By Tim Gayle
MONTGOMERY – Monteo Garrett used to have visions of himself as a professional football player. But for nearly four years, he couldn’t even get on the field as a college football player.
“There were plenty of lonely nights where I sat and talked to my mother and cried and cried and cried,” Garrett recalled. “I talked to my high school coach about how I want to give this up. I talked to my father. There were plenty of people still behind me and they always said, whenever it’s raining, there is always a sun somewhere still shining. That’s something that always stuck with me.”
Garrett’s story is one of accomplishment and heartache, misplaced priorities and a second chance, of a player who rarely thought about anything other than football who transformed into one that may be suiting up for his final game in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl yet isn’t thinking about personal accomplishments.
“He was a commitment to us when Coach (Jeff) Monken was here,” Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford said. “Then when Coach Monken took the Army job, he was still a commitment but we didn’t know where he was going to fit and he hadn’t quite made what he needed to make (on the ACT) to come to Georgia Southern. He was going the (junior college) route and then he made his test score. So I reached out to him and he was very interested in coming and Coach (Willie) Fritz was all on board about bringing him here. He got here and wasn’t quite ready for the college work but the best thing about this story is how he stuck with it, how he continued to work at his academics and got himself in position.”
Garrett was an athletic talent who helped his Munford High team to an 8-4 record as a junior, only the second winning season in the last 14 years for the Talladega County school. The next year, as a senior, the quarterback led his team to a 12-2 record and the 4A semifinals to earn all-state honors as one of the success stories of the year.
Just like that, the fame was gone. He committed to one coach, signed with another and was redshirted in 2014, then was academically ineligible in 2015 and 2016.
“Academics weren’t the strongest part of my life,” Garrett admitted. “I just struggled with academics. I finally realized that if I wanted to play football, my grades had to come first. I started putting my priorities right in my life. My faith in God and grades are the two most important things in my life. Everything else took care of itself.
“When I put grades second in my life (behind faith), that’s when everything started happening. I started doing what I was supposed to do and made the dean’s list with a 3.5 GPA. I hadn’t been on the field since November, 2013 and I finally touched the field again in September, 2017. It was a pretty long time, but it was all worth it.”
Between Nov. 29, 2013, when Munford lost in the 4A semifinals to eventual state champion Oneonta, and Sept. 2, 2017 at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, Garrett had 1,373 days to reflect on his priorities and wonder whether it was worth it. He can envision a day in the future when he talks to student-athletes and students in general, about his past.
“If you want to play football, this is what you have to do,” he said. “I’d just tell them, beside your faith in God; school has to be the number two priority in your life. I know there are plenty of kids out there that are struggling in school, but if you take care of your schoolwork, you’re already talented on the field so you’
ll get your opportunity on the field. But you’ve got to make sure you take care of school because it’s going to carry on in life with you.
“If college football was a job I got paid for, I would have already been fired because I didn’t have my priorities right.”
When he entered Jordan-Hare that day in 2017, he didn’t get to play. But it didn’t matter.
“It just felt great, being back out there, opening up in an atmosphere like that, being in a big stadium like that,” Garrett recalled. “For me and my family, it was just an emotional, happy moment because they hadn’t seen me on the field in a while. For me to put back on the uniform again, for my mother, I know it was an emotional moment.”
He only rushed for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season, but now his priorities were in order. He was on track to graduate (he will graduate in May with a degree in general studies) and back on the football field.
“I can’t believe I didn’t hang up the cleats because there have been plenty of times I doubted myself,” Garrett said. “Is football really for me or is God just testing me? Coming from my high school, being the star quarterback, always in the newspaper, I’m not saying I was cocky or anything, but it makes me more humble than any other set of circumstances. If I do get five touchdowns in a game, don’t be satisfied. Just how God gave me this opportunity, He can take it right back away.
“It’s been a long, long, long ride but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world because it helped me grow as a person. So that anything life throws at me, I’m always ready for it.”
He isn’t sure of his future but he wouldn’t mind building something. Maybe a house with a strong foundation. Somehow, that seems appropriate.
“I love building stuff,” he said. “I’d love to get an internship where I could build something, construct houses or something like that. I always had dreams of playing in the (National Football) League, so I’m going to give the NFL a shot and see where I can go from there. If that doesn’t work out, I’m always open to getting a job.”
On Saturday, he’ll suit up for the last time as a Georgia Southern Eagle. Lunsford never gave up on Garrett and said there’s no doubt the fifth-year senior will figure prominently in the game plan.
“Any time you can get Monteo the ball, that’s a good thing,” Lunsford said. “He plays hard, even when doesn’t have the ball, but I think good things happen when he does have the ball. Obviously, he’ll be part of our inside run game and he’ll be part of our outside run game. He’s a guy that can run very well once he gets out in the open so he’s somebody that we definitely want to make sure we get the ball in his hands.”
For a guy that spent the better part of five years trying to regain the spotlight, you’d think Garrett would have some lofty goals for the Camellia Bowl matchup with Eastern Michigan. He is the team’s third leading rusher with 478 yards and five touchdowns, but doesn’t think of points or yards when he thinks about his last collegiate football game on Saturday.
“The number one thing is to go out there and have fun with my brothers,” Garrett said. “The brotherhood here will last a lifetime because some of us will never play football again. We won’t have this chemistry of playing together again, so just go out there and have fun with my brothers. If we do that and do what we’re supposed to do, the winning will take care of itself.”