One Georgia Bulldog football player’s triumphs on the field carry over to the woods
“I went as a walk-on. And they had completely written me off after the first Fall.” Jim smiles wide with an expression that makes you think for a second he’s going to pat you on the shoulder. He is standing tall in the midst of a forest he manages–one of many–on a recently cleared path that cuts through a tract of planted pine. His frame, which testifies to his playing days from ‘75 to ‘77, is unaffected by the occasional breeze waking the branches around him.
“But, in spring training after that first season, things just kinda fell into place. They ended up giving me a scholarship.” Jim finishes his sentence on a down note and turns to continue on the path, lips shut like the story is over, like there is nothing more to his years as a Georgia football player, as if all the glory had decomposed long ago and all that remains is a vague reference to the memory.
After some careful prodding, however, the fifth all-time career primary tackler for the Georgia Bulldogs shares a little more.
“Alright,” he stops again in the middle of the path in the woods and turns and offers another smile, “See, when you go into practice everyday, the first thing you do is walk by a bulletin board before you go into the building and dressing room, and it has a depth chart with every player,” he points with his right index finger to an imaginary list and drags it down slowly. “They may move you without telling you–from one position to another, or bump you from first team to second team, or whatever. Well, the first day of spring training, there were seven two-man teams of linebackers–that’s fourteen–and then me, “ he pauses for effect and then asks with a stare: “What do you think that does for your ego?” A brief moment of gravity flashes before Jim tilts his head back to let out a roar of laughter in which his deep southern accent is curiously discernible, and then, appearing to settle a little more comfortably into the recollection, he looks down for a few moments, mentally picking through a pile of details for the best words to frame the story.
“It was one of those things where you just got beat to a pulp, but you knew that if you were ever gon’ to play, this was the opportunity. It was do or die, I mean, your forearms are swollen up–just beat to a pulp. But you go out and you do it.”
After months of grinding through spring practices as the last linebacker on the depth chart, young Jim’s opportunity finally came. Late in the training season, twelve of the linebackers ahead of him became injured, and, as the third of the only three remaining, Jim was rotated into varsity scrimmages to give the other two guys a break.
“And then, one day, it was like a light switch went off. There was a kid from Carrollton, a running back, and he came around end and I go running out there and I go to tackle him and it was like BOOM!” Jim smacks his hands together and doesn’t even pause to breathe between sentences. “The first thing that hit the grass was the back of his head gear. And it just lit everybody up. Defense was pumped. Adrenaline starts to flow. And the first thought in my mind was, ‘You know, I might could do this.’
“Until that point, your mind is thinking, you ain’t worth a toot, you ain’t got a scholarship, what’re you doing? Then all the sudden, instead of holding back, you become aggressive and you start attacking people. Instead of holding up, you’re driving through ‘em. And you take on blockers like you never have before and you stand your ground and shuck ‘em off and make a tackle. And you get the coach’s attention, and then one day you’re at the Saturday afternoon practice at the stadium where we would occasionally do an all-afternoon scrimmage, and you finish up and everybody goes to the center of the field where coach Dooley has his remarks. And he says, ‘Today, we had only two people on the field that were hungry. We can’t win games unless you’re hungry.’ And he named those two people, and I was the first one. And he sent me on to the bus ahead of everybody else–which was a really big, huge deal. I’m still a walk-on at this point. I’m still a peon! And as much as having seven teams of linebackers ahead of me was an ego deflator, calling my name out in front of that whole group of guys and then sending me off that field early did the exact opposite–it just built me up. And literally, from then on, it was like, I got it. I’m gon’ kick some butt. They ain’t blocking me. I’m making every tackle.”
Jim went on to become a starter and one of the most skilled tacklers in Georgia Bulldog Football history. Perhaps more importantly though, his newfound faith in the fruit of hard labor became a pillar for the rest of his life.
As a college student, Jim’s academics paralleled the delayed glory of his football career. Having grown up on a farm and being fond of the outdoors, Jim arrived at UGA wanting to become a Wildlife Management major; after three years of lackluster attention to his studies in light of a busy football schedule, however, he lost confidence that he could handle the difficult Wildlife Management coursework and resigned to an easier major. Then, one Sunday afternoon, while watching a movie with his girlfriend (now wife), he found the inspiration he needed to pursue his dream.
“The movie was called The Adventures of the Wilderness Family. This guy just took off and went to Canada and built a cabin with his whole family. And watching them experience the wilderness and outdoors, I thought, ‘That’d be right down my alley. I’m going to change my major. I’m going to go for it.’”
The very next day, Jim met with a professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural resources to announce his plan. To his dismay, however, the professor took one glance at Jim’s 2.1 GPA after three years of coursework and said, “You’re wasting your time; you aren’t going to go get in.”
But just when Jim’s vision of one day working in the outdoors seemed stunted, grace would have it that his breakthrough on the field carried over to the classroom.
“Then a man named Reid Parker called me. He was the head of the counseling student recruiting for the Forestry School, but Reid also just happened to be on the athletic board at the University of Georgia. So when he called me and knew who I was and was excited about me coming to Forestry School, I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ He was very encouraging about me coming [to Warnell]. And I told him I was coming anyways–I had made up my mind.”
In Parker, Jim found the academic coach and cheerleader he needed. As Jim dug his cleats into his studies, Reid guided him through the requirements to get into Warnell, offering him encouragement at every turn. After two years, Jim pulled up his GPA above the required 2.8, earning near perfect grades in every class, and then he went on to obtain his undergraduate degree in Wildlife Management.
With his goal accomplished, Jim carried forward the momentum to immediately earn a Master’s degree in Forestry at Warnell. By the time Jim finally parted with UGA, he had gained the respect of professors and administrators just as he had earlier from coaches and teammates.
Nowadays, Jim Griffith is a consulting forester.
“Beetles seem to be attracted to weakened stands of timber–the trees that are under stress, that are weak, and that just can’t fight ‘em off,” says Jim as he points in the distance to an imagined group of infested trees that in no way characterizes the forest around him now. He had been explaining the biological conditions requisite for healthy stands of pine, a subject in which he has long been adept and able to translate into substantial profits for his timberland-owning clients.
For over twenty years, Jim managed the Georgia Farm Bureau’s Real Estate & Timber Services division, and in doing so he developed an expertise in timber management practices and market maneuvering. In late 2009, Jim left the Bureau in order to start his own consulting firm and hasn’t looked back since. In fact, Jim continues adding to his to entrepreneurial ventures, as he and his son, Taylor, launched a first-of-its-kind web service that connects timberland owners with consulting foresters called Timber Update.
Like most things in his life, however, Jim’s success did not come without grit and determination up front. And per usual, his unyielding work ethic and propensity to overcome obstacles proved to be his winning asset.
“I spent a lot of time in the woods early on [in my career]. There was a lot of days that I just flat out quit this business–I give up; I ain’t coming back. You’d be out in the woods in the summer and it’s hot, you’ve been there all day, you worn out, you tired, it’s thick, you going through brush, it’s green, you’ve got saw briers in there, you’re ready to get home, and then all the sudden one of these green brier vines grabs you across the face and cuts you and your arms are already cut up because you’re on a compass line, you shooting a straight compass line going through here and you can’t go right or left, you gotta go right through it. You think, ‘I quit,’ and you cuss, and you’re fed up with it. You think, ‘I’m leaving and I won’t be back.’ But, you’re back out the next morning to finish up. You get it done. You just do it.”
Along the way, Jim has had many opportunities to train and mentor young foresters. While many of them have gone on to thrive in their own careers, Jim uses the story of one particular individual who didn’t quite have the necessary fortitude to emphasize just how important perseverance is in forestry.
“I hired a guy out of the University of Georgia. I told him, ‘For two years you’re going to be out in the woods; you’re going to be doing grunt work; it’s going to be hard work, it ain’t going to be easy; and you may want to quit.’ He said to me, ‘I can do that. I can handle it. I can be in the woods.’
“Well, I sent him down to southeast Georgia–boy, they got a lot of junk down there–and he called and said, ‘Hey–this is too thick! I can’t go through this!’
I said, ‘We don’t have an option. We’ve already committed to do it.’
‘Naw, I can’t do it! This is too thick.’
‘We’ve got to do it.’
‘I didn’t go to school for four years to come out and–’
‘We had this conversation. I told you: for two years this is going to be grunt work and it’s going to be a pain…’
Jim shakes his head and looks down. “Long story short, he turned around and came back to the office, thinking he still had a job–he didn’t.”
Jim opens another smile and laughs a bit to show the humor he still finds in the story, and it’s apparent that he harbors no animosity toward the boy–and never actually had. He finishes chuckling and sighs.
“Mentality is a huge part of making it. I guess that’s true in life. I’m pretty sure it is.”
Turning back to the path in the woods, Jim leads forward to the edge of the pond and turns around to examine the long row he had just trekked.
“You see, I just flagged straight line rows from one end to the other,” he says while using both hands to articulate a forest thinning technique that cuts out a road for future harvests. He explains that pine stands of this maturity typically have ten-foot spacing between rows in order to allow sunlight sufficient for crown development, and because he wanted the loggers to remove only a single row, the result should be a twenty-foot road.
“The dealer said, ‘We want to mark it, but we don’t know how to,’ so I said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ Because if we had left it up to that logger, he’d a taken that tree and this one over here and some more,” says Jim as he points to various trees on the edge of the path he had just walked, “He’d have this row thirty feet wide! That’s no good.”
The narrow path is best, Jim seems to be saying. If not yet cleared–and it never is–the thick brush must be trudged through, not around, and without sweating an ounce of quit until the job is done.
Jim turns to the pond and looks out across the water, using his hand to block the sun. His forearms are thick and leathery, and on them one cannot easily distinguish the long healed scars from brier patches and face masks. He looks back to the path and grins once more, leaving some happy thought unsaid. Or perhaps he’s been saying it all along. Whether wearing hiking boots or shoulder pads, Jim will make it through.