Javon and Davon in the front yard of their house. However, he accepts that he will likely have to play elsewhere.
“To be honest, at this point in my life, I don’t really care where I play,” he said. “I just want to play football.”
Linebacker has its appeal.
“Sometimes, you want somebody else to feel how you feel when you get hit,” he said.
Future still unclear
There is, too, the possibility that his playing days are finished. While his neurosurgeon cleared him, Ratliffe will be tested by Tech’s own doctors, who will deliver their own verdict on whether it is safe for him to continue playing. If he can’t, Johnson has committed to putting him on medical scholarship at Tech.
A young man whose path to Tech has zigzagged enough already sounds braced for yet another turn.
“I’m there to graduate from college,” he said. “At the end of the day, football is just a game. Yeah, I would love to play football, but if they took football away from me, I’d still be Jaylend. I’d still walk around with a smile on my face.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com