Mitch Olson stood on the track at Oconee County High School and stared at the field where Zach Mettenberger used to play football. He shook his head and let out a big burst of air as he contemplated what might be going through the mind of his former quarterback.
“Man, I can only imagine,” said Olson, who coached Mettenberger as a high school senior in 2008. “Probably a lot of thoughts. Probably a lot of added pressure. I’m sure he’s hearing a lot of things. I’ve heard from about six guys myself, all the Louisiana papers, and all that. There’s just a lot of hype about it.”
Things have changed a bit since “the big goofy kid who looked like a man,” as Olson called him, was zipping the ball around Warrior Stadium. On Saturday, he’ll do it at 92,000-plus seat Sanford Stadium, realizing a dream he told Olson about nearly six years ago.
The difference, Mettenberger will do it for the visiting team wearing the gold and purple of LSU rather than for the Georgia Bulldogs’ team he grew up worshipping. He’ll also do it on national television, with a media contingent of more than 600 on hand to chronicle the proceedings.
“Growing up in Athens, having your mom work for the football program, there’s a lot of games you saw, a lot of players you got to meet,” Mettenberger told reporters Monday night in Baton Rouge, La. “I spent a lot of time over at the football office. It’ll still be a fun time to experience actually playing at Georgia.”
Mettenberger has spent a lot of time this week telling people this will be “just another game.” Nobody back home is buying that.
Blake Sailors is a senior defensive back at Georgia and one of Mettenberger’s close friends. They’ve known each other since they were in second grade at Oconee Elementary, eight miles south of the UGA campus.
They used to use Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, Georgia’s expansive football complex, as their own personal jungle gym, running up and down the halls and stairwells and rolling around in the grass on Woodruff Practice Fields. Mettenberger’s mother, Tammy, has been an administrative assistant in the Bulldogs’ football office since 1999. Sailors’ father, David, is one of the team doctors and his aunt, Rhonda Kilpatrick, works in UGA’s compliance department.
“I’m sure it’s going to be weird,” said Sailors, who communicates with Mettenberger daily, including this week. “It’s like his own little homecoming. He obviously played here, and this was the place he always wanted wanted to go. Obviously things didn’t work out, but he still has a good relationship with the guys on this team.”
It’s still hard for Sailors and his UGA classmates to believe Mettenberger is not hanging out with them. Sailors, tight end Arthur Lynch and quarterback Aaron Murray, Mettenberger’s roommate at the time, were tight as ticks when they showed up as wide-eyed recruits in 2009.
But their pack was abruptly dismantled in April 2010. Mettenberger was kicked off the team for what at first appeared to be a spring-break, drunk-and-disorderly incident a month earlier. It wasn’t until May that it became clear something much more serious had occurred.
Mettenberger pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery stemming from a March 7 incident involving a 20-year-old Valdosta State female student at a bar in Remerton (near Valdosta). It was a negotiated plea entered in Lowndes County Superior Court. Under the Georgia First Offender Act, Mettenberger was sentenced to 12 months’ probation and 80 hours of community service. He also was fined $2,000 and banished from Valdosta for a year.
Mettenberger also was sentenced by coach Mark Richt. He was told he had to leave UGA.
“It was very difficult,” Richt recalled Tuesday. “It’s difficult any time a situation gets to the point where you have to dismiss a guy from the team. To do it to Zach, knowing Zach for as long as we’ve known him, and his mom and dad, they’re family to us. They’re still family to the Georgia program, so it was very difficult.
“I think he understood. It wasn’t easy for me, and it wasn’t easy for him.”
Bernie and Tammy Mettenberger declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article. Zach Mettenberger also declined one-on-one interview requests and long ago stopped discussing the incident.
The subject hasn’t come up as much lately as Mettenberger has resurrected his football career. Long considered a project quarterback with enormous physical gifts, Mettenberger has blossomed as a senior under new LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. He enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 2 in the SEC in pass efficiency and has thrown for 1,076 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception.
No. 1 on the pass-efficiency list is Murray. The reality is, it always was going to come down to this, to Mettenberger and Murray being on different teams.
They were both high-profile recruits when they signed with Georgia, and they were locked in an intense competition before everything unraveled that spring.
“Every day it was really back and forth in practice,” said Murray, who has started every game since. “Guys on the team like Arthur said it was fireworks every day in practice. I’d go out there and make a throw in practice and he would make one, and it was back and forth. The competition really pushed us to become better quarterbacks.”
What if Mettenberger stayed home that spring and avoided trouble?
“I doubt both of us would have stayed,” Murray said Tuesday. “You could be talking to him right now, and I’d be at LSU. It was crazy, just everything that happened. But it’s great to see how far he’s been able to go, from a JUCO to a second-year starter in the SEC and doing well.”
Said Lynch, who lives with Murray and spoke to Mettenberger on the phone 20 minutes before talking to reporters at Georgia’s weekly news conference: “It was sad for me to see Zach leave, but it’s nice to see him expand on his role and reach his potential beyond anything he could have ever thought.
“They’re both just happy that it’s all worked out. There’s no hostility between them. They just want what’s best. And I think it makes for a pretty good ballgame Saturday.”
So it’s Mettenberger who’s having a homecoming. And friendships or not, the Bulldogs aim to make it an unhappy one.
“I’ll tell him good luck before the game and maybe I’ll get lucky enough to get out there at least one play and knock his brains out,” Sailors said. “I hope I get that chance.”
That’s how Georgia aims to handle it. Nobody’s sure how Mettenberger might.
“Bottom line, when that ball’s kicked off, he’s gotta be ready to go play,” Olson said. “We’ve all coached and played in a bunch of games where your buddy’s on the other side or your nephew or best friend. Once the game gets going, it’s just another game. You’re just focusing on what it is you have to do.”
Mettenberger, for one, is just anxious to get the whole deal over with.
“I’m looking forward to Sunday morning tremendously,” Mettenberger said. “We want to be undefeated, but there’s just so much put into this game that has nothing to do with the game.”