Behind Jake Fromm's drive to end his third act with a Georgia title

Taylor, Rowe go 50 yards with Fromm (1:40)

Georgia QB Jake Fromm catches up with Maria Taylor and Holly Rowe as he says the team's chemistry is growing. (1:40)

WARNER ROBINS, GA. -- JAKE FROMM HUNCHES over a to-go box filled with tacos, inhaling his lunch with a ferocity usually reserved for a nature documentary. He's running late, and he hates that. He has a schedule, designed daily to squeeze as much into 24 hours as possible, and every delay is a practice rep or a lift session or, worse, a fish he's not getting.

Today's delay is partially his fault. The taco place is popular, and he went at noon. Truth is though, it probably wouldn't have mattered much. Fromm can't go anywhere in his hometown without hordes surrounding him. His friend and former UGA roommate, Tony Locey, remembers going Christmas shopping with Fromm at a Bass Pro Shops last year. There was a Santa positioned in the middle of the store, a line of kids waiting for a picture with the big man. In walks Fromm, and suddenly Santa is redundant. Here's their Christmas wish, in the flesh.

"A hundred kids just run over to Jake," Locey said.

So yeah, there were some photo requests at the taco place and a bunch of questions about Georgia and plenty of, "Hey, Jake, we gonna get it done this year?"

Fromm's polite. Exceedingly polite, actually. If there's one thing everyone says about Georgia's star QB, it's that he's got the perfect country boy manners. Plus, he gets it. Heck, 10 years ago, he'd have thrown Santa over in a heartbeat for a chance to meet a Georgia player. He's as much a Bulldogs fan as any of these kids at Bass Pro Shops or middle-aged dads on their lunch break. He was just born with a cannon on his right shoulder, so he gets to live out the same dream the rest of these guys gave up on long ago.

After the tacos, Fromm mixes up a protein shake. He's 6-foot-2, 220 pounds of pure athlete, and he's got to fuel the machine. Still, he can never quite get that shake right. He has cycled through hundreds of recipes, and hunting for the perfect mix is a ritual now. And if there's another thing everyone says about Fromm, it's that he's relentless about getting things just right. His offensive coordinator, James Coley, got a text the other day. Fromm was studying the day's practice script and somebody had spelled the name of a play wrong. "Coach," the text said, "there's only one 'P' in Apollo."

Fromm's got a busy day from here, too. He's going hunting in a bit. Then he's heading out to the fishing hole -- a top-secret location, so don't bother asking. Then he'll be doing more hunting, this time in the dark. Back in high school, he'd sit out on a boat in the large retention pond in his neighborhood, catching frogs in the middle of the night with a spear and a spotlight. In a perfect world, he'd never come inside, and if there's one thing everyone who's ever heard the name Jake Fromm knows about him, it's that he loves the outdoors.

So this is his day: A workout, a rushed lunch, a mediocre protein shake, hunting and fishing and hunting again. He's a simple guy, who loves simple things, but he wants to devour those things, to jam as much of what he loves -- family, fishing, football -- into a lifetime.

"He always acts like he's going to miss out on something," said Bill Haskins, Fromm's grandfather. "He's basically like someone who's only got a year left, and he's trying to get everything in the world out of it."

It's an apt metaphor for the quarterback who'll get his third -- and likely last -- crack at carrying his team back to the mountaintop in 2019. And it's the perfect origin story, isn't it? The Chosen One, the hero who'll save everyone, who'll do the impossible -- he always starts out as just a normal guy.

FROMM WAS MAYBE 6 or 7, and a new sports collectibles shop had opened up in Macon. He heard they had a good stock of Georgia gear, so he asked Haskins for a ride. Sure enough, the place was full of red and black, and Fromm was enraptured. He made his rounds, touching jerseys and shirts and hats. And then he saw it -- a Georgia helmet, signed by Herschel Walker. It cost $500.

But granddad loved the boy, and the boy loved Georgia, and so the helmet is still sitting in Fromm's bedroom, one of his most cherished possessions.

It's been 39 years since Georgia celebrated a national championship, back when Walker was a freshman and Jimmy Carter was president and the Bulldogs' QB needed to complete just one pass to go down in the history books. In the four decades since, the fan base fumed as Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer dominated at Florida. Cam Newton won a natty for rival Auburn. Heck, even Georgia Tech's got one since UGA last celebrated college football supremacy. The Georgia faithful suffered through Ray Goff, lived and died with Mark Richt, watched as David Greene and Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray came and went without winning it all.

To be a Georgia fan is to smell success like the faint stink of stale beer and cigarettes on your clothes after a long night on Clayton Street. It's a hazy memory of happier times, supplanted by a pounding headache and nausea. And yet, here they are, ready again to embrace a new hero, a guy who's already endured his share of near misses. This time, this guy -- it's different. He has to be.

And yet, Fromm's story has, thus far, played out in similar fashion.

As a freshman, Fromm's Dawgs had a touchdown lead with four minutes to play in the national title game against Alabama. They lost. As a sophomore, Fromm staked Georgia to a 28-14 lead early in the second half of the SEC title game, but the Bulldogs didn't score again. They lost on a Jalen Hurts TD with 1:04 to play. And even with a shot at redemption in the Sugar Bowl last season, Georgia failed to show up, getting handled by Texas in a game of which Fromm says, "We didn't prepare well and got outplayed."

Not all of the blame for those defeats fell to Fromm, but that will change in 2019. Coley was promoted to offensive coordinator, and he has promised a bigger share of the offensive load for Fromm. There's Heisman buzz around a team that hasn't sent a finalist to New York since Garrison Hearst in 1992. Hope isn't rare at Georgia, but this perfect storm of talent and opportunity -- and experience and genuine optimism -- that's what Fromm has brought to Athens.

"I really feel like everything's on my shoulders," Fromm said. "They'll look at me, and they won't say it was Jake & Co. They'll say it was Jake's fault. That's the type of responsibility I want. I want to take this team to the next level and win a national championship. I'm determined to do it."

JACOB EASON WAS supposed to save Mark Richt's job at Georgia. He was a hotshot, a five-star. He was the next big thing, another in Richt's line of big-name QBs imported from a different state to bring Georgia back to the promised land.

Fromm was a legit recruit in his own right. He had suitors from all over, as his old baseball coach Buddy Deal remembers -- "just not Mark Richt." The only place Fromm really wanted to play at wasn't interested in signing him. So, he committed to Alabama.

Fromm won't admit to it now -- "I neither confirm nor deny" -- but the stories at the time involved his mother, Lee, trashing the bulk of the family's Georgia gear in protest. She wasn't alone. In Fromm's Dawg-obsessed hometown, everyone wanted to see a marriage of their favorite team and their favorite son. Jamie Stewart, Fromm's high school math teacher and a Georgia graduate, made Fromm promise that if he ever flipped his commitment, she'd be among the first to know.

Truth is, Fromm didn't mind the snub. He loved Kirby Smart, Alabama's defensive coordinator who'd recruited him to Tuscaloosa. But then, as fate would have it, Richt got axed, Smart was hired to coach the Bulldogs, and Fromm found himself with that elusive offer to play for his favorite team. Before he broke the news to the rest of the world, he found Stewart in her classroom and told her.

Still, there was a problem. Eason remained on the roster, and five-star QBs don't just take a backseat to a freshman. Fromm could go to Georgia. Playing there was another story. But Fromm came up to campus on a visit and sat in the QB meetings. He liked Eason, liked the coaches and the system, too. The more he watched, the more he thought he had a shot.

"He felt very strong he could come in and compete," Smart said.

Fromm didn't win the job coming out of camp in 2017, but when he got his shot after Eason's injury, he never relinquished the job. By year's end, his stat line was eye popping: 62% completion percentage, 9 yards per attempt, 24 TDs, 7 interceptions.

In the locker room after Alabama's stunning comeback in the national championship game, Eason found Fromm at his locker with news. He was transferring, going back home to Washington. The two knelt and prayed, asking God to look out for Eason in his new home.

AS SOON AS Eason departed, Justin Fields arrived. Fields was the top recruit in the county, another Georgia kid with a big arm and speed to match. Smart promised an open competition for the job, and plenty of Georgia fans thought Fields' mobility made him the better option. Fromm's edge was more ephemeral.

Fromm says he views football like a math problem, surveying the defense, then calculating the probabilities. He has always been a quick study. Coley said he's never been around a quarterback who prepares like Fromm. The guy can be a bit scatterbrained about everyday stuff -- he's lost keys, wallets, dropped a half-dozen pocket knives into a lake, his brother said -- but when it comes to football, he doesn't miss a beat.

"He'll watch so much film, and he can take a scheme and -- there's times he makes it better," Coley said. "He challenges you as a coach to maximize his potential."

Fromm went turkey hunting with his old high school coach, Von Lassiter, this spring. They bagged their limit the first day, so Lassiter expected the kid to sleep in and skip the next day's hunt. But at 4 a.m., the ping of Fromm's alarm sounded.

"I'm not going to learn anything sleeping," Fromm said.

More than the preparation, Coley said, is how Fromm relates to his guys. He's got a unique ability to galvanize people around him.

If teammates are punished, Fromm makes a point of running laps with them. Back in high school, he'd skip lunch to get the weight room set up for a lift session for his teammates. This spring at Georgia, he worked out with linebackers Jermaine Johnson and Nolan Smith, and if they didn't meet his standards, he taunted them. "You're not going to let a quarterback lift as much as you, are you?"

There was a baseball game, back when Fromm was maybe 12, and the pitcher was rattled. He'd been staked to a big lead, but the other team was raking. Deal set out for the mound to chat, but Fromm thought that would only add to the pressure. So 12-year-old Jake Fromm cut his coach off en route.

"Hey, Coach," he yelled. "You come out here to let us know where we're going to eat after? I'm starving."

In an instant, the mood lightened. Deal smiled, swung around and started back to the dugout.

"And I looked back, and Jake just gives me this wink -- like, gotcha!" Deal said. "He's got that wink, that look, and you just know."

Locey remembers reading a quote from an NFL scout after Georgia's pro day last year. A bunch of the NFL guys were invited into the team meeting room during spring ball to get a feel for how Georgia operates. Fromm walked in, the scout said, and every player in the room instinctively sat up straight in his seat. Fromm owned the place.

"He's the face of our program," Smart said, "and he's a great leader."

By year's end, Fields had thrown just 39 passes. He transferred to Ohio State, the second five-star recruit in as many years who couldn't beat Jake Fromm.

JERRY WALLS IS the pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Warner Robins. He has preached to the Fromm family for years, but he's also an Alabama fan. Every Sunday, he ends his service with the same five words: "Go Jake and Roll Tide."

If Fromm is home for a visit, the two try to get together. They talk about faith, which is important to Fromm, and rarely talk football. Walls is a man of God, and pride is one of those deadly sins, so he's never discussed the national championship game at the end of the 2017 season or the SEC title game in 2018.

"It's best to let a dead dog lie," Walls said before catching himself. "Oh, that was the wrong choice of wording."

In a year, Fromm will almost certainly be a first-round NFL draft choice, and he'll leave Georgia as a beloved Bulldog, no matter how the 2019 season plays out. But it's hard not to view his career through the prism of two losses to Alabama, two games in which Georgia was inconceivably close to winning, but fell just short. It's hard to not to lump Fromm in with the rest of the lingering "what if" moments in recent Georgia lore -- if only D.J. Shockley hadn't gotten hurt before the Florida game in 2005, if only Georgia hadn't flubbed the Tennessee game in 2007, if only Chris Conley hadn't caught the pass to let time run out in 2012. "If" has defined Georgia, and for all his success through two seasons in Athens, it's still written in big, bold type on Fromm's résumé, too.

"I really feel like everything's on my shoulders. They'll look at me, and they won't say it was Jake & Co. They'll say it was Jake's fault. That's the type of responsibility I want."
Georgia QB Jake Fromm

It's easy to imagine a world where things are different, where Fromm's surprisingly poised performance in that national title game ended with a win, with a championship, with dreams reached. In this alternative reality, he's the Heisman favorite, not Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence. He's the guy who brought Georgia to the mountaintop. Other folks probably think about that, Fromm said. Heck, his family probably does every once in a while. But he doesn't. There's no wish-fulfillment fantasy here. There's only the next step.

"I was pretty torn up," Fromm said of the national championship game loss. "The next day, I don't remember a whole lot. But it was just figuring out, where do I go from here?"

Toward the end of last season, Lassiter -- Fromm's high school coach -- called his old QB. He's coaching at a new school now, and his team was bad. They finished 4-6, the worst season of Lassiter's coaching career. He was frustrated. Fromm listened as Lassiter listed the indignities of the season, lamented every bad break. Finally, Fromm interrupted.

"You know what I think?" Fromm asked. "I think you need to suck it up."

Lassiter burst out laughing. Fromm's not above a moment of self-pity from time to time, but he wasn't about to let his coach wallow. There's work to be done.

"He finds the best in you," Lassiter said, "and he pushes you to be better. ... Everybody who knows this kid is better because of it."

FOR YEARS, FROMM and his granddad would head to Louisiana in mid-November for a duck-hunting trip. They're incredibly close. When Fromm was in high school, Haskins would pull his pickup truck alongside the field and watch every practice, and he still makes his way to Athens once a week to see his grandson work. On their trip in 2016, however, Haskins was melancholy. Fromm would be at Georgia soon, and these trips would be impossible. Haskins was getting older, too. How much time did they really have left?

They hadn't shot much, just sat in a duck blind talking, and Haskins started to cry. "We may never do this again," he told his grandson.

Fromm patted him on the back and smiled. He'd always have time for his granddad, he promised.

"Sometimes I go hunting by myself now," Haskins said, "and I think about Jake patting me on the back and telling me this wasn't the end."

Fromm has a way of imbuing every situation with a sense of comfort. Of course it'll all work out. He's Jake Fromm. He's got this.

In Fromm's final high school baseball game, before he gave up the sport to focus entirely on football, he smacked a mammoth home run that curled just inside the foul pole to help Houston County win a state title. The opposing coach was livid it wasn't called a foul ball. The benches cleared. The cops had to be called onto the field. It was chaos. But what Deal, his old baseball coach, can't forget is how the pitcher threw Fromm a first-pitch fastball.

"Of all people, you throw that to Jake Fromm," Deal said. "Because in his mind, there was no doubt. He doesn't know how to fail."

And maybe that's why things will be different this time, why Fromm can script a new ending, a third act in which the hero finds his inner strength and fells the monster.

Fromm's a Bulldog. He knows all the pain, the heartbreak. But he's not a slave to it. The hero must encounter failure first. He understands his true strength only when his back is against the wall, when all hope seems lost. That's how the story goes. That's how Fromm's story has to end.

"Do I have something to prove?" Fromm asks. "It's a trick question. Do I have something to prove to everybody? No. But I have something to prove to myself. I know what I can be, and I want to go do it."