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November 30, 2005

Tiny UGA safety has big heart

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ATHENS, Ga. - Tra Battle strolled into the room, looking as though he got lost on his way to church.

In striking contrast to his Georgia teammates, Battle was decked out in a starched shirt and tie, impeccably pressed slacks and neatly shined shoes.

"I've been doing this all my life," said Battle, who dresses up a couple of days a week. "My mom's a minister, so I've got plenty of suits. There was no half-stepping with her. If you have on a collared shirt, you'd better have a tie on with it."

As anyone can plainly see, this is one guy who doesn't fit the mold.

While most of the Bulldogs had a scholarship when they arrived on campus, Battle walked on. While many of his teammates ducked into majors such as "sports studies," Battle opted for chemistry. While nearly everyone around him looks like a football player, Battle seems more suited for a spot on the chess club.

Heck, at 5-foot-11 and a mere 167 pounds, he's not even as big as Georgia's kicker or punter.

"When he got here, he was a skinny kid who believed in himself, worked hard and wasn't intimidated by anything," coach Mark Richt. "Now, three years later, he's still a skinny kid. But he won't back down from anything."

Battle didn't receive one scholarship offer - not even from the lower-division schools that gave him a look - but he played in his very first game with the Bulldogs. Before his sophomore year, he was rewarded with a scholarship. A season later, he moved up to take starting spot in the Georgia secondary.

Now a junior, Battle has defied everyone who said he was too small to play college football. He has two interceptions and ranks third on one of the nation's top teams with 63 tackles - many of them ferocious hits that seem so out of character with his image away from the field, this sharp dresser who mentors school kids and hopes for a future career in medicine.

"I have to attribute that to my mother," Battle said. "My mom is more competitive than me. She never let me quit anything. She always made me do my best in everything I do."

When Battle got to Georgia, he quickly drew the attention of teammates such as defensive tackle Kedric Golston.

"He was always watching film," Golston said. "You could just tell that he was in a different gear than everybody else. If you gave 100 percent, he gave 125 percent. He just forced himself onto the field. I guess you can't measure the size of someone's heart."

Battle played in 35 consecutive games until a concussion kept him out of Georgia's victory over Kentucky, which gave the No. 13 Bulldogs (9-2) a spot in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against third-ranked LSU (10-1).

For someone who throws around his diminutive body with such abandon, Battle held up amazingly well until he was inadvertently struck in the head by a fellow Georgia player, 330-pound defensive lineman Darrius Swain.

In a testament to his indomitable will, Battle managed to convince the trainers he was OK, even though he now admits that he doesn't remember much about that game against Auburn. He wound up getting beat in the waning minutes on a fourth-down, 62-yard pass that put the Tigers in position for a game-winning field goal.

But no one will ever complain about a guy who shows that sort of dedication to his team.

"There's a lot of great safeties in this league," Golston said. "But I can't imagine not having him on our team. His passion for the game - that's something you just can't teach."

At Mary Persons High School, Battle was a four-year starter at quarterback and safety who led his team to the playoffs each season. Several schools, including Georgia and Auburn, seemed interested. He also had discussions with a trio of Division I-AA teams, as well as Division II powerhouse Valdosta State.

Then, as signing day approached, the phone stopped ringing, the letters stopped arriving. When it came time to pick a school, Battle was on his own.

"I had no offers," he remembered. "Nothing."

His older sister attended Auburn, so Battle considered walking on there. But he qualified for a state-sponsored scholarship if he went to school in Georgia, which persuaded him to try out with the Bulldogs.

"I wanted to help my mom," Battle said. "I noticed she had gotten a little grayer paying my sister's way through college."

His high school coach, Steve Chafin, kept telling Battle that he was good enough to make an impact with the Bulldogs. Forget about the scholarship. Ignore those who say you're too small. Show them what you've got.

"Whoever gets you is getting a diamond in the rough," Chafin told Battle. "These colleges have a prototype for what they want at safety, and you don't have it. But you have the heart to be a special player."

Turns out, that was right on the mark.

For more coverage of the Georgia Bulldogs, check out UGASports.com.

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