ORLANDO, Fla. Patrick Croffie still remembers the day he almost ALMOST got a chance to play.
Early in the 2002 season, Georgia was blowing out New Mexico State when an assistant coach asked, ''Hey, Croffie, you been in yet?''
His heart began to race. He tried to loosen up. This was it! He would actually be freed from the confines of the bench. He would trot on the field to the cheers of more than 80,000 red-clad fans at Sanford Stadium.
Alas, the coaches decided that a different player should go in for the kickoff return that was supposed to be Croffie's fleeting moment in the sun.
''I know I can play,'' he says now. ''I just never got the opportunity to show what I can do.''
In all likelihood, Croffie will have to be content with that belief in himself. He spent four years on the scout team with nary a minute heck, not even a second of actual playing time.
He paid his own way through school, with little hope of earning a scholarship. He spent countless hours on the practice field, getting knocked around by bigger, stronger teammates. He faithfully attended who-knows-how-many meetings, studying plays others would get to run. He did his time in the weight room, trying to catch up.
All for the love of the sport.
Croffie will be on the sideline Thursday when the 11th-ranked Bulldogs meet No. 12 Purdue in the Capital One Bowl. There, he expects to remain one final time. No Hollywood ending for Georgia's version of ''Rudy.''
''Deep down inside, I've always wanted an opportunity to play in my last game,'' he said Monday after practice. ''But Purdue is a very talented team and it will probably be a close game. I don't think I'll get to play. I don't want to get my hopes up.''
This is the flip side of college football the anonymous walk-on who doesn't have to fret about entering the NFL draft or squeezing another awards banquet into a busy schedule.
During the week, Croffie spends his time trying to mimic opposing players in practice. Then, on Saturdays, he watches others play the games.
''Those guys are special,'' said Sean Jones, Georgia's star safety. ''It would burn me up to practice all week and not get to play. Not everyone can do what they do. They sacrifice everything.''
Many scout teamers are up-and-coming players, just biding their time while they learn the college game. The rest are guys who aren't quite big enough, or strong enough, or fast enough.
Still, they are vital to a team's success.
''People don't realize how important a good scout team is,'' Georgia quarterback David Greene said. ''They give us a good look at what we're going to see in the game.''
For Croffie, size has always been the issue. He looks more like a kicker than a defensive back, receiver or running back the positions he has played at Georgia. He's only 5-foot-7 and entered school weighing 145 pounds. He's never tipped the scales at more than 162.
In fact, after finishing his high school career at Athens Academy, not far from the Georgia campus, Croffie figured his football-playing days were over. He enrolled in 1999 as a student and student only. No hyphen. No ''athlete'' attached to his name.
But a friend playing at Division I-AA Georgia Southern coaxed Croffie into trying out for the Bulldogs in 2000. He showed up, asked for a chance and was given a spot on the team. That was about it.
Not that Croffie didn't put in the time. While NCAA rules limit players to 20 hours a week during the season, let's not forget all the offseason workouts a couple of hours a day, five days a week, with just a few breaks scattered in along the way.
The final scoreboard on Croffie's career will likely read: some 2,400 hours spent practicing and preparing for a game that he never actually played.
''I don't know why he didn't play,'' said his mother, Esther Croffie, speaking by telephone from her job in Athens. ''He went to practice every day. He put all those hours in. I don't know what the reason is. But I'm proud of him. And I think he's OK with it, too.''
Indeed, Croffie is largely satisfied with the path his life has taken. But there are moments when he wonders why things didn't turn out a little different. He started out as a receiver and spent one spring as the No. 2 tailback before asking to move to defensive back, figuring that would be his best chance to get in a game.
Now, he's not so sure.
''Just a second ago, as we were going out to practice, (starting cornerback) Bruce Thornton told me, 'You're a good receiver. Why didn't you stay at receiver?''' Croffie said, a tinge of dismay in his voice.
He dismisses any comparisons to ''Rudy,'' the movie based on the undersized, talent-deprived walk-on who managed to get on the field for the final two plays of a Notre Dame game.
Croffie truly believes he has just as much talent as most of the guys who do get to play. Maybe that's what kept him going for four years.
''It's so hard,'' he admitted. ''You've got to spend all those hours working, going to class, going to practice. And you're basically doing it for free. I've got to pay for my books, pay for my food. Just looking at it like that, it is hard.''
But Croffie doesn't spend much time fretting over his situation. He actually has a year of eligibility remaining, but won't use it. He's close to earning his degree in family and child development. He wants to work with kids. It's time to move on.
Besides, Croffie has already gotten to be a member of Georgia's first Southeastern Conference championship team in 20 years. He's already made a bunch of lifelong friends.
''At least,'' his mother said, ''he was on the team.''
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