Young Georgia sportswriter refuses to let disability derail his path to the Super Bowl

1:20 | NFL
NFL Gameplan: Super Bowl LI
Tuesday January 31st, 2017

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — At 18 years old, Brandon Sudge is preparing to cover his third-ever NFL game. It just so happens to be the Super Bowl.

A college freshman, Sudge balances attending classes twice a week with writing about 4–5 stories a week for the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, usually delivering one or two Falcons stories and the rest on his main beat, University of Georgia football recruiting.

Sudge is funding his own trip to Houston this week, leaving his hometown of Buford, Ga., on Saturday and staying two nights for a total cost of around $800—a substantial figure for a college kid.

“I felt like with the Falcons in the Super Bowl, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get that experience as an 18-year-old and also get that content out to our readership,” Sudge says.

NFL
Atlanta Rising: The Falcons and their fan base embark on a new era

On top of being beyond his years as a sports reporter and one of the busiest college freshmen you’ll meet, Sudge has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair most of the time. In a profession that routinely gripes about press-box food and travel delays, Sudge has real-life obstacles to his job that are both literal and figurative.

I first noticed Sudge in the press conference following Atlanta’s divisional round win against Seattle. He asked Matt Ryan about getting Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman involved in the passing game. Over the next two weeks he was just as fearless talking to coach Dan Quinn, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, cornerback Jalen Collins and others. What impressed me the most, though, was the his substantive question-asking. There was no lazy “talk about” questions but rather thoughtful and concise inquiries that had a point.

You’ll notice a stutter with Sudge, a common trait among those with cerebral palsy. But what also struck me was that no one interrupted his questions, and their respect for Sudge was the same as for every other reporter there.

“I don’t think being in a chair or anything should be a deterrent from going up there and talking to them at all. I’m going to go up there and be like everyone else,” Sudge says. “It’s not going to change how I do anything. I’m going to go ask the question, and I hope they give me a solid answer. And if they don’t want to comment on something then they don’t have to. I’m not going to alter the path in terms of how I work just because I have a different set of circumstances.”

NFL
The Big Interview: Playing days behind him, Michael Vick now rooting for his former team

Sudge’s bread and butter is recruiting news. A lifelong fan of the Georgia Bulldogs, he started writing about the school for an independent fan site in Oct. 2015 while still in high school. He posted a video of himself walking without assistance, and UGA recruit Javon Wims took inspiration from it. Wims, now a receiver with the Bulldogs, invited Sudge with him on his official visit where Georgia coach Kirby Smart gave him the full five-star recruiting treatment.

Around this time, the Telegraph’s UGA reporter, Jason Butt, reached out to Sudge. They had exchanged tweets before and, having read some of Sudge’s recruiting articles, Butt told him that the Telegraph is always looking for freelance help with recruiting.

“Once he graduated from high school we started to talk to him about doing some stories, and it’s grown from there,” Butt says. “I envisioned one or two stories a week and sometimes he’s doing four or five stories a week. It never stops with him when it comes to story ideas. For someone his age to do what he’s doing, it’s really impressive. He’s well beyond the path that a lot of kids his age who want to be sportswriters take.”

In the eight months he’s been a freelancer, Sudge estimates he’s written at least 100 stories, mostly on recruiting news. He’s broken a handful of stories and has a healthy competitive fire to beat the rival Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Covering recruiting is a tough, fluid business that requires a lot of phone work. Sudge is an avid texter, and when he conducts phone interviews he lets the subject know at the beginning that he has a stutter, then it’s all business.

And his Georgia fandom has waned as he’s continued in this profession, which tends to happen when reporters cover the teams they once cheered for.

“If something comes up and I hear something, I’m going to go up there and report everything that I’m told—well, not everything that I’m told—but stuff that I’m told that has significance,” says Sudge, who attends Georgia Gwinnett College now and hopes to transfer to UGA to major in journalism next school year. “Whether it be something about high school recruiting or team information, I’m not going to hold back because they gave me that [official recruiting visit] opportunity. I’m thankful for that opportunity. Definitely. Journalism and reporting is something that is a lifelong thing and I’m not planning to hold anything back on that.”

Macon is located in central Georgia where the Bulldogs—not the Falcons—rule, and the Telegraph doesn’t have a Falcons beat reporter. So Sudge, who lives in Buford, a quick 10 minutes away from the Falcons’ training facility in Flowery Branch, asked the editor early in the regular season if he could go to Falcons’ practice on Wednesdays and turn around a feature. He’s been covering the team during the week since October, and the first two NFL games he covered were the Falcons’ playoff wins against Seattle and Green Bay.

NFL locker rooms can be tough terrain to navigate, and Atlanta’s is especially difficult. The Falcons have three ping-pong tables and six lounge chairs in their Flowery Branch locker room, and there’s a large Falcons logo on the carpet in an open space that no one is allowed to step on.

The team decided this in the off-season when they wrote their standard, and multiple players and PR staffers will yell at media members who unwittingly step on “the bird.” So last Wednesday, in an already cramped locker room, local and national media flooded the area, which made it even tougher to get around.  No fewer than a half-dozen media members trampled on the bird. Sudge, meanwhile, carefully wheeled his way along the outer edge of the bird despite the congestion.

 

NFL
Get your Atlanta Falcons NFC Conference Champions gear

“He obviously was born with the disability, but it’s nothing that he lets hold him back. I think he wants it that way,” Butt says. “All he wants is to be treated fairly and to be treated like any other member of the press corps.

“He’s different in the way he approaches and attacks things. I’m harder on him than probably any other student I’ve worked with. I see the potential in him. I see that one day I’ll probably be working for him. That’s really why I’m harder on him than anybody else.”

Unfortunately Sudge won’t get the full Super Bowl week experience. The trip would be far too expensive for Sudge to self-fund if he stayed in Houston for eight days like most of the media. Plus, he has a full slate back home—Wednesday is National Signing Day, and Georgia has a top-three recruiting class this year, so Sudge will be churning out content all day. Thursday he has class, Friday he packs and Saturday he’ll head to Houston. Sunday is the game, Monday he flies back and Tuesday he has class again.

Then he’s back to his regular recruiting coverage because the grind of recruiting never stops. Neither does Brandon Sudge.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.