As Brandon Sudge was being pushed in his wheelchair out to midfield Friday evening at Sanford Stadium in Athens, it still seemed too good to be true.
Right by his side was his longtime friend, Cooper Simpson, who escorted the Buford High senior with cerebral palsy to the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You see, Sudge was taking an official football visit with the Bulldogs.
This remarkable experience for the lifelong Georgia fan was set in motion by Georgia football prospect Javon Wims, who said he was inspired by Sudge’s determination to overcome obstacles life has thrown his way.
“It still gives me chills just thinking about it,” said Simpson, who has been a friend to Sudge since entering elementary school. “It was just a wonderful experience for Brandon.”
Before the day was complete, Sudge would not only have a meeting with Georgia football coach Kirby Smart — which came during the race to the finish line of recruiting season — but enjoy the visit at midfield with Simpson, who was a standout offensive lineman for Buford, along with Wims, a wide receiver who is expected to sign his National Letter of Intent to play for Georgia on Wednesday’s National Signing Day.
Then later, they would take in dinner at the Five Bar in downtown Athens. Sitting at the table with Sudge and Simpson was Georgia running back Sony Michel, who is one of Sudge’s favorite players. For the night, Sudge got the same treatment as the other seven recruits on campus for their official visit in Athens.
“It’s memories that will last forever with me,” said Sudge, who hopes to start to school in the fall at Georgia. He’s got a long connection to sports too, completing an internship writing about football, basketball and baseball for the Georgia sports website www.sicemdawgs.com. He plans to major in journalism.
And if he lands in Athens this fall, he’ll have an amazing story to tell his fellow students. It all started with the connection Wims and Sudge formed thanks to the power of social media. Recently, Sudge posted a video to the Internet where he managed to walk down the hallway during physical therapy — about 80 feet — before sitting back down.
Sudge said the video went viral on Twitter. Moved by what he saw, Wims sent it to Smart. That’s when they hatched the plan to make Sudge, who was a football team manager for Buford all four years of high school, a guest of honor for the Georgia football program for the night.
Wims, who played his junior college football at Hinds Community College in Jackson, Miss., said he was moved by Sudge’s persistence and determination to eventually live independently. It hasn’t always been easy for Sudge, having to endure a number of surgeries over the years.
“Brandon texted me and said I inspired him, but I told him he inspired me more,” said the 215-pound Wims, who is one of the top recruits in Georgia’s 2016 recruiting class. “I’ve been so moved by all the hard work he’s put in.”
Even though the video came to Smart during the peak of the recruiting season, the Bulldogs’ new coach was totally on board with making the Buford senior’s dream come true.
The entire week before Smart’s surprise visit, Simpson, who is the son of Buford coach Jess Simpson, had to keep it a tight-lipped secret. Without giving away any details, Cooper also had to make sure Sudge had no other plans for the night.
Cooper Simpson, who will continue playing football next year at Army, was 100-percent successful in his task. Sudge thought the two friends would just be hanging out that evening like they often had over the years.
However, the first clue that it wouldn’t be just a normal Friday at school came when he received a note early in the day from the Wolves’ coach to report to the football fieldhouse. Sudge did as asked. When he arrived, Sudge was asked to fill out an NCAA Clearinghouse form, to ensure it was logged as an official visit for Georgia’s football program, just like the rest of the prospects.
He didn’t ask any questions.
Then as he turned the corner into coach Simpson’s office, he saw Smart sitting there waiting to greet Buford’s popular senior, who is a fan of everything Georgia Bulldogs. The two talked football. Then Smart invited him to dinner in Athens that night. Cooper Simpson already knew he’d be playing chauffeur.
Cooper Simpson said they arrived in Athens about 6 p.m. that night. For the next four or five hours, it was complete sensory overload for Sudge, as he was treated to a tasty dinner and mingled with Georgia players.
His friend Cooper Simpson, a lifelong Auburn fan, said he’ll be pulling for the red and black. When Sudge went out on the field with Cooper Simpson and Wims, they watched a highlight video on the “G” logo at the 50-yard line.
“Everyone out there needs to be a fan of Javon Wims,” said Cooper Simpson. “You don’t see people with his kindness very often.”
Even though Wims was the player actually in Athens for an official visit, he made sure to deflect all the attention to his new friend.
“I wanted this night to be all about Brandon,” said Wims, who had 779 receiving yards and nine touchdowns at Hinds Community College in 2015.
While downtown, Sudge was able to be part of pictures, including one with three of Georgia’s top returning talents: Trent Thompson, Lorenzo Carter and Michel. Once the night was complete and Sudge had returned home to Buford with Cooper Simpson, he got a message from Wims making sure he made it home safely.
“The entire day was definitely a whirlwind,” said Sudge. “It was so much fun.”