By Joe Vitale:
Former University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt is now the head coach at the University of Miami. Miami fans all know of Coach Richt’s outstanding record of SEC championships, several seasons of double-digit wins, 15 consecutive bowl appearances and placing more players in the NFL during his Georgia tenure than any other college football coach in the past 15 years. Most south Florida fans know the 55-year old Richt has always been known as a man of faith, integrity and extremely caring of his players, coaches and staff.
Richt has coached some of college football’s greats during his time in Athens…..Thomas Davis, David Pollack, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray, Jarvis Jones, Todd Gurley and A.J. Green, to name several of the All Americans produced by the Bulldogs. However, to best understand Coach Richt, the fifth winningest active college football coach and Mark Richt the person, one needs only to understand the unique situation of a Georgia Bulldog student-athlete who never enrolled at Georgia, was never granted a scholarship or never played a down Between the Hedges, but is alongside all the Bulldog greats and lettermen in the Georgia media guide and records.
James Eunice was a 2010 Valdosta High School backup wide receiver and a force on the Wildcats kickoff and punt return units. Coach Richt was recruiting two of James’ teammates and good friends, nationally acclaimed tight end Jay Rome and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Even though James wasn’t a star on the gridiron, he was passionate about football and determined to be a part of the Bulldogs once he arrived in Athens. So with that dream, James wrote Richt a letter that spelled out his plan to walk on at Georgia. Richt had seen James play while recruiting Rome and Mitchell and offered his encouragement to pursue his dream, attend Georgia and tryout for the team.
Sadly, James never had the chance to follow that dream and walk on at Georgia. On the morning of January 15, 2011, the 17-year old senior tragically drowned while duck hunting with a friend near Valdosta. While in a small boat, James reached for an unknown object and lost his balance. Thrown into the 38-degree water, he was able to slip out of his waders but hypothermia quickly set in. For 17 days, local and state search and rescue teams looked for James’ body before it was found in seven feet of icy waters, according to coverage by the Valdosta Daily Times.
Through Mitchell and Rome, Richt heard that James was missing and had said the only thing he could do in the beginning was to pray for the family and friends. With limited interaction with James prior to his death, Richt told the Daily Times he knew very little about him, but once he started reading about James, he quickly became touched.
Word quickly spread throughout Lowndes County of James’ funeral. Both Jay Rome and Malcom Mitchell spoke glowingly of their fallen teammate. They presented the Eunice family with a gift from Mark Richt — a number 23 (James’ number at Valdosta High) Georgia home jersey with ‘EUNICE’ proudly stitched on the back. The pastor read a personal note sent by Richt, a letter written during perhaps the busiest period of the year for college coaches — a time when they are crossing the nation recruiting. At the letter’s end, the pastor paused and read “Oh yeah, James made the team.” Those gathered at the funeral for James stood, applauded and cried. Since that date, James Eunice has been listed in the Georgia media guide on the official roster.
As reported by Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner Herald in September 2011, the funeral was attended by James’ Wildcat teammates wearing their jerseys and hundreds from the community.
“I’ve been to a fair amount of funerals in my life and I’ve never seen a reaction from the crowd that that presentation got,” said his brother John, a former Valdosta City councilman and Georgia law school graduate. “There wasn’t a single person in there that wasn’t standing and applauding and just overcome with emotion. It was a unique moment that I know I’ll never forget.”
“I think about what if something were to happen to Jon or David?” Richt told Weiszer of his two sons. “Your heart goes out to them. If there’s something I can do to bless the family right this minute, however small, I’d like to do that, so that’s what we did.”
Weiszer continued to report – In February 2011, James’ father and brother visited Richt in Athens the week after James’ service to thank him for all that he had done. They spent about an hour with him, telling Richt more about the person that James was. They presented Richt a T-shirt with “The Clock is Ticking” on the back, which were being sold to help raise money for a scholarship fund. Richt told them he wanted to do something for the family.
Nearly seven months later, a couple of weeks before that season’s South Carolina game, the Eunice’s received a package in the mail with tickets to sit in Richt’s box at the game and a note explaining how Georgia would honor James at the game.
“I was kind of overcome with emotion,” said James’ brother. “It’s really kind of hard to put it into words how something like that means to us, considering that James was a great kid, but James was not a standout in football by any means. For his dream really to come true and for him to be on the roster really means a lot to all of us,” his brother continued. “It means the world to us.”
Georgia players wore a black No. 23 decal on the back of their helmets with the initials “J.E.” James’ parents, brother and sister Lindsey were guests of Richt and Georgia. The Eunice’s toured the facilities after the game and spoke with Richt. He took pictures with them and again told them he was sorry about James.
Tammy Eunice, James mother posted on Facebook after the family visited Athens:
I am stunned and completely amazed at the kindness and generosity of Coach Mark Richt. …We felt he had done so much for us and honestly if that had not happened we would have understood. True to his word though, 2 weeks ago we got a package in the mail with tickets to sit in his box and a letter stating that he wanted to honor James with the number 23 on all the helmets. I was stunned! James was a young man who never practiced one time with the Bulldogs … wasn’t being actively recruited by the Bulldogs and was not promised a slot on the team. Did Coach Richt have to do this? Absolutely not. Did he do this to garner praise for himself? No way. The reason I believe he did this was again to honor the life of our boy.”
James Eunice was a University of Georgia Bulldog and Mark Richt was going to continue to support his athletes. That is why Coach Richt was in Valdosta, Georgia 13 months after James’ death addressing the James Eunice Charity Fundraising event at CrossPointe Church.
According to Ed Hooper of the Valdosta Daily Times, Richt shared several stories with the hundreds in the audience, speaking about how he became a Christian believer, how his faith has changed his life and how James was able to affect others through his messages, even after his death.
“(James) was special,” Richt said. “He is worthy of this kind of event. He was all about people coming to know Jesus Christ. That is his legacy. His legacy is not what a great kid he was, which he was, it’s not how friendly he was to so and so. The legacy is, he was making a difference in someone’s life.”
The night was started off with James’ father, John Eunice Sr., speaking about Richt, mentioning the time that James called him to describe his meeting with Richt, and how he was wearing a University of Florida T-shirt at the time of the meeting. Eunice then introduced Richt. Once at the microphone, Richt brought the audience to laughter on several occasions, including when he recalled the meeting with James and his Florida T-shirt.
Afterwards, there may have not been a dry eye in the room.
Most of us in Richt’s position, managing over 100 young men, a staff numbering over 50, chasing 16 and 17 – year old promising athletes across the country, running a multi-million dollar operation, all the while trying to figure out how to beat Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech, among others, had done more than enough for James Eunice and his family. But this is what separates Coach Richt from the others….. James Eunice was a University of Georgia football player and would be continued to be honored just as Jay Rome, Malcolm Mitchell and the other scholarship athletes at Georgia.
I initially learned of the story of James Eunice while attending the University of Georgia 2014 Senior Awards Banquet and Gala in Athens last year. A video tribute of the 27 Georgia seniors was played, each player was invited to the stage and given a plaque and heartfelt hug from Coach Richt. Once all 27 players were on the stage, Richt paused to announce that one player was missing.
Before all these magnificent athletes who had accomplished so much at Georgia, Richt invited James’ parents, Tammy and John, and his brother and sister to the stage. Richt presented the family an inscribed senior plaque. In addition, just as the other seniors had received, the Eunice family was presented a framed, number 23 Georgia jersey. It was an emotional, beautiful moment and the audience and James’ teammates were all privileged to be part of the occasion.
James’ spirit lives on with the Georgia football team and friends and family in Valdosta. Through money raised in his name through the James Eunice Scholarship Fund (www.cfsga.net/scholarships) and James Eunice Charities (www.jameseunice23.webs.com), his legacy continues to lift the spirit and invest in others.
We all know major college football is a win at all cost proposition, but any victory on the football field could not be more important and meaningful than what Mark Richt did for the family of James Eunice. Coach Richt reminds us that the great game of college football is not only about what takes place on the gridiron on Saturday. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s legendary locker room speech, “The Team, The Team, The Team”, comes to mind when remembering Coach Richt at Georgia and James Eunice is a proud member of that team. Both Dawgs forever.