In 1984, Richard Tardits, then 19, came from France to Augusta, Ga., to stay for a few months with friends of his parents, and because he's an inquisitive sort, he decided to try an American college. Tardits enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens and soon learned that the dream of that state's youth was to don uniforms of red and black and play a game called football. Tardits also learned that players from outside the state were considered foreigners; those from other countries were called placekickers. And he learned that if you played this game very well, the school would pay for your education as well. Tr�s bizarre!
Tardits, who for two years had played on the French junior national rugby team, figured he would give this American football a go. On the first day of open practice in April 1985, coach Vince Dooley lined Tardits up at tight end and told him to block the defensive end. Tardits tackled the nearest defender around the legs. Said Dooley to himself, "Ain't no way this kid's going to learn to play football."
But Dooley took another look at Tardits's size (6'2", 200 pounds) and speed (4.5 in the 40) and asked him if he would like to try the special teams. "Is it fooot-bul?" Tardits asked. Yes, said Dooley. "Then I'd like that," said Tardits. "Thank you very much."
On Sept. 2, 1985, Tardits entered Sanford Stadium with the Bulldogs for their game against Alabama. But after a season of covering kickoffs, Tardits still hadn't earned a scholarship. Then one day in spring practice Tardits sacked the quarterback several times, and Dooley did something he had rarely done in his 22 years at Georgia: He gave Tardits a battlefield promotion to scholarship status, even though Tardits still barely knew the wishbone from the Sorbonne.
Now 23, 220 pounds and a senior outside linebacker, Tardits has mastered the sport. If he gets three sacks against Kentucky this Saturday, he'll have 29 for his career and become the cr�me de la cr�me of pass rushers in the history of Georgia, despite starting for only one season.
"He's brilliant, and he's a physical talent," says the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator, Bill Lewis. "But when he first came here, it was almost—almost—a joke." Indeed, in the game against Ole Miss two years ago, Tardits was sent in with instructions for the punt return team to attack to the right, or "rip," side. "Reep, reep," he announced in the huddle. No one could understand him, and the Bulldogs were clobbered on the play. Three weeks later he found himself the 12th Georgia player on the field and had to dash to the sideline to avoid a penalty. There he stood, calmly waiting for the next snap—on the Kentucky side of the field. And there was the game against LSU last season when Tardits felt he had been the victim of a cheap shot and began cussing at his assailant in French. To Tardits's surprise, the LSU player, a real Cajun, cussed right back in French.
Being a Bulldog has provided Tardits with unexpected opportunity. His scholarship has paid for a dual undergraduate degree in international business and management information systems, and he hopes to earn his M.B.A. next spring.
While Tardits was growing up in Biarritz, in the Basque region of southwestern France, he was encouraged by his father, Maurice, a contractor, and his mother, Christine, who assists in the family business, to try everything—even running with the bulls in Pamplona. Tardits plans on a career in international investments, but not before traveling Down Under to play Australian football, becoming an Olympic bobsledder and, especially, surfing in Hawaii. He skateboards around campus, pretending to ride waves.
The NFL may have other plans for Tardits, who could go as high as the fourth round in next spring's draft. "Talking to me about the NFL is like talking to me about going to China," he says, which makes it sound quite plausible.