Atlanta Falcon quarterbacks coach Mouse Davis did a double lake when quarterback Jeff George walked through the locker-room door one morning last March. Having been traded from the Indianapolis Colts several days before, George was in Atlanta to meet his new employers for the first time. Gone were his trademark shag haircut, scruffy moustache and Pillsbury Doughboy body. "Jeff looked like a totally different person," Davis recalls. "He wasn't the chunky, scraggly, ugly kid that I once knew. He'd hit the weights, lost 15 pounds, gotten a lot firmer. He looked like the clean-cut, all-American boy."
Last week Falcon left guard Lincoln Kennedy also expressed surprise as he watched George on the field and in the huddle. "I thought he'd be a jerk," said Kennedy. "I'd heard he wasn't a team player. But Jeff totally blew my mind. He's definitely somebody you want to block for. He's a cool guy."
Wait a minute. Jeff George, cool? "I don't think anybody has ever described me as being cool," says George with a laugh. "That's a first."
It is indeed. During George's four years in Indianapolis, he was more often described as a pouter, a whiner and a quitter, and exactly one year ago he was doing his utmost to live up to each of those descriptions. Though only halfway through a six-year, $12.5 million contract with the Colts, George refused to show up for training camp. When he finally rejoined the team, 16 days before the season opener, he received a decidedly chilly reception from his teammates as well as from fans. The Colts finished 4-12, with George starting by the season's sixth game. When he was traded to Atlanta for three draft picks, no one in Indianapolis was sorry to see him go.
The divorce was nasty, but the new marriage is starting out nicely. At 26 George is seeking a fresh start in Atlanta, and the Falcons are hoping that what they have seen so far this summer is an accurate forecast of what they will see once the regular season begins. In the first quarter of last Saturday night's preseason game against the Denver Broncos, after George had a pass picked off, he came right back on the next Falcon series, taking the team 74 yards in 11 plays, a drive that culminated in a dazzling 17-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison. Chased out of the pocket on the play, George shot the ball toward Rison, who soared between two defenders to snare the pass. Although the Broncos beat the Falcons 37-16, new Atlanta coach June Jones was pleased with George's brief first-quarter performance. "Nobody else on earth would have gotten the ball in there to Rison," he said.
No one has ever questioned George's physical talents. It is the rest of the package that has left people shaking their heads. The No. 1 selection overall in the 1990 NFL draft (the Colts traded Rison and Pro Bowl tackle Chris Hinton to Atlanta for the pick), George had the scouts gushing. Dick Steinberg, the New York Jet general manager, spoke for many when he said, "He has so much talent, it's scary."
In four years with the Colts, George never came close to realizing his potential. True, his line was so bad that he was sacked 146 times, including an astounding 56 times in 1991. But rather than rise above his team, George spent much of his time bemoaning his plight—and assigning blame to everyone but himself.
Not surprisingly, George, who had been a three-sport star at Indianapolis's Warren Central High, came to be seen as less the Golden Boy than the golden boor, and last year's holdout brought all the bad feelings to the fore. The press hammered away at him, and on radio call-in shows fans vented their frustration. Liquor stores all over town put up signs advertising " Jeff George whine."
"I felt like I was under 24-hour surveillance," says George. "Radio and TV stations were camped outside my house. I thought, Man, why don't these people get a life?"
Explaining his holdout, George says that he was trying to force a trade and that he could no longer tolerate media attacks on his family. Dave and Judy George, Jeff's parents, who had attended every game, became the butt of jokes. The media found it odd that Judy worked as Jeff's secretary, and they chuckled at the George entourage, 200 strong on game days, which included both his grandmothers, who are in their 80's. "When they make comments about your family, that really hurts," says George now.