A.J. Green relies on lessons learned

Louis Mulkey would have loved what he was seeing on Oct. 3 between the hedges.

There was one of his protégés, A.J. Green, doing what he does best -- making a Southeastern Conference defensive back look silly. There was the Georgia wide receiver leaping to pluck a Joe Cox pass off the fingertips of LSU's Chris Hawkins, then delicately landing in bounds for what appeared to be the winning touchdown with 1 minute, 9 seconds left.

The thing Mulkey would have loved most about that moment? Seeing the white "C" on the chest of Green's red jersey. Just a true sophomore, he was selected a captain for one of the Bulldogs' biggest games of the season.

Louis Mulkey would have hated seeing what came next.

A yellow flag in the end zone. A ludicrous excessive-celebration penalty against Green. A blown call that helped turn the Bulldogs' 13-12 lead into a stunning loss. The penalty led to Georgia kicking off deep in its own territory and LSU returning that kick past midfield. Aided by fortuitous field position, the Tigers scored a couple of plays later for a 20-13 victory.

And at some point, after the sting of defeat had lessened, Louis Mulkey surely would have laughed.

Understated A.J. had somehow become unsportsmanlike A.J.?

"Ohhhh, that was a bad call," said Dora Green, A.J.'s mother, her voice rising nearly a year later. "He never once did that [being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct] since he started playing football."

Green's parents, Dora and Woodrow, didn't raise him that way. His legendary coach at Summerville (S.C.) High School, John McKissick, didn't coach him that way. And his late mentor, Louis Mulkey, surely didn't teach him that way.

When he wasn't working as a captain in the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department, Mulkey was working with dozens of kids in neighboring Summerville. He was volunteering as the junior varsity basketball coach at Summerville High School, helping out with the football team and serving as a substitute teacher.

And surrogate parent. He bought dinner for kids who were hungry. He bought shoes for kids who had none. He pounded home discipline for kids who lacked it.

"They were the children he never had," said Mulkey's mom, Ann.

If a player blew off homework, Mulkey was the enforcer. Sometimes he'd pull a desk out onto the field and sit a player at it, making him finish his work before he could practice.

After spending two unfocused years in college, Mulkey was forced into the working world. He didn't want his players to make the same educational mistakes he made.

"He took a lot of people under his wing," Dora Green said. "He taught them to be respectful young men."

Among them was a tall, shy seventh-grader named Adriel Jeremiah Green. He joined Mulkey's basketball team, and a deep bond quickly formed.

"Louis loved that child," Ann Mulkey said. "He loved all of them, really did. Louis was very much right there with him."

Green had solid parental guidance, but his only sibling, older brother Avionce, died in a car wreck on the way to a school carnival when A.J. was 5 years old. His aunt was paralyzed in the crash. A.J. was in the car but emerged without a scratch -- and also without a big brother.

Louis Mulkey, a white man 15 years older than A.J., helped fill some of that void.

As Green began to develop into a national-caliber star, pressure intensified for him to attend South Carolina. But when he said he wanted to attend Georgia, Mulkey put him in the car and drove him to Athens for unofficial visits.

Green committed to Georgia in July 2006 between his sophomore and junior seasons. His acclaim grew, but his work ethic kept pace until octogenarian coach McKissick was moved to retire Green's jersey -- the only time he has done so in 58 years at the school.

"He always hustled," McKissick said. "He practiced just like it was a game. If the quarterback threw it too long or over his head, he'd lay out for it every time. Good player, good character, good citizenship. I can't say enough good about him."

There was so much to like about Green that rival schools kept coming after him, even after that commitment to Georgia. Green held tight to his word and signed with the Bulldogs in February 2008.

Mulkey would not be around to see it.

On the evening of June 18, 2007, Mulkey and his Charleston Fire Dept. mates on Engine 15 responded to a fire at the Charleston Sofa Super Store. A flashover effect -- the near-spontaneous ignition of all combustible materials in an enclosed place -- led to a ceiling collapse that killed nine firefighters, the 34-year-old Mulkey among them.

The Charleston Nine tragedy was the deadliest moment for American firefighters since 9/11. And it devastated A.J. Green.

"It tore him up pretty bad at the time," Dora Green said. "It was really bad."

Mulkey made a big enough impact on Georgia coach Mark Richt that Richt caught a flight from Honduras to attend the funeral. His legacy lived on with the Summerville basketball team he helped coach as well.

Summerville dedicated its 2007-08 season to Mulkey, and finished it with a thrilling, one-point victory in the state championship game -- the school's first basketball title. Green was one of the team's stars. On the way home, the team bus stopped at Mulkey's grave site, where some players left their championship medals.

After Summerville won its title without Mulkey, it was time for Green to continue his football career without him as well. But he has carried the lessons of his mentor to Georgia.

"He's a very humble kid," Richt said. "He loves his teammates. He wants to win. You know, when you have some of your greatest players be guys that care about the team and are willing to work and pay the price and be there when he doesn't have to be there, that's pretty important. That's what I really love about him."

After watching him catch 109 passes for 1,772 yards and 14 touchdowns in two seasons, the Georgia fans love A.J. Green as well. But they want to see him stay healthy for a full season. (He missed three full games and was limited in others last year.) And they worry about his meshing with his third starting quarterback (redshirt freshman Aaron Murray) in three years.

Combine that with last year's dispiriting 8-5 season -- Georgia's most losses since 1996 -- and the Dawgs are generating less buzz than they have in a long time.

"I'm going to tell you, we're hungry," Green said. "A lot of people are counting us out. I believe it's good for us with a young quarterback just to fly under the radar. … I believe that, like I said, we're going to open a lot of eyes coming into September, going towards the end of the season."

At the end of the season, most people expect Green to enter the NFL draft. He has taken out an insurance policy in case of serious injury but otherwise deflected NFL questions.

Ann Mulkey did not.

"I was talking to one of his teachers [at Summerville High], and I asked her what he's going to do," Mulkey said. "She said, 'I think he's going to leave after this year.'

"If he does that, I hope and pray he goes back and finishes college. I was talking to his mom not long ago, begging for him to finish college and graduate. That's what Louis would have wanted him to do."

No matter what A.J. Green does in the future, Louis Mulkey would be proud of the man he's become today.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.