The pride of Cedartown: Georgia's Nick Chubb is looking to put his hometown on the map
CEDARTOWN, Ga.—The weight room at Cedartown High is empty. It's June in northwest Georgia, a time when high school football players rarely walk through the doors. Several pieces of training equipment—mostly painted red and black, the Bulldogs' school colors—are strewn about the room. A pile of weights sits stacked against a wall. It'll be weeks before the space feels alive again.
Dozens of photographs dot the painted cinderblock of the room's west wall. The pictures are of every Cedartown player to have earned a college football scholarship. There's quarterback Jeff Burger, who went 19-3-2 as Auburn's starter in the mid-1980s. Nearby is another quarterback, Brian Burgdorf, who played sparingly at Alabama in the '90s. Also pictured is country music singer Sam Hunt—he of "Leave the Night On" fame—who threw for 2,030 yards in 2002 before playing at Middle Tennessee State, and later Alabama-Birmingham.
The most recognizable face on the wall, however, played for the Bulldogs only two years ago. There's a frame holding a photo of Nick Chubb wearing a number 21 jersey and posing in the end zone at Memorial Stadium. Chubb is now a sophomore tailback at Georgia and a 2015 Heisman Trophy candidate. Most of America knows him as one of the best players in college football. But Chubb's celebrity in Cedartown is different.
"He's probably the biggest name ever here," Bulldogs coach Scott Hendrix says. "But in this building, he's just Nick."
Highway 278 meanders across north-central Georgia and intersects with Highway 27 about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta. That's where you'll find Cedartown, a dusty Southern burg with a population of fewer than 10,000. Cedartown has a Main Street (one listed on the National Register of Historic Places), a high school and very little else.
The identity of Cedartown's most famous native is the subject of some debate. Edgar Chandler, an All-America linebacker at Georgia in the late 1960s who played six NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots, once called Cedartown home, as did Ray Beck, who was an All-America guard at Georgia Tech in 1951. Sterling Holloway, the late actor who provided the voice for Winnie the Pooh, has his own display case—complete with signed Disney memorabilia—at the Cedartown Welcome Center.
But none of those men did much to raise Cedartown's profile. Chubb could change that. "It's a place you've never heard of," Chubb says of his hometown. "I just say [that] I'm from near Rome, Georgia, for anyone to know what I'm talking about. It's a small country town where everybody knows everybody. There's not much going on; the place is dead by nine o'clock each night."
Chubb started playing football when he was five years old, but he didn't truly begin to build his legend until his freshman year at Cedartown High. He started a handful of games as a ninth-grader, running for 576 yards, before he broke out as sophomore in 2011. In a game at Allatoona High, Chubb ran for 189 yards, and made 13 tackles as a linebacker. "He never told me this—because Nick will always do what you ask him to do—but he told some people he thought he could score every time if he didn't play defense," Hendrix says.
As a junior, Chubb needed only 10 games to set a state record with 2,721 rushing yards (the Bulldogs went 6–4 and missed the playoffs). He fell just shy of besting his own mark the following season, when he ran for 2,690 yards and scored 41 touchdowns in 11 games. His best performance as a senior came in a game against Ridgeland High. The Panthers had been state runner-ups the year before, but Chubb torched them for 267 rushing yards with three touchdowns in a 36–14 Bulldogs win. In typical Chubb fashion, his own performance isn't what he remembers. "They were undefeated when they came to play us," Chubb says, "and we beat them pretty badly."
Meanwhile, he also starred for Cedartown's track and field team, running the 100 and 200 meters, and competing in the long jump and the shot put. He qualified for state championship meet in the long jump, and ran the 100 in 10.6 seconds and the 200 in 21.8. "It's very rare to see a 224-pound kid go over and throw the shot, win that, then come back and put spikes on and run a 10.6," says Cedartown track coach Mikey Worthington.
Still, Chubb might have been at his best in the weight room. Worthington also coached the school's weightlifting team during Chubb's senior season, when he set a state power-clean record of 395 pounds. That was at the state tournament, where Chubb's three-lift total—including his power clean, squat (645 pounds) and bench press (390)—was 1,430 pounds, the highest of the competition.
When he returns home now, Chubb still carves out as much time for workouts as possible. When his younger sister, Neidra, graduated from Cedartown last spring, Chubb snuck into the weight room at 8 a.m. before going to her commencement at 10.
"It's a safe haven for him," Worthington says. "We want him to come in here, be Nick and not worry about the hype. We care about him enough that we try to downplay that kind of stuff for him. When he walks in the door, I treat him like a dang eighth-grader trying to make the team."
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Chubb's rise to Division I stardom happened in what seemed like the blink of an eye. He received limited carries in Georgia's first five games of 2014 before exploding for 100-plus rushing yards in each of the Bulldogs' last eight games. He finished with 1,547 yards on the ground—fourth-most in school history—to go with 14 rushing touchdowns as a true freshman.
Pick a Georgia game and you're likely to find a highlight featuring the 5' 10", 220-pound Chubb. He loudly announced his arrival with a 47-yard scoring run in his collegiate debut against Clemson last September. His 83-yard touchdown run against Charleston Southern last November was the longest by a Bulldogs player since 1985. In Georgia's victory over Louisville in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 30, Chubb went off for 266 rushing yards, the second-most in school history.
Much of Chubb's production came in place of star tailback Todd Gurley, who was suspended four games for accepting money in exchange for autographs, and who later tore the ACL in his left knee in a 34–7 win over Auburn in November. But to hear those close to Chubb tell it, his FBS star turn was bound to happen sooner rather than later. "I don't know that I was surprised," says Lavelle Chubb, Nick's mother. "I was more excited, because I knew he was very determined and played to his full potential every time. And once he reaches [his] full potential, he strives for even more."
Chubb is on every Heisman Trophy watch list. In Athens, he's aware of the notoriety. "People notice me, but they really don't bother me," he said. "They just look at me, laugh and smile, whatever."
To escape from the hype, Chubb heads to Cedartown. He'll stop by Ellis Pub—he orders lemon pepper wings and fries—or The Border Grill, a Mexican restaurant. But mostly he makes time for his family. Chubb counts his mom and older brother, Zach, a former defensive back at Air Force, as his biggest supporters. When Chubb returns home, his mom's homemade burgers are one of his primary demands. "The fame he has," Lavelle says, "he could live without it, I think."
Most of Chubb's visits to Cedartown are low key, but last March he went home to work out with his old coaches over spring break. As he ran sprints on the track one afternoon, the Bulldogs baseball squad was warming up for a game against Chattooga High. It didn't take long for Chattooga's players to realize that an SEC star was training a few steps away. In a matter of moments they had surrounded Chubb, with several guys begging him for autographs and selfies.
"I don't want to say he was offended, because Nick's always polite to everybody," Hendrix says. "But he said, 'Guys, don't y'all have a game to play?'"
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The unofficial Cedartown High Hall of Fame sits on the south edge of the football field. Five mounted jerseys rest atop 20-foot poles, a shrine to the most important figures in Bulldogs history. The monument honors Beck, Chandler and three others: former coach John Hill; former player Lloyd Gray, Jr.; and Howard (Doc) Ayers, an ex-Cedartown coach who also served on Vince Dooley's staff at Georgia. The Bulldogs' field is named in Ayers's honor.
Chubb's number 21 jersey isn't mounted on a pole. Instead, it's framed in the hallway outside Hendrix's office. Cedartown hasn't retired Chubb's number, but it might as well have. "As long as I'm here," Hendrix says, "nobody's going to wear that number."
This fall, Chubb is more concerned with building his SEC legacy. Coming off wins over Louisiana-Monroe (51–14) and Vanderbilt (31–14), Georgia is favored to win the wide-open SEC East, which means folks in Athens expect a trip to Atlanta in December. The media tabbed Chubb as a preseason first-team all-conference selection; he earned more votes than any other player in the league. Chubb is the focal point of a Dawgs offense that is breaking in a new starting quarterback (junior Greyson Lambert) and a new offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer), and has rushed for 309 yards with two touchdowns heading into a Week 3 matchup with South Carolina.
Chubb isn't alone in the backfield. Senior tailback Keith Marshall has returned after missing 10 games in 2014 with an injured leg. Electric sophomore Sony Michel is also a playmaker. But Chubb has already proven that he is capable of shouldering the burden of Georgia's lofty expectations. Gurley, who was selected with the No. 10 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, was the headliner for three years. Now it's Chubb's turn. "When a young player has the production Nick had, it gets everybody's attention," Georgia coach Mark Richt says. "Just like when Todd had his freshman year [in '12]. Like it or not, people look to you. People see you have success, and they kind of feed off you."
That responsibility doesn't seem to faze Chubb, who is quickly becoming familiar with how bright the spotlight can be for a 19-year-old in America's most vaunted conference. But he remains driven by two things: a shot at a national title and a chance to bring pride to his neighbors back home. Successes are glorified in a small town, and failures magnified. The latter isn't an option for Chubb. "It's kind of like being a hometown hero," Chubb says. "I'm back here at Georgia doing it for my state."
He's also doing it for Cedartown.