June 3, 2008
ATLANTA Correy Earls and Demaryius Thomas grew up less than 50 miles apart. The two, however, didn't know much about each other until high school.
Despite playing in separate classifications for their last two years, they competed often in basketball. Earls, who played at Central High in Macon, and Thomas, who played at West Laurens High in Dublin, played just twice in high school football.
They drew a little closer as senior basketball rivals but never as close as they would be a year later, when they became freshman roommates at Georgia Tech.
"I knew (Earls) pretty good, so I was exited to know we were going to Tech together," said Thomas, who decided on Tech months after Earls did, during their senior years. "I knew we'd both be playing the same position and that it would be great to room with someone I knew."
So Earls and Thomas grew closer throughout the 2006 season, as both redshirted while adapting to the college game.
"It helped having (Earls) around to go through the (redshirt) season together," Thomas said.
But neither knew the importance of that newly formed bond until early in the 2007 season.
Thomas was in the midst of the best game of his short career on Sept. 22 against Virginia. The 6-4 freshman caught four passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. But Thomas' most vivid memories from that game don't involve any of those catches.
Tech was driving late in the game for a potential game-tying or game-winning score when Earls suffered a head injury.
Earls remained motionless on the field for several minutes before getting carted off the field. He had to spend the night in a Charlottesville hospital under observation. At that moment, Earls' football career was in doubt.
"When a guy first goes down, guys go down all the time, so you're dealing with other things," then-Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "When a guy stays on the ground for a while, you start to get nervous. There are a lot of people, but you go over there. It is a scary moment, to be honest with you. You're much more like a parent than a coach at that point in time."
Said Earls, "I went numb, didn't feel much. My memory of what happened isn't great. I was going in and out of (consciousness). It was a pretty scary time."
Thomas made the trip back to Atlanta without Earls, thinking about his injured roommate the entire way.
When he got back to Atlanta, Earls found out his career wasn't over. The injury would cause him some aches and pains, and he had to wear a neck brace. He found out in further evaluations that the news continued to get better. Not only was he going to play football again, Earls would play again in 2007.
"It was one of the scariest things I've ever seen," said Anthony Hines, Earls' high school coach. "You just prayed everything was fine. To go from worrying about the worst to hearing he might be able to play again this year was a pretty incredible feeling."
Less than a month after the injury, Earls returned to action against Miami, and he caught a pass. He missed just two games. He caught a pass in each of the next two games, against Army and Virginia Tech, showing no ill effects from the injury.
"I didn't have any worries when I got back on the field," Earls said. "I had already beat the scary stuff. The doctors cleared me. I made it through contact drills in practice with no negative affects."
THE MIDDLE-GEORGIA CONNECTION
In Earls' short absence, Thomas went from playing big brother around the dorm room to competing for catches in practice and games.
"It was so tough to see him hurt like that," said Thomas, who had a career-best game against Maryland (nine catches for 139 yards and a touchdown) while Earls was sidelined. "I watched him go through a lot of tough times. I tried to do things for him, help him all I could. It was just great to have him back out at practice at all."
While Thomas was becoming an elite weapon for the Yellow Jackets' offense, Earls made his biggest splash since suffering the injury against Duke. Just shy of two months after getting carted off the field, Earls caught five passes for 86 yards and a touchdown.
"To see that was great for him," Thomas said. "I watched what he had to go through, so I knew how good that made him feel."
Following the Duke game, Tech receivers had four touchdown catches on the season. All were by either Thomas or Earls.
"We're the new Middle-Georgia Connection," Thomas said. "Maybe that's what we should be called. I know we're having a lot of fun."
Earls and Thomas would share the field as starters in a November win over North Carolina, the first start of Earls' career. They started another game alongside each other before the end of the season.
The physical Thomas finished the season second on the team in receptions and yards with 558, and he led the team with four touchdown catches. The speedy Earls had 188 yards and a touchdown on the season.
Both likely were going to be counted on as heavy contributors as sophomores before Gailey was fired in December. Their roles changed after Navy coach Paul Johnson was hired. He brought a spread option offense to the Flats this spring. It is more run-oriented than the previous regime's attack.