A relentless Sony Michel paces Georgia's return to glory
The son of hard-working Haitian immigrants and a product of the South Florida prep football proving grounds, Sony Michel simply keeps churning, no matter what.
To properly tell the story of Sony Michel, one-half of Georgia’s marvelous, not of this planet senior running back duo, it seems odd to start with a fumble.
But then again, Georgia fans — like Georgians generally — are accustomed to heartbreak.
As the late, great Georgian Lewis Grizzard wrote, from Sherman’s march to the sea to electing a president no one much liked (Jimmy Carter), Georgians have had a rough go of things.
For the bulk of the last 40 years, the misery has extended to football, too.
Except for a few halcyon days behind an unbreakable kid named Herschel, being a Bulldogs fan is mostly an exercise in abiding faith and a blind hope that this year will be different, burdened by a quiet despair that it won’t be. Whether it’s been the hated Gators, Auburn, South Carolina or Alabama, no matter how loaded the Georgia roster or how well the Dawgs have played on any given Saturday, the Bulldogs have too often been a bridesmaid.
And so, in truth, it made sense that on New Year’s Day, late in the fourth quarter, with the Pasadena sun beginning to set over the mountains in the distance, Georgia had the ball and a chance to take the lead when the usually sure-handed Michel fumbled. Oklahoma’s Steven Parker picked it up, tiptoed the sideline and galloped 46 yards to the house, giving the Sooners an unlikely 45-38 lead in the Rose Bowl.
In an instant, a dream season Michel says has been “almost beyond his imagination” was on the precipice of a nightmarish ending.
Forget for a moment that Michel’s outstanding play on the day, which to that point included nearly 200 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, was a large reason the Bulldogs had erased a huge Oklahoma lead in the first place. Forget the career that had delivered on his gargantuan talent and promise with over 4,000 yards of total offense and 38 touchdowns. It was the fumble history would remember, and as Michel lingered on the Rose Bowl turf for a moment to process the moment, it all seemed so terribly, predictably, Georgia.
It would have been human, perhaps even entirely understandable, for Michel to dwell on the fumble, hang his head, feel sorry for himself or feel resigned to an unfitting, ignominious end to a brilliant career.
In the stands, Marken Michel watched as Sony, his little brother, longtime teammate and oldest friend stood alone, hands on hips, a few yards away from his offensive teammates, still wearing his helmet.
“In our family, if anybody has higher expectations for Sony than himself, it’s me. So as a family member, when he fumbled, I thought, you better go make up for that mistake,” Michel told SDS this week. “As his brother, I felt he would, but I thought, you better go make it right.”
Sony would get his chance.
And when he did, the man Georgia senior left tackle and Michel housemate Isaiah Wynn called “the most fierce, relentless winner I’ve been around” would be ready.
But to understand why Michel was immediately redemption ready, one should start at the beginning.
Sony Michel comes from Hollywood, Florida, and like so many south Floridians, is the son of immigrants. Michel’s parents immigrated from Haiti shortly after the birth of their first child, Michel’s sister Lamise.
Life was tough for the Michel family, with hard-working parents who switched jobs a great deal just to make ends meet. Discipline, hard work and education were points of emphasis.
“As Haitian immigrants, growing up where we did, hard work was taught first,” Marken Michel, now a star wide receiver with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, tells me. “Not many kids get out. Even fewer graduate from college. So, education was a big emphasis in our home.”
The boys found release in football, which, like many children in South Florida, they began playing at an early age. At ages 7 and 8, the Michel brothers, already big kids, played offensive line. But Sony was quickly moved to running back, and by the time he was finishing seventh grade, he and his brother were starting to draw the attention of nearby high school coaches.
One of those schools was American Heritage, a private school in Plantation, Florida, with a rich athletic history (over 30 state titles) but, at the time, little football history and its eyes fixed on something bigger.
“I remember the first time I saw Sony and his brother Marken like it was yesterday,” Mike Smith, who was on staff at American Heritage at the time and today remains the school’s running backs and strength and conditioning coach, told me by telephone this week.
“He and his brother Marken came out in the spring and practiced with us, and it took all of three or four practices for us to realize we had something special,” Smith said.
Zoned to attend rough-and-tumble Hallandale High School, the Michel brothers were given the chance to attend American Heritage instead, and Sony not only made the varsity football team as an eighth grader, he quickly blossomed into one of the team’s stars.
“Sony had 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns as an eighth-grader,” Smith told SDS. “And this wasn’t against nobodies. This was in South Florida football, against Glades Central and Jacksonville Bolles. It wasn’t hard to figure out we were dealing with an incredible talent.”
Larry Blustein, a legendary Florida prep recruiting analyst, said it was impossible to believe Michel was only 14 years old.
“It isn’t just that he played varsity in eighth grade,” Blustein said. “It’s that he played eighth-grade varsity football in south Florida, the king of high school football, and was one of the best players on every field he stepped on.”
“In South Florida, you’re in the land of speed, and Sony played at an even different speed,” Smith told me. “Plus, he was so strong. He squatted 500 pounds after his freshman year. It was this wild blend of speed and physicality as soon as he touched the ball, and no one had seen it before.”
“Even before eighth grade, we knew he was so special on a football field,” Marken told me this week. “He grew up playing with kids older than him, and was better than most everyone.”
But it wasn’t just talent that wowed Smith and made Michel one of the most coveted prep football prospects in the history of the state of Florida. There was the Michel family work ethic Marken mentioned, too.
“Most kids with Sony’s kind of talent, they don’t want to get after it,” Smith told SDS.
“It’s easy enough to just get by on your blessings. Sony and his brother were different. It’s not a cliché. They were the first guys in the weight room and the last to leave. They sought me out in the summer when it was beyond hot and other kids were at the beach. They wanted to work on Sundays after church. Sony was relentless, and he’s stayed that way.”
There’s that word to describe Michel again.
It’s what helped him through a brutal ACL injury his sophomore year at American Heritage and helped him finish his prep career as the second-leading rusher in Broward County history, behind only future Miami Hurricane Tyrone Moss.
It’s what helped Michel guide American Heritage to its first state championship as a senior in 2013, laying the foundation for the school’s dominance to come. Sound familiar?
And it’s what drove Michel after a disappointing freshman campaign at Georgia to a 1,000-yard season as a sophomore, filling in for the injured Nick Chubb.
“Relentless? That’s Sony in one word,” a Georgia assistant coach told me this week.
“Sony more than anyone I’ve coached appreciates and has the humility and willingness to invest in the moments where no one’s looking. That’s what it means to be relentless, and that’s Sony more than anything.”
Mark Richt, who recruited Michel to Georgia, was fired after the running back’s sophomore season and his production dropped off significantly in year one under Kirby Smart. A year after scoring 19 touchdowns and accounting for nearly 1,500 yards of total offense, Michel struggled to break 1,000 yards of total offense as a junior, scoring only 5 touchdowns.
The Bulldogs struggled too, following a 10-win season with a 7-5 regular season record in Smart’s first year and losing to rival Georgia Tech in the Dawgs’ final home game.
Even worse, the Bulldogs suffered yet another loss to Florida, making Michel 0-3 against his home-state Gators in his career. As a Florida native, it frustrated Michel to consistently put up his worst games against the Bulldogs’ hated rival to the south, gaining only 77 yards in the three contests with zero touchdowns.
There was, Michel said this October, “plenty of unfinished business.”
Still, the allure of the NFL was strong. The Michel family doesn’t come from means, and even with Marken set to play professionally, the idea of pulling his family out of paycheck-to-paycheck living was understandably tempting.
Safe to say it surprised a great many people when, along with his backfield partner Nick Chubb, Sony Michel announced he would return for his senior season before the Liberty Bowl last December.
“I was a little surprised he came back,” Mike Smith told me. “Sony wasn’t comfortable where he was projected last year (late rounds), but really, it was much more than that. He wanted his degree and he and Nick weren’t happy the way things ended. They didn’t make the decision together, but they are both motivated in a similar way, and they came from such a highly-touted class. Going 7-5 with a Liberty Bowl win and leaving without beating Florida wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Sony wanted a different legacy, you know?”
Marken agreed, and said it was a decision Sony made entirely on his own.
“Honestly, I don’t know if Nick’s choice or any conversation with Kirby had much to do with it,” Marken said. “It was a decision he made on his own and for himself and because he wanted to work for his degree. He didn’t talk much about the decision. But that’s normal for us.
“I always tell people this when they ask football questions, but when my brother and I are together, we don’t talk much football. We talk everything but football, really.”
But did Sony really believe this was possible?
“After they won the SEC, he told me it was hard to even imagine it going this well. That, more than anything, is how we know he made the right call,” Smith said.
Michel’s decision to return has been instrumental in Georgia’s championship run, as he and Chubb have provided the muscle and speed behind a power running game that has helped bring true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm along slowly.
Michel has also played his best football when the Bulldogs have needed it most, whether it be plunging in for a critical touchdown in the Dawgs’ massive early-season victory at Notre Dame or vanquishing the demons against the Gators with an astonishing 137 yards and 2 touchdowns on only 6 carries to pace a Dawgs’ rout.
Michel has won an SEC Championship and he’s improved his NFL draft stock moderately too, going from a late-round, Day 3 projection to a Day 2, middle-round projection this year. Multiple NFL sources this week told me they think Michel may be undervalued, especially with teams clamoring for a pass-catching, hard-running difference maker similar to what New Orleans found in Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara in last year’s draft.
“Even back in the summer, I think Sony felt this year would be different,” Smith tells me. “He called me and asked me to come up and had some things he wanted to work on. He humbled himself and took the initiative, had an edge to him. He was ready to lead,” Smith said.
His team agrees that Michel has brought a different fire this season.
“People always say it’s harder to lead by example,” a Georgia assistant told me this week. “The real way you define leadership is answering the question of why people listen to you. Being a vocal leader is tough too. Sony is a guy who gets after it at practice, gets on teammates, demands excellence. But the real reason people listen is because he is the first guy to get to work.”
For Michel, growing into a leader who demands excellence and constantly strives for what Kirby Smart calls “the standard” is what the return has been about. More than draft stock and personal accolades, Michel returned because he saw a window for personal and program growth.
After all, sometimes life doesn’t follow a straight line, and hard work doesn’t always pay off the way you envision it. Countless hard workouts can result in two steps forward, but one fumble in a pivotal moment can be one big step back. At the end of the day, you still must seize the day when opportunity comes.
Last week, with the world watching, it was all that work Sony put in when no one was watching that made it easier for Michel to bounce back from what could have been a spirit-crushing failure of a fumble.
In the second overtime, it was Michel’s name Georgia called in a 48-48 football game. By now, we all know that Sony was redemption-ready.
The run sealed a night on which Michel was the star, with a staggering 181 yards rushing on only 11 carries, 4 receptions for 41 yards and 4 total touchdowns.
“When he made that cut and broke through the hole in overtime, he made the fumble right,” Marken tells me. “But it’s how he handled the success, not just of the Rose Bowl, but everything, that’s made me proud.
“Sony’s never made it about him or become too big. He sets goals for himself, but the team is first. And with all his blessings, it would have been easy to take things for granted. He hasn’t. He’s appreciated those blessings and worked relentlessly with them. He’s as hard a worker and as humble a kid as the eighth-grade kid who just wanted to make varsity.”
There’s a humility, a quiet dignity, in getting up in the morning and being the first to punch the clock. There’s even more humility when you’ve just failed, or been knocked down.
That’s what allowed Sony Michel to do what he did in the Rose Bowl, and it’s an enormous reason Georgia is in the position it will be in tomorrow night in Atlanta, playing for the program’s first national championship in 37 seasons.
While no one was watching, Sony Michel has been putting in the work to keep it from ending in Georgia heartbreak. And even if it does, he’ll be redemption-ready and relentless, whatever comes next.