Skip to main content
Original Issue

AWOL and Unlamented

By holding out, Indianapolis quarterback Jeff George is enhancing his reputation as a quitter

The boat is gone now, Repossessed by the marina that allowed him to use it in exchange for the goodwill that once attached itself to Jeff George's name, like barnacles to a hull. Indeed, that wasn't the only barnacle attached to the boat's hull, for almost as soon as he got the boat, George named it after himself. Those were palmier days for George, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.

Now there is a new boat moored behind George's house on Geist Reservoir in Indianapolis, but it remains unnamed and virtually unused. The skipper of this unhappy vessel can see it from the house in which he has made himself a prisoner, but he will not come out and play. George failed to show up when quarterbacks, rookies, free agents and injured veterans were expected at the Colt camp on July 15, and as of Monday he had been neither seen nor heard from by teammates or the Indianapolis front office. "I've seen guys hold out because their contracts were up," says Kirk Lowdermilk, the $6.5 million free-agent center whom the Colts brought in to help protect George. "But I've never seen a guy just not show up."

Even players who consider themselves friends of George's say they haven't heard from him in more than a month. "I don't think he's coming back," says wide receiver Reggie Langhorne, "and I think the reason nobody has talked to him is that he's trying to break his ties to this team in his mind. When I held out [with the Cleveland Browns, in 1991], I knew everything that was going on, including when it was time to get my butt back into camp. Jeff hasn't talked to anybody."

George's agent, Leigh Steinberg, had to persuade his client to attend the Colts' minicamp in May, and though George seemed eager for the season to start—he had cut back on his consumption of beer and shed 15 pounds—he was still seething at having been benched and booed during Indianapolis's season-ending flourish of five straight wins. "Jeff had said things at the end of last season, so I wasn't surprised," says backup quarterback and newly appointed starter Jack Trudeau. "Part of me says he's crazy, but if this makes him that miserable, maybe he's doing the best thing for Jeff."

Doing what's best for Jeff has always been George's primary concern. Two days before training camp was to begin, he ambled into the office of Colt general manager Jim Irsay, told him he no longer wanted to play in Indianapolis, his hometown, and insisted on being traded. "It's insulting for you to be in my office," replied Irsay, who then warned George. "Don't do it [sit out]. It's going to be a disastrous move."

Which it has been, at least for George. For one thing, he has succeeded in turning the team's once-reviled owner, Irsay's father, Bob, into a sympathetic figure. Even Lowdermilk, who has met George only once, says, "I've heard he's a public relations nightmare."

George has become football's Flying Dutchman, a lonely mariner whose strange voyage began eight years ago as a highly touted freshman at Purdue. He played there for one season and then quit when the coach who had recruited him, Leon Burtnett, was forced to resign. A day after the press conference announcing Burtnett's resignation, the 18-year-old George made his own pronouncement to the press, warning the school's administrators that they had better consult him before they hired Burtnett's replacement.

When they didn't, George appeared to be charting a course for Miami, which was holding a scholarship for him, but he changed his mind and set sail for Illinois. After sitting out for a year, he played two seasons in Champaign and with a year of eligibility remaining, moved on again when Indianapolis made him the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NFL draft.

"He's never finished a thing his entire life," said one Colt fan when interviewed in a telephone survey about George by The Indianapolis News. "He didn't at Purdue. He didn't at Illinois. Now he wants to cop out on us. He needs to grow up."

George's lack of maturity was never more evident than during last season. He missed the first three weeks of the season while recovering from an injured right thumb, then led Indianapolis to three wins in their next four games before two consecutive shutout losses set Colt fans to booing their hapless quarterback. "Why do I get booed?" he said several days after the second blanking, a 28-0 loss at home to the Miami Dolphins. "Here's the honest answer: Because I'm good and I'm good-looking. That's number one. But number two is that I think people still remember the Purdue situation, and I don't think I'll ever live that down, whether I lead the team to a Super Bowl or I'm the top quarterback in the league." George looked anything but that a month later while laboring through a 16-for-30 passing afternoon, which also included five sacks and an interception, against the Jets at the Meadowlands. With the Colts trailing 6-3 midway through the fourth quarter, coach Ted Marchibroda benched George for Trudeau. It was the first time that George had ever been pulled from a game. He threw his helmet at the bench as he left the field and had heated words with Marchibroda. Then he stood in stony silence on the sideline as Trudeau guided Indianapolis to a 10-6 victory. "Ted made the decision, he'll have to live with the consequences," said George in an otherwise jubilant Colt locker room.

He was booed thunderously again at home the following week during the team introductions, raising his arms to the crowd as if to ask if that was the best it could do. But George played well in that game, in which he helped lead the Colts to a 16-13 win over the Phoenix Cardinals. The next week Trudeau once again came to the rescue, replacing George—who was suffering from a mild concussion—with Indianapolis trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 17-0. Trudeau marched the team down the field for touchdowns on three consecutive drives, and Indy came back to win 21-17. Still, George's position as this season's starting quarterback remained unthreatened (though since George began his holdout, the Colts have picked up former Green Bay Packer quarterback Don Majkowski).

Jim Irsay has described George's holdout as "suicidal," and like most suicides, it seems calculated to punish those left behind. "He doesn't like playing for this town because the people here have been hard on him," says Langhorne. "When he started playing bad, they turned on him, and he didn't know how to handle it. It's like when you're married and you have a big fight. The first thing some people do is walk out the door because they think if you have a problem, you just leave, that it's going to be better somewhere else. But it isn't."

George, who is single, has said that he resents all the local criticism of his parents, who have been mocked for coming to every training camp practice when Jeff isn't holding out. Irsay, however, doesn't consider George's concern for his family to be a valid reason to be traded. "No one knows better than I do how hard the game is on your family," said Irsay. "My family's lives have been threatened; we've had to wear bulletproof vests. It's part of being in the game." Bulletproof vests? In Indianapolis? And people call it the No Fun League.

Langhorne's theory is that George, the consensus high school player of the year in 1985 and a three-sport star at Warren Central High, is suffering from a stubborn case of golden-boy syndrome, an ailment common among those who experience fame at a young age and become convinced that they can do no wrong. "As a high school player, he got the world handed to him," says Langhorne. "He goes to college, same thing. He didn't have to practice a lot to throw 300 yards a game. Always taken care of, always natural, always easy. It's different now. There are guys who live and die by what they do on Sunday. When it got to the point where he had to buckle down and he didn't always have people cheering for him, he didn't know how to accept it."

George is only halfway through a six-year, $12.48 million contract, but no one has brought up money yet. All he seems to want is a way out. "There will be no trade," says Irsay. "We won't consider it, no way in hell. It's a direct slap in the face for him not to be here. He begged to play in his hometown, and I gave up a lot to bring him here. [The Colts traded two Pro Bowl players, tackle Chris Hinton and receiver Andre Rison, and a first-round draft choice to Atlanta to get the top pick in the '90 draft.] Now he owes a debt to this organization."

Irsay, who hints darkly about the precedent set in the recent $8.9 million jury verdict against actress Kim Basinger, who had reneged on a commitment to appear in a movie, intends to see that George pays. "I really feel a line has been crossed where damage has been done to the team," says Irsay. "He has two options—continue his NFL career here or don't continue it. And if he doesn't, then we have some other business to settle up."

As of Monday, George faced fines of $76,000, which were mounting at a rate of $4,000 a day. Even if he does rejoin the Colts, George will have a good deal of settling up to do with his teammates. "I don't see how he can mend any fences." says offensive tackle Kevin Call. "He's pretty much torn them all down. You don't forgive these things. He wants the fans to leave him alone. I mean, grow up and learn a little bit. If you don't want to get into the limelight, then get out. Go be a trashman, or whatever it was he studied in school."

Actually, it was speech communications. And, believe it or not, he finished the courses.



The Colts were at their best in '92 with George on the bench, so some folks in Indy don't miss him.



[See caption above.]



Irsay warned George about the folly of his demand to be traded.



With Majkowski (9) and Trudeau (10) at his side, Marchibroda may well not need George.