When Georgia Tech closed its campus in mid-March because of the spread of the coronavirus, Jaylend Ratliffe returned home to Laurinburg, N.C., and then returned to Atlanta only a few days later. The short stay reminded him again how his life had changed since he arrived at Tech in 2016.
“It’s like home is not a place for you anymore,” Ratliffe said.
A country boy who anticipated being homesick when he left for Tech four years ago, Ratliffe now has no interest in making his life back home.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Ratliffe, 23. “I wouldn’t mind being in any city.”
Ratliffe’s vision of his future is only part of the personal transformation that he has experienced since enrolling at Tech in January 2016. A rising senior at Scotland High in the summer of 2014, Ratliffe was committed to play quarterback for Tech when he suffered a brain injury in an ATV accident that ultimately ended his playing career just as it appeared ready to soar.
Thanks to former coach Paul Johnson’s decision to honor his scholarship offer even though it was highly unlikely he would ever play a snap, Ratliffe was able to attend Tech. But, simultaneous to his pursuit of a degree in literature, media and communications, Ratliffe has struggled with the loss of his identity as a football player. He has called it the biggest challenge of his time at Tech, a trial that has caused depression and heightened his academic struggles.
With his athletic status gone, he said, “I felt like I didn’t mean anything to anybody.”
Ratliffe continues to wrestle with his sense of self, but he is also on the precipice of completing his degree. If all goes as planned, he’ll finish his coursework at the end of July and take the first steps of his work career.
“I think that this is one story of a young man who came to one of the top engineering schools in the world and made it happen for himself,” said Jocelyn Wilson, an assistant professor whose Science, Race and Technology class Ratliffe took in the spring of 2019. “And he didn’t make it happen on the football field. He made it happen in the classroom.”
‘Nothing ever got worse than that day’
Ratliffe once was an intriguing prospect at Scotland High in Laurinburg.
“He could throw the ball; he was a really good passer, and he was really fast and elusive,” Johnson said last week, “and he was a little bigger than (former Tech star Justin Thomas). If you ask anybody from down there, he was a hell of a player in high school.”
A highly rated prospect, Ratliffe committed to Tech in March 2014. But the ATV accident that July changed everything. He fractured his skull, suffered bleeding on the brain and his brain swelled to the point that part of his skull had to be removed. He was induced into a coma. But he survived and was released from the hospital that September.
The worst day of his life, he said, was when his doctor told him that he wouldn’t be able to play football that fall.
“Nothing ever got worse than that day, so it’s like, after that day, it was like an ongoing process,” Ratliffe said. “I just got used to hearing ‘No.’”
He signed his letter of intent with Tech in February 2015, and then waited an extra semester to enroll, in January 2016. Ratliffe said he had been cleared by his neurosurgeon and had been training before arriving on campus, but he was not cleared to play at Tech.
He had expected for his career to end, but the adjustment to college was difficult. Like a lot of freshmen, he wanted to establish himself among his peers, and the one sure way that he had been able to do that – his football ability – was in the past tense.
“When I first got to Tech, I felt like I was a 40-year-old in an 18-year-old body, because I was saying how I used to do this and I used to do that,” Ratliffe said.
Close relationship with Johnson
Johnson put him to work as a student assistant. He charted plays and broke down practice and game video. Being so close to Johnson gave him a different appreciation for his game-planning and playcalling acumen.
Johnson would call the same play four or five snaps in a row, Ratliffe said, “because he would literally pick on one player on the defense. Coach Johnson would kind of play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ when it came to running his offense. He would find out where Waldo was and pick on him the whole game.”
The two developed a close relationship in the process. Johnson stayed after Ratliffe to keep up his schoolwork. Over the course of his time at Tech, Ratliffe sometimes skirted trouble, like missing a class, Ratliffe said.
“Coach Johnson was the first to pull me in his office and tell me, ‘Hey, I didn’t bring you here for you to B.S. around,’ ” Ratliffe said. “I brought you here for you to do something with yourself, not go back to Laurinburg and be a nobody.”
They have continued to stay in occasional touch since Johnson retired in December 2018.
“I’m not going to say he was my dad, but he was big as far as how he interacted with me,” Ratliffe said.
“He grew up and matured,” Johnson said. “He’s a good kid.”
At the same time, Ratliffe has wrestled with no longer being able to play football. A Christian, Ratliffe said he has blamed God for taking away his ability to play football. Unlike most competitive athletes, Ratliffe never saw the end of his career coming and had no chance to brace himself.
Probably every day, he said, “I look back and I’m like, ‘Dang, I was this person.’ ”
A new life in Atlanta
But he has continued to push forward and has come to embrace Atlanta and the life that a Tech degree can provide. When he was a freshman, he frequently wanted to return home for the weekend, Ratliffe’s mother Sharon McIntyre said. But, over time, the trips back to Laurinburg, a rural city of about 15,000 near the South Carolina border, grew less frequent.
He found there wasn’t much to do when he came back, and he had friends who got into legal trouble and are now in jail, according to McIntyre. Eventually, Ratliffe decided he wasn’t going to come back to live.
“To be honest with you, I am so glad he made that decision,” McIntyre said. “That’s probably one of the best decisions that he will ever make in his life.”
So it was that he made his quick U-turn when he returned home to Laurinburg when the pandemic closed campus, but then soon drove back to Atlanta and his apartment near campus. It was in part because he didn’t have Internet access at home, but also because he simply preferred being in Atlanta.
Besides Johnson, he has had the support of football academic adviser Brandon Pottebaum and professors such as Wilson. At various times, dealing with the grind of a Tech education, Ratliffe wanted to pack it in and go home.
“Brandon would tell me, ‘Dude, you’re getting one of the most prestigious degrees in the universe,’” Ratliffe said. “‘It would be stupid for you to do that.’”
Wilson said she noticed Ratliffe – he sat in the front row and was willing to ask questions that revealed what he didn’t know – and sensed something special about him.
As she got to know him and learned of his past, she has encouraged him to channel his frustration or anger toward finishing his degree and to recognize what he is in the midst of accomplishing.
“At the end of the day, when you graduate and you’re able to say this: You went to Georgia Tech, and you were able to jump through and get through all these different challenges,” Wilson said. “That story is going to resonate in ways that neither one of us can even imagine right now.”
Last summer, he interned for RaceTrac, training with a human-resources director. In the fall, after working with coach Geoff Collins and his staff in the spring and summer, he said he decided to leave his role on the team to focus on finding work. He said Collins was “100 percent supportive” of the decision and kept him on his scholarship.
His health is fine, although his fine-motor coordination and balance were damaged in the accident. He runs regularly.
He has two more classes, an earth-science class and calculus. He should be finished by the end of July, which will make him the first in his immediate family (he’s the second eldest of four boys) to graduate from college. He is contemplating a career in business, although he would love an opportunity to find a way back to football.
It’s not the path he would have chosen for himself, but it’s the one that his faith instructs him was chosen for him.
“I’ve been told by so many people that you’re still on this earth for a reason,” Ratliffe said. “When I think about football and who I was, I also have to think about what I’m here for.”
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