Michael Johnson might have an easier time living in Athens.
At least there, the former Georgia Tech football star might be able to find someone to help him stand up to the onslaught of Georgia trash talk he endures regularly at work. Instead, Johnson is the lone Yellow Jackets product on a Bengals team that includes seven ex-Bulldogs who provide regular reminders about UGA’s recent domination of the rivalry.
“I get grief all the time,” Johnson said, equal parts cheerful and weary.
On Monday, that irritation came in the form of a T-shirt.
Geno Atkins, one of several former Bulldogs now playing for the Bengals, wore a T-shirt that read: “Coach Richt is My Dawg.” UGA staffers gave the ex-Bulldogs the shirts at the Bengals’ hotel where they are staying during their three days of practice with the Falcons, which culminates with the exhibition game Thursday at the Georgia Dome.
As Johnson talks about Tech, Atkins occasionally interjects with good-natured put-downs.
“I won my last time in Athens and that’s all I can hang my hat on, so I always bring that up,” Johnson said, referring to Tech’s 45-42 victory in 2008, Georgia’s only defeat in the past 12 games of the state rivalry.
There are 20 former Tech players on NFL rosters but Johnson is the only one with the Bengals, who have become the main warehouse for UGA’s NFL talent.
Seven former UGA players play for the Bengals, the most for any NFL team. According to NFL data, there are 48 former Bulldogs on training camp rosters, the most for any college.
“I think it just shows the work that coach Richt does and the quality of his staff teaching us and instilling us in how to be a professional on and off the field,” Atkins said.
Bengals guard Clint Boling said the ex-Bulldogs occasionally get together to socialize away from work. Boling, Atkins, Orson Charles, A.J. Green and Shawn Williams all played at least two seasons together in Athens.
Atkins said the former Bulldogs call defensive end Robert Geathers “Old Man June” because he’s senior among them and named after his father. The Bengals selected Geathers in the 2004 draft.
“I should get some kickback from these guys getting these big contracts for starting off this Bengals thing,”Geathers said, smiling. “It’s pretty cool. There’s a sense of pride in the locker room.”
Charles said the pride is “mostly about bragging rights” but cited Geathers’ mentoring as an example of how it goes further.
“Second day I got here, Robert took me out to eat and he sat me down and said I needed to be serious and treat it like a job,” Charles said. “I try to pick his brain and ask him how did he last nine years in the league. It’s just real humbling to be on a great team with all my Georgia guys.”
The local ties on the Bengals go beyond Georgia and Georgia Tech. Four Bengals from the state played elsewhere in college: cornerbacks Adam Jones and Chris Lewis-Harris (Smyrna), linebacker Bruce Taylor (Riceboro) and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (Thomasville).
Jones played at West Virginia after starring at Westlake High. He said most of his family is staying at the team hotel so he will get a chance to visit with them this week but added: “I’m here on a business trip.”
In a recent interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio, Jones said he avoids returning to Atlanta very often so he doesn’t fall into old habits after a string of off-field troubles hurt his career. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Jones for the 2007 season and part of 2008 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
“I have a family now,” Jones said. “It’s not like when I didn’t have kids. I get home when I can get home and see my mom but, besides that, I’m in Cincinnati. It’s been great for me. I’m 29-years old now and a lot of things change from 21 to 29.”
Johnson said he was back in Atlanta last spring to take classes at Tech, where he said he’s three classes short of earning a degree in business administration.
While on campus, Johnson met several of the current Yellow Jackets.
“I know they are down there working hard, trying to do it the right way,” Johnson said. “That’s what I can say about Georgia Tech. We do it the right way.”
Atkins protested that last part, which he interpreted as a subtle shot at the Bulldogs. Johnson denied it and allowed that “some of my best friends on the team went to Georgia, actually.”
“Everybody has got a lot of pride in the school they are from,” Johnson said. “Of course, the more your team wins, the more you seem to hear people talk about it.”
Atkins couldn’t resist.
“Y’all have won recently?” he asked.
It can be lonely job being the one Tech guy playing for the Bengals.