ATHENS, Ga. -- There were lots of smiles to be found within Georgia's locker room after Saturday's 63-16 win against New Mexico State, but nobody was smiling bigger than Austin Long.
The redshirt sophomore offensive tackle -- formerly one of the most heavily recruited players in the country -- finally made the college debut that was delayed 2½ years by a seemingly endless string of injuries and illnesses when he entered the game in the third quarter.
"I was standing on the sideline, and I wasn't really nervous, but once I ran on the field I kind of got a little nervous," Long said. "As soon as I started playing, I wasn't nervous anymore. After the first play, I was fine. It was a dream come true. It was awesome."
Long was rated as one of the nation's top offensive tackle prospects when he signed with Georgia in 2009, ranking 47th on the ESPNU 150 and earning an invitation to play in the U.S. Army All-American game.
However, he underwent surgery to repair a broken back before he ever arrived at Georgia and missed all of the 2009 season while recovering from the surgery. He returned to the practice field last season and worked mostly with the scout team, but suffered a slightly torn pectoral muscle during spring practice and lost even more time.
More bad luck would follow.
Long finally figured he was on track to contribute this season, but he came down with mononucleosis before preseason camp and lost approximately 30 pounds, down to 282. That illness weakened his immune system to the point that when he developed a staph infection near his nostrils in mid-September, he had to be hospitalized for three days to prevent it from spreading to his eyes.
The staph infection came at a terrible time -- the week of the Bulldogs' 59-0 rout of Coastal Carolina -- because Long surely would have been able to make his debut in that game. Instead, he once again was forced to sit out.
"After I got mono and then I got staph, it was pretty rough, but it all paid off; it all worked out," he said.
Long nearly ran into another such roadblock last week but did everything he could to prevent yet another injury from keeping him from playing.
Early last week, he was still on crutches with his left foot in a walking boot because of a sprained ankle, but he showed Georgia's coaches he'd be able to compete at the last second.
He initially showed up at Thursday's final practice of the week only to jog while his teammates walked through their plans, but was surprised to find that the ankle didn't bother him. Instead of jogging, the coaches made him go back into the locker room to put on his cleats and a helmet.
"I knew that if I got out there and it felt good enough to where I could run around, I didn't want to miss this opportunity, so I was going to play no matter what," Long said. "I went out there and it felt really, really good, so I told them, 'I want to play. I've got to play.' "
Long made no secret that he desperately wanted to take advantage of the opportunity for playing time if the Bulldogs -- 32-point favorites against New Mexico State -- built a big lead against the Aggies.
"He had talked earlier in the week how much he wanted to get out there," quarterback Hutson Mason said. "It always seems like he can't stay healthy, and that's unfortunate for a guy who puts so much hard work into it."
After all the waiting and trips to trainers' rooms and stays in hospital beds, he finally played. Long joined his younger brother, true freshman guard Hunter Long, and the rest of the second-team line on the field early in the third quarter after the Bulldogs built a 49-3 halftime lead.
His long-awaited return to competition was one of the Bulldogs' greatest feel-good stories on a feel-good afternoon.
"Just for him to get out there and just start getting some confidence back, it's hard coming back from the injuries he's had," said quarterback Aaron Murray, also a member of Georgia's 2009 signing class. "It's a tough road, but he's a kid that's worked extremely hard, getting healthier and healthier, so I'm definitely happy he was able to get out there today and get some playing time."
True freshman center David Andrews agreed, saying, "It was awesome. Austin and I, through Hunter, his brother, we've developed a good little relationship. You build these relationships with these guys through practice and stuff, and then it's awesome just to get out and play with them."
Long has crossed the initial hurdle of getting back on the field for a game, but his goal moving forward is not just to play in mop-up duty. To do that, he will need to avoid the regular health issues that marred the early part of his career.
"It was good to get him in the game. He's just got to stay healthy," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "He's not able to get better when he's been hurt, and he's been hurt a lot in his career. He needs to get healthy where he can get out there and get better."
For Long, the goal is to prove he belongs. Now back at 305 pounds, he is starting to shake off the rust from the earlier illnesses and wants to show position coach Will Friend that he deserves consideration to replace senior starting offensive tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson next year.
"I just want to be able to continue getting better and show that I deserve a shot at getting a starting position this year and hopefully next year be the guy," Long said. "I'll work hard all offseason and try to be the starter."
Long has played only one half of football in three years, so it's far too early to tell whether he will be able to hold up to the physical demands that accompany a regular role on the line. But it's impossible to take on a regular role until you make it back onto the field first.
Thanks to a last-second recovery that allowed for Saturday's debut, Long has achieved the first step.
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.