Eddie Lee Ivery’s Run Through Tech, Titletown, & Temptation

On November 11, 1978, Eddie Lee Ivery, star running back for the Georgia Institute of Technology Yellow Jackets, was handed the ball on Tech’s 27-yard-line. The bitter 20-mile-per-hour wind whipped the 22-degree air across the frozen, icy ground in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the Jackets faced the Air Force gridiron team. Before the game, twice, a street sweeper had cleared the field of snow. (Tech announcer Kim King had walked on the slippery field and thought, Nobody can run on this. The score’s going to be 3-0.) Ivery ran left, found no opening, reversed to the right, eluded defenders with quick fakes, and, in a spectacular piece of running, raced 73 yards for a touchdown. His first of three in the game.

After the play, he went to the sidelines and vomited. His stomach churned so from something he ate—or perhaps from his exertion in the altitude—that he threw up its contents. His fingers were so cold they burned. His hands were so numb he was afraid to switch which hand held the ball to avoid a fumble. At halftime, the team doctor wasn’t sure if Ivery could continue to play. But he returned to the field and, by the end of the game, had amassed a stunning 356 yards on 26 carries, an NCAA record for rushing yards in a game that stood for 6 years. All on a frigid, icy field.

The next week an Atlanta newspaper columnist touted him for the Heisman Trophy (Ivery would come in 8th). Head coach Pepper Rodgers said Ivery was the greatest athlete he ever coached. University of Georgia head coach Vince Dooley, who lost out in a tense recruiting battle for Ivery, later committed Bulldog heresy by saying that in terms of overall versatility as a running back, Ivery was better than the legendary Herschel Walker. The next spring Ivery was drafted by the Green Bay Packers at #7 overall, where, when not injured, he was one of the National Football League’s top running backs. Packers historian Lee Remmel said Ivery was “what every team wants. He had everything. He was the finest Green Bay running back we had ever drafted.” For 12 years, Ivery held the Packers’ record for most pass receptions in a game by a running back. Two injuries to the same knee did not stop him from having a productive NFL career, though the injuries kept him from living up to expectations.

Newly married when he arrived in Green Bay, Ivery became rich and had two children. Everyone called him a “family man.” He bought his mother and grandmother a new house in his small home town, Thomson, Georgia, where he had grown up poor, using an outhouse and bathing in an outdoor tub.

Dick Corrick, Packers Director of Player Personnel when Eddie Lee was drafted, said of him being drafted 7th, “I thought he was a heck of a steal. I was so happy. He had great balance, elusiveness, strength. He was a heck of a receiver. He could block. Eddie Lee fit all the criteria you’d want in that position. They don’t come along that often. And he was a great kid, a class kid from a class university. In practice, everyone loved him, even as a rookie. He was fun and worked hard. He finished runs. His running style was unique, hard to describe. He had a great pre-season. We were very excited. It looked like we finally had a difference maker.” Then in his very first game as a pro player, he injured his knee and missed the rest of the season. “From then on, the nightmare began,” Corrick said.

In 2000, when Ivery should have been enjoying a comfortable retirement from professional football, teasing and rearing his children, he was instead hired for a low-level job in the Georgia Tech athletic department. One of his tasks was to pace the sideline during football games and restrain players who, in their exuberance over a great play, crossed onto the field, jumping and cheering. His back to the field, he would extend his arms and wave the players back, to avoid a penalty. He had once stood on these very sidelines as a star and entered games as a magnificent, strong quick runner with uncanny balance and instinctive deft shifts in direction as he sprinted down field, leaving tacklers grasping—or bowled over. When he finished playing at Tech, he held seven rushing records, including most yards in a game, season, and career. He would eventually be elected into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Now, however, he was a mere assistant weight-trainer keeping players on the sideline.

And he couldn’t have been happier.

This is a story of determination, resilience, forgiveness, redemption, and faith.