For Sterling Bailey, it was a rather easy decision.
Now a starting defensive end at the University of Georgia, the fourth-year junior wanted to bring back a cherished part of his past to his old stomping grounds at East Hall High. It was just a matter of when.
On Friday, flanked by his parents, Laura and Kevin Bailey, along with his girlfriend, Kenzie Childs, Bailey presented back his 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl jersey to go on display at the school, where he graduated the same year, in a brief ceremony before East Hall’s kickoff against Franklin County in Gainesville.
“I knew I always wanted to be able to give something back to East Hall,” said Bailey, who currently has 12 tackles for the Bulldogs. “Everyone here at East Hall has always treated me like family.
“I know without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Bailey was able to make the appearance back in front of friends and family with Georgia on a bye week before playing Florida on Nov. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Bailey, now 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, was one of the nation’s best coming out of the Vikings’ program as a senior in 2010. As a Vikings senior, he had 64 tackles, five sacks and was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 8 defensive end in the nation.
With plans to graduate from Georgia in the summer of 2015 with a degree in history, he plans on using his final year of eligibility next season, before hopefully going on to play in the NFL.
Still, with a busy life in Athens, there’s no place like home. Bailey made plans with the East Hall staff and administration for the jersey presentation back to the school for some time now, said East Hall principal Jeff Cooper.
The plan is for Bailey’s No. 52 U.S. Army All-American black jersey with yellow lettering to hang in the school, and paired along with a picture from the day he was awarded the jersey four years ago.
“We’re blessed to have someone that successful come out of our school,” said Cooper, who stays in regular contact with Bailey, either directly or through his father. “He loves this community and is just a great young man.”
If anyone would understand Bailey’s attachment to East Hall, it would be Cooper. Like Bailey, Cooper was also a standout athlete at East Hall before going on to play at the University of Georgia. Cooper was a starting infielder for the Bulldogs when they won the national championship in 1990.
Cooper has been pleasantly surprised by Bailey’s presence on the defensive front, after jumping onto the scene as a starter his sophomore season in 2013.
Now playing on Saturdays, Bailey wants his experience to serve as encouragement and motivation to all the athletes coming up through East Hall in the future.
“I want all the students to know they can achieve their dreams if they stay motivated,” said Bailey, who has also learned sign language during his time as a Georgia student. According to Kevin Bailey, playing in the U.S. Army All-American game was especially meaningful for the Bailey family, having numerous family members that served the nation in various branches.
Sterling Bailey said he still proudly displays the American flag he received for playing in the game at his place in Athens.
“I tell you what, this feels like it was just yesterday,” Sterling Bailey’s father said looking at the framed U.S. All-American photo of his son, on the field as the sun set Friday at Vikings Stadium. “The time’s gone by so fast.”
While at home with family and friends, Bailey took time to give the Vikings a brief pregame talk in the locker room before they steamrolled to a 34-7 region victory.
Vikings coach Bryan Gray also found Sterling in the back hallways of the football fieldhouse for a quick conversation before taking the field. Bailey told his former coach he was on track to earn his bachelor’s degree in the summer.
Gray wanted to make sure Bailey was looking longterm, and considered pursuing his master’s degree next year, with another year of football remaining.
“Sterling’s a tremendous kid, really genuine,” said Gray. “We’ve very proud of everything he’s accomplished.”
Wearing all red and black for his trip back home, Bailey was soaking up a brief moment of being back at home among the people he grew up with.
He posed for pictures during the evening with former teachers, coaches, friends, classmates and kids who watch him now on television. Bailey also signed plenty of personalized autographs for the young fans who asked.
Once back in Athens, Bailey will resume preparing with one of the SEC’s most improved defenses and No. 9 Bulldogs (6-1), who are under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. He knows the opportunity presents itself to go on to win the SEC title and hopefully earn one of the four spots in the new playoff format for the national championship.
“We just have to continue to stay focused as a team, and not let our success go to our head,” Bailey said.