COVINGTON, Ga. — Ask anyone around him, and they’ll likely tell you that Elija Godwin is the master at crafting worst-case scenario stories.
In fact, Godwin, the former Newton High track and football star who just finished his freshman season at UGA on the track, will be the first person to acknowledge that.
“I’m always talking about these crazy, worst-case scenarios, and what I’d do, or what we’d do in them,” Godwin said with a laugh.
Like the time Godwin and the Georgia track team was returning from the Mt. Sac Relays out in California.
“Some of the people on our team, we just started talking about what would we do if the plane we were on ever started going down,” Godwin said. “What if there were 20 of us, but only 15 parachutes? How would we save ourselves? What would we do?”
And wouldn’t you know it, not long after, the plane that Godwin shared with his teammates had to turn around and go back to Arizona due to right engine failure. It was a moment that taught Godwin and his doomsday thinking teammates that they weren’t as prepared for the worst as perhaps they thought.
“We talked about plane crashes way too often for that to happen,” Godwin said. “And when it happened, none of us knew what to do. None of us were going to do be in the mindset to do any of the things we were talking about.”
Trading worst case scenario stories didn’t prepare Godwin for what happened on Tuesday May 7 either. That’s when the freshman track star and multiple-time state champion in the 200 meter dash was impaled by a javelin during a freak accident at a UGA track practice, just before the SEC meet was to take place.
For Godwin, the day actually started out like most others for a time-crunched student-athlete.
“I remember the whole situation,” he said. “I knew we were leaving out Wednesday morning for SECs, and I had my whole to-do list set. I was to wake up, go get my haircut and get to practice, watch a seminar for my last final and get that last final done after practice.”
The haircut took a little longer than Godwin originally planned, and it kind of threw his schedule off kilter just a bit.
“I was late, so I was kind of rushing to get to practice on time,” he said, “and when I got there, everybody was starting warmups, so I was just thinking, ‘let me get right into it.’”
Godwin spotted one of his teammates and worked to catch up with her so they could be able to finish the workout at the same time. It was during that time that Godwin first noticed a pack of javelinas nearby.
“I turned to see them in the pack, so I thought nothing of it except to move over,” he said. “Then there was one standing away from the pack that I didn’t see. When they’re in a pack it’s easy to see, but not so much individually. I was running backwards and then I came to an abrupt stop.”
Godwin felt the javelin poke him in the back, but he didn’t realize how deep it had gone, or how hard the impact was.
“I actually ended up pushing the javelin a little bit deeper in the dirt,” he said. “I thought it just poked me, but then something about it made me fall down to the ground.”
Godwin insists that it never really hurt all that bad. And at first, as some teammates started gathering around to check on him, no one — including himself — took it seriously just yet.
“I was actually going to put on a big act and start complaining about it,” he said. “They were probably thinking I was going to just be playing about it. Then I reached around to my back, and I could still feel the weight of the poll in my back, and that’s when I alerted everyone around me that I needed help.”
Teammates and coaches knew Godwin wasn’t playing when they surveyed the situation. But strangely enough, Godwin, who stayed conscious through the whole situation, says he remembers the scene as a strangely calm one, instead of the chaos some might have expected.
So Godwin took a cue from those around him. Since they didn’t panic, neither did he. Instead he did what his mother had always taught him to do in tough situations.
“I just started praying.”
Godwin’s fortress of faith
For some, the words “pray about it” can be just a throw-away term — something that you just feel sounds like the right thing to say when you’re dealing with a crisis situation.
Not so for Godwin. For Godwin, his relationship with God has been something that has been engrained in him since childhood as something to be cherished through both the good and the bad.
“My relationship with God has always been strong,” he said. “My mom never would let me forget to pray. Like when I had a tough indoor season, even before all this happened, and I wasn’t hitting the times I wanted to. I was dealing with second semester in college. College isn’t as easy as people makes it seem. I’m praying for God to show me the way. But even during the outdoor season when it went as well as it did, I didn’t lose a race during my outdoor season, so I even prayed and gave God all glory for that.”
Godwin’s faith pushed him toward a freshman campaign that saw him garner SEC co-freshman runner of the year accolades. He became the first UGA outdoor track athlete to win the award in the outdoor season, at one point recording the fourth fastest time in the nation by a freshman in the 200-meter dash.
Godwin also recorded the 28th best time in the country, regardless of college standing. So for the Covington native, when he realized that his javelin incident was going to be more serious than just a nuisance pain, he reverted to what had become reflexive for him.
“Definitely, my first reaction was to pray,” Godwin said. “Like I said, it didn’t really hurt, but I knew it was still in me.”
Then he started bleeding from his mouth; then coughing up blood. And that was the first time he really began to fear for his life.
“Oh yeah, I was kind of scared,” he said. “The entire time, as people were gathering around, I kept asking, ‘I’m not gonna die, am i?’ I was being real passive-aggressive with it, like, ‘This ain’t gonna all me, right?’”
Amazingly, instead of panicking, Godwin paired his praying with the kind of critical thinking that perhaps one wouldn’t expect from a person dealing with a life-threatening situation.
First, Godwin said he kept himself calm by staring at the bleachers at UGA’s track facility.
“I remember it was a sunny day outside, and the bleachers were the brightest thing out there because the son was shining right on them,” he said. “I kept thinking to myself that as long as I’m staring at these bleachers and they still look bright, I’m okay. I’m alive. If for some reason they start getting dim, then I know…”
His voice trailed off. He sat still for a minute, fidgeting with his phone while sitting at the large table in his home’s spacious dining room. It was almost as if he allowed himself to think back to what could’ve been.
But then he snapped back as he remembered his faith.
“I started praying specific prayers, and I started seeing God, like, making things happen in real time,” he said. “When I first started praying, I began praying for forgiveness of all my sins. I was asking God that if it’s not time for me to go, please let things start happening.”
That’s when the trainers and doctors started showing up. Godwin calls their arrival a stroke of divine providence.
“The doctors were coming from the Butts-Mehre building,” he said. “They’re typically not there every day, but they just happened to be there that day helping football players go through concussion protocol and things like that. And then the way the trainers came — like, people were saying that it was the athletes that were actually helping me, but that wasn’t true. The trainers and the doctors were amazing. And my teammates were being supportive, but they didn’t have to touch me. It was really crazy how God was just making all these things come together.”
Godwin’s gratitude for the love
Right in the middle of Godwin’s description of his surroundings, a bright ringtone chirped from his cell phone.
Godwin looked down at his phone and laughed. “It’s my boy Ziggy,” he said. “They still checking up on me.”
For Godwin, it isn’t his survival or the fact that he stayed calm through the whole ordeal that shocked him the most. It was the outpouring of love he received — both from people he knew and from strangers.
“The coaches let my mom know what was going on,” he said,” so she took it well because of how confident they were making her that they’d do their best to get me out of this situation. She was praying on the way there, and I knew she had others praying too. But once I got my phone back, man, it was just a lot of people that had been showing love. I never realized how many people we impacted. I got a lot of love from people and places I didn’t think I would. That’s a real good thing. Not everyone gets to see that.”
Godwin said the love “came in abundance,” and it’s one of the reasons why he wanted to take the time to respond to everyone he possibly could.
“That’s the reason why I didn’t mind doing interviews and stuff like that,” he said. “As much as I tried to, it was just impossible to get back to everyone and tell them how much I appreciated them. So I figured that doing these kind of interviews, as long as people get the story right, I don’t mind, because I can just use these platforms to let everybody know how much I appreciate them.”
The road to return
For a guy who’s been used to being active as an athlete since he was a little boy, the first couple of weeks after the surgery were tough.
The emergency procedure probably resembled something like a scene from a television drama series. Godwin said they had to cut his clothes off in order to help pull the javelin out of his body.
Even then, he didn’t truly have a firm grasp of the severity of his predicament.
“I was laying in the hospital bed like, ‘I got a plane to catch tomorrow at 6 p.m. so I can get to SECs,” Godwin said. “Am I going to be able to go? But that’s when everybody was talking about next season and all that, so I just figured that it was the story God wanted to write for me.”
Once he returned home from the hospital, Godwin said his legs were fine and his arms were fine and he figured nothing was wrong. That is until he tried to lugging a heavy suitcase and two big backpacks up a steep flight of stairs in his home.
“I got up to the top of those stairs and was dead tired,” he said. “I’d never felt that before — being tired going up some stairs.”
So Godwin decided to just trust the direction of his doctors when they told him to do what he wasn’t accustomed to.
“After that, I was laid back, kicking up my feet,” he said. “I’m on Fortnite trying to get better. I’m on Fortnite grinding.”
A little more than a month after the fact, Godwin’s getting ready to for rehab and has his mind focused on his sophomore season. He made it a point to push his teammates through the rest of the season, all while being grateful for the doctors’ prognosis that he’d make a full recovery.
Everything that’s happened has given him a new lease on life and a new appreciation for people.
“It’s like the appreciation for life,” he said. “It’s made me appreciate life even more. I’ve always been an ambitious person, but now I’m going to take it to a whole new level. You’ll never see me sit around and waste a day doing nothing because I understand how fast it can be taken from you. Not only that, you’ve got to make sure the ones you’re close to know that you love them. Let them know it while they’re alive to see it.
“I was able to survive my situation to see that love, but there are some people who don’t get the opportunity to live through it. So just make sure the people you love you love them. Make sure not to take life for granted.”