ATLANTA - Under the watchful eyes of those filling MARTA trains that pass on a track above the practice field every seven or so minutes, the 2017 version of the Georgia State Panthers are hard at work
It's game week for Shawn Elliott's men and as the day's preparation wraps up, the goofing off begins; leading the charge is former West Hall standout Hunter Atkinson. He tries to get teammates to laugh during post-practice interviews and makes no bones about having to do some "up downs" for jumping offsides during 11-on-11 drills. There's an ease in Atkinson's demeanor, and his fellow offensive lineman follow along, maybe aware of what it took for him to get on that field, maybe not.
When a person is deemed resilient, it isn’t just their strength to withstand that allows for that description, but also their ability to bounce back.
West Hall coach Tony Lotti used the word resilient to describe Atkinson and then added that his former player was like a Timex, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Atkinson’s journey from graduating high school in 2014 as a promising tight end prospect at the University of Georgia, to a now two-year starter on the offensive line for Georgia State indicates that Lotti wasn’t speaking literally about the football players ability to get back up from a hit.
“They say adversity builds character. I believe adversity reveals character,” said Lotti. “Hunter is proof that when a man has character, in the end, he can face what comes his way, persevere and accomplish his goals. I’m just the lucky guy that God has allowed to be part of his life”
The first lick was self-induced and came when Atkinson decided in the fall of 2014 to walk away from a full football scholarship to Georgia, after having been on campus less than a month, with no other place to enroll, much less play the game he loved.
“There was a lot of reasoning (behind leaving Georgia),” said Atkinson. “I guess the only thing I can say is it wasn’t for me, and that stunk because as a kid, that’s where I wanted to go and it was for me. I didn’t think being there and doing what they wanted me to do would get me where I wanted to go.”
The second lick came when his decision to walk away from the Bulldogs was publicly ridiculed, his character questioned, and the rumor mill started churning regarding why he left.
The first tick was his response, “These were diehard fans and it’s completely understandable,” said Atkinson, “but I had to get off social media for months. It was hard because they’d make comments that weren’t close to being true. It was hard for me not to say something back, but I was raised better than that. I had to be the bigger person and at 18 that was difficult because I was a hot head. It takes a toll on you emotionally though…people who don’t understand just coming up with their own theories.”
When Atkinson left Georgia, he did so thinking another opportunity at a different institution was in the near future, not two years down the road. When that opportunity didn’t present itself readily, he was left searching, and this time it was for more than just the right school at which to play football.
“I wouldn’t say miserable because there’s a lot of people who go through worse,’ said Atkinson, “but I definitely had to grow up quickly. My mom and dad made me go to work, they were done helping me, so I had to earn enough money on my own to pay for one semester in the hopes of getting on another scholarship, which (looking back) I had wasted the first time.”
Atkinson said that his parents, Chris and Mary Atkinson, had taught him to be true to himself and a man of his word above all else. His parents weren’t upset that he wasn’t playing football for Georgia, or that he was a little off course and not playing at all, but rather discouraged that when things didn’t work out for Atkinson as quickly as planned, he became resigned to his lot in life.
“It was hard because (my mom) could tell I was letting myself down (by not actively pursuing football),” said Atkinson. “We went through a lot of tough situations family-wise. They knew football was where I belonged and they pushed it, at the time I didn’t want to hear it and it led to a lot of fights. They stayed on me and while I knew I was coming back (to the field) regardless, they helped me get there sooner.”
Atkinson went to work for a power company between leaving Georgia and getting to Georgia State and that, along with his family’s desire that he be true to himself, was the final lick that led to the ultimate tick.
“You work one winter storm, 48 hours with no sleep out in the snow, freezing and soaking wet, and you realize, ‘I’ve got a better future then this ahead of me,’” said Atkinson. “So I had to get out of there and start my come back to something I love. The power business is good money, but it’s hard work.”
After many meetings with the staff at Georgia State, Atkinson joined the program in 2015 as a redshirt, meaning he could only practice. With a stated goal to the Panthers’ staff of not just wanting to play collegiately, but professionally, Atkinson also spent his redshirt season transitioning from that once-promising tight end, to an offensive lineman.
The thought of the Trent Miles-led staff at the time, and one that has carried over to the Elliott era, is that with Atkinson’s athletic ability, he’s a next-level tackle.
The former West Hall standout has gone from 250-290, but not the easy way.
“I could have gone to McDonald’s and eaten double quarter-pounders for months,” said Atkinson. “I couldn’t do (the transition) sloppy though because of where I want to go with this career.”
Atkinson’s track record shows he’s not one to take an easy route to any goal, and making the transition to offensive lineman is not an exception.
He worked out two or three times daily while learning how to properly fuel his body in an effort to meet a stated goal of putting on two pounds per week. If he didn’t make the goal one week, he had to double up the next week to make up for it.
“You look at tight ends and you’re like, ‘just block, it can’t be that hard,’” said Atkinson. “Well now that I’m there I realize it is that hard. It’s a rough position and I had to have my body properly ready for it.”
Thursday night, Atkinson will begin his second year as a starter on the offensive line for Georgia State when the Panthers host Tennessee State.
He’s withstood and he’s bounced back; for every lick, Hunter Atkinson hasn’t missed a chance to tick.
“I hope to make a career out of this and play pro,” said Atkinson, who made the dean’s list in the Spring of 2017. “I’ve got my head on straight and I know I have to work hard. I feel good with where I am. Being just two years into ever playing the position, to be able to do what I can do, I feel the only thing that can stop me is me, and I won’t let that happen again.”