Theo Horrocks and Cassen Jackson-Garrison arrived at Vanderbilt in 2004 from different corners of the state of Tennessee.
But that was only the beginning of their differences.
Horrocks is a self-described country boy from tiny Fayetteville. Jackson-Garrison is an urban kid from Knoxville who knew a thing or two about life on the streets.
Four years later, they have much in common as they prepare to play their final home games as Commodores on Saturday when Vanderbilt hosts Wake Forest.
Not only will both players graduate in the spring, they will arrive there by traveling treacherous paths that could have easily derailed either.
Horrocks, a defensive tackle, found his VU career hanging in the balance in 2004 when he was involved in a fight on campus. Having little tolerance for such things, Coach Bobby Johnson thought about sending Horrocks home.
“You sort of have to go by feel,” Johnson said. “Generally, what kind of an overall person that guy is. I knew Theo was a fine young man when he came here. I didn’t anticipate any more problems, and he’s been fantastic from then on.”
Horrocks has avoided trouble since 2004. His respect in the program continued to increase, culminating with him being named a team captain this spring.
Along the way, he’s provided Vanderbilt with excellent and dependable interior work on the defensive line.
“We all have things we have to overcome,” Johnson said. “Theo, I think, matured a great deal and learned a great deal with some adversity early in his career. He came back strong and has a standout in every way for us, not only in playing but his leadership abilities and demeanor in practice.
“I have a lot of respect for him for coming back from a pretty tough situation. We think the world of him.”
For Jackson-Garrison, a tailback, the troubles began much earlier than those of Horrocks.
In telling his life story publicly for the first time in an interview with The City Paper in August 2005, Jackson-Garrison revealed that he’s never known his father and was raised by a mother who was addicted to drugs.
Jackson-Garrison was occasionally homeless as a teenager, sleeping in abandoned cars and stealing food to survive. He was eventually placed into custody of the state and was later adopted by Rodger and Darla Garrison, who provided stability and encouraged education.
Without a hint of arrogance in his voice, Jackson-Garrison this week reflected on his accomplishments as his Commodore career winds down.
“I’m just proud of myself, man,” he said. “I feel like I did a great job. It was rough and a long road, but I’ve just about completed all my goals I set for myself and becoming the person I want to be.”
Horrocks and Jackson-Garrison are two of 13 Vanderbilt seniors who will bid farewell Saturday.
Others are offensive tackles Chris Williams and Brian Stamper, center Hamilton Holliday, defensive tackle Gabe Hall, offensive guards Josh Eames and Merritt Kirchoffer, quarterback Richard Kovalcheck, linebackers Jonathan Goff, Marcus Buggs and Dom Morias and defensive end Curtis Gatewood.
As fourth- or fifth-year seniors, each member of the class arrived in a year in which VU was coming off a two-win season.
The Commodores have won 14 games in the past three seasons – the most in a three-year span since 1992-94 – and are one win away this week from securing bowl eligibility for the first time since 1982.
“They came here and believed in our coaching staff and have done a lot of great work to try to get our program on par with others in the SEC,” Johnson said. “I think we can say we can consistently compete in the SEC, and it has a lot to do with what those guys have done. Some of them have been outstanding players, but most of all they have been outstanding leaders.
“My hat is off to them. I appreciate all their hard work, and believe me, it’s hard work to go to school here and compete in this league. I think it’s a pretty special group.”