COVINGTON, Ga. — When it came to track and field, Elija Godwin could’ve literally picked any school he wanted, including some southern track powerhouses like Texas A&M, Mississippi State and others, to continue his stellar career.
He picked Georgia. A school that won’t be mistaken by anyone as a blue blood track and field program. And it all came down to really one reason — individuality.
“Man, it’s just like, I don’t like to be a follower,” Godwin said. “Never have. Me being a sprinter, everybody’s confused as to why Georgia instead of all the other sprinter schools. But I don’t like to follow behind anybody else’s footprints. I just want to stand out. That just comes from being me.”
His high school track coach, Kevin Barnes, agrees.
"Elija is the kind of person who doesn't have to follow anybody's else's footsteps or legacy," Barnes said. "He wants to set out and make on for himself. He wants to, and is capable of, being able to stand out."
Godwin has definitely stood out as a high school track athlete in Georgia over the last three years. The 6-foot, 190-pounder has been ranked as high as fourth in the 200 meters and sixth in 400 meters since his most recent Georgia state championships this past spring.
He’s won individual state championships in both events for the last two years, and in 2016, he helped Newton claim its first team state crown in the sport since 2016. He’s also a three-star football prospect as a defensive back, holding seven offers from schools such as Virginia, Miami-Ohio, Ball State and Central Michigan.
And up until his commitment, whenever you’d ask Godwin or Barnes, which sport he was leaning more heavily toward choosing in college, both would insist that there was no lean.
But just three days removed from the conclusion of Godwin’s high school football career — Godwin ran back a 72-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and had three huge pass breakups in Newton’s overtime playoff loss to Parkview Friday — Godwin’s scales have tipped decisively toward track.
“I made that decision based upon my health, basically,” said Godwin, the 2016-17 Gatorade Men’s High School Track Athlete of the Year. “I love playing football. I’ve been playing it for as long as I can remember. But it comes with a lot of bodily harm on the field, and I was just thinking about my longevity as an athlete, and I just felt like track is the way to go. It felt right.”
So did Georgia.
Godwin said he chose Athens over far more prestigious schools because of it being close to home and family. But also because he likes the way Georgia’s program aggressively wants to keep home grown talent at home.
“What sold me on Georgia is how they want to keep the talent in the state,” Godwin said.
Perhaps it also helped that one of Godwin’s high school mentors is there now, as a true freshman on coach Kirby Smart’s football team. Godwin credits J.J. Hardeman, a Newton grad, as one of the people who taught him the true value of hard work to go along with natural talent.
“Being at Newton, and really being around J.J., and him taking me under his wing when I got here, it taught me all about hard work,” Godwin said. “When I was in the ninth grade, before I came here, people looked at me as someone who would always be great but didn’t have to work for it. I came to Newton and it made me want to work my hardest to be the best I can be, whether that was football or track.”
Godwin said he’s not completely crossing football out of the picture, either.
“I have explored the options to see if joining the football team is something I could do later on down the line,” Godwin said. “And the chances, they’re not, like, impossible. It would be pretty hard, but we’ll see. I’ll definitely try it if I feel comfortable.”
But for now, all the focus is on Godwin’s ability to run without the helmet and shoulder pads.
“I’m concentrating fully on track now,” Godwin said. “I want to help us win another state championship this spring, so that’s where my focus is. I’ll miss football. Next year will be the first season I’ll miss in forever. But it’ll feel good to just relax and kick back and watch the game instead of playing it.”