In the picture he keeps in his locker, Georgia Tech safety Jamal Golden is standing next to his mother, Cynthia, the two of them smiling. It’s a reminder of a promise he made to her before she died unexpectedly after a stroke during his freshman year.
“I pray before every game,” he said. “I try to talk to her before every game. I go out there and I give it my all, just for her. I told her before I came to school that I’m going to make something of myself while I’m at school, that ‘I’m not going to let you down.’ I’m sticking to that promise. I’m going to do what I have to do to make her proud.”
Odds are, he already has.
After an emotionally draining freshman year in 2011, Golden emerged as one of the nation’s top kick and punt returners in 2012. Even though he didn’t play one snap on offense, Golden finished that season with 952 all-purpose yards. As a true sophomore, he was the only player to rank in the top 10 nationally in both punt return average (sixth/14.59) and kick return average (10th/28.35). The future looked bright, but just as he was beginning to heal emotionally, his career was derailed three games into the 2013 season by a shoulder injury.
Now, after having been granted a fifth year of eligibility and a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA earlier this month, Golden is finally healthy again and practicing this week, giving Georgia Tech a much-needed boost to the return game and a veteran in the secondary. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, there is still plenty of time for the charismatic redshirt junior to accomplish his goals of becoming a more complete player -- a consistent difference-maker in the secondary, not just the return game -- and fulfilling a promise.
“I think he’s going to come out here playing with passion, playing with a purpose,” defensive backs coach Joe Speed said. “He’s got a tattoo of his mom on his shoulder. It’s a daily reminder for him that not only is he doing it for his Georgia Tech family, but also his mom and his dad.”
Cynthia and Henry Golden were married 33 years before she died on Jan. 23, 2012. Jamal said it was the first time he had ever seen his father cry.
“They thought she was going to be OK,” Jamal said. “Then the next thing we knew she went into a coma and never woke up from it.”
As a family, Henry, Jamal and his brother, Twoine, agreed to stop Cynthia’s life support.
“I just couldn’t take seeing her suffer like that,” Jamal said. “She was pretty much already gone. The only thing that was keeping her heart pumping was the ventilator system. We decided together as brothers to let her go. I know she’s still watching, though.”
Golden said about half of the football team attended his mother’s funeral in nearby Wetumpka, Ala., and it took “a lot of encouragement” from his dad and brother to get him through the rest of the school year. The business administration major missed about a week and a half of classes, which added to the stress.
“Jamal is part of our family,” Speed said. “Same thing with his parents. So when he lost his mom, we lost a member of our family as well. We wanted to make sure he knew we were here for him.”
With their support, Golden started 2013 strong with 12 tackles, a forced fumble and 151 yards on returns through the first three games. He suffered a season-ending injury, though, in Week 3 when he collided with former UNC tight end Eric Ebron on the third play of the game. His shoulder popped out, and in spite of repeated attempts to reset it, Golden was sidelined for good in the third quarter.
Since then, he has been going through rehab, training, studying film and has gotten stronger.
“I feel like by the end of spring practice, I’ll be back where I left off,” he said. “My expectation is to get my team the ball as much as I can, not only by me getting interceptions or fumble recoveries, but helping my teammates get in the right positions to get turnovers, too. I want to be one of the main leaders on the defense, especially being on the back end, getting everyone lined up so we can play as a team.”
And a family.
Golden talks about his mom openly and with ease now, including at Christmas, when he shares stories with special teams coach Dave Walkosky about the favorite meals she used to make.
“I love him dearly,” Walkosky said. “He’s very humble. He’s a very unselfish player, and he’ll do whatever the team needs him to do. He makes decisions that are right for the play, for the game, for the team, and that’s priceless when you’re talking about a guy who’s going to touch the ball and make decisions. He seems to always make the right decision, and we put a lot of confidence in him.”
No decision, though, was more difficult than the one he made with his brother, Twoine.
“It makes you grow up quick,” Speed said. “It recalibrates your priorities and you realize the true meaning of life and what’s important. I think a lightbulb has gone on for him, knowing what’s important and knowing to take advantage of each opportunity every day. I see his daily work ethic. He makes sure he goes to class, does everything in the classroom, he watches film on his own. He’ll grab coaches to get any knowledge he can, and he knows that’s going to be the difference in the game. He’s got some physical talent, but being a student of the game, that’s what’s helping him out. Just having that maturity level go up, that’s going to help him.”
It will also help the Yellow Jackets this fall, and that’s a promise.