In the world of college football, star athletes have increasingly become the recognizable face of the schools they play for. You can’t think of Penn State nowadays without thinking of running back Saquon Barkley, nor Alabama without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and you certainly cannot think of Wake Forest football without thinking about all-purpose athlete Greg Dortch.
Sometimes things in life have a funny way of working out, listed at 5-foot-9 on the Wake Forest Sports website, it seems only fitting that the face of the smallest school among all Power Five conferences is an athlete that is…well… small.
“He’s literally the same height as me. Pretty much all sports websites are going to put the most favorable height online,” said Dortch’s friend Hailey Morrison, who is around 5-foot-3.
Regardless of his real height, the truth is that Dortch did not get many favors in football due to his height. Under-recruited coming out of Highland Springs High School in Virginia, he received only 11 scholarship offers to play football at the collegiate level.
He was listed as a two-star wide receiver by 247 Sports, ranked as the 2,211th player in the 2016 recruiting class, and ended up with only two offers from Power Five schools, one of them by Wake Forest.
“I’m not the biggest guy ever. I had 11 offers coming out of high school. There are 130-some schools in America. I had coaches all the time telling me I’m too small, not fast enough,” said Dortch.
“I feel like that’s what made me the type of player I am today. I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder. Just trying to prove to everyone that I can play at the highest level.”
In 2017, coming off of his redshirt freshman year at Wake Forest, Dortch quickly showed that it was a mistake for the other 130+ schools not to have offered him a scholarship.
“I did not know much about him at the beginning of the season, but when you watch him on tape… people at home… you’re going to be in for a treat. He’s great,” said an ACC Network Broadcaster during a pre-game show.
Dortch was a key part of an offensive revolution at Wake Forest in 2017. The team had school record 6,055 total yards on offense in 13 games, while also averaging a school-record 35.3 points per game.
By comparison, in 2016, then year prior, the Deacs mustered only 4,049 yards and was able to score more than 35 points only once during the whole season, and that came against FCS foe Delaware. In total, the Deacs matched or set 35 offensive records in program history.
Watching Dortch isn’t just about the yards; it’s the “how” of those yards that makes his game so interesting. Since he is not a tall receiver who can go up and grab the ball over the head of cornerbacks, Dortch relies on his footwork, change of direction and short-field bursts to consistently beat defenders off their feet.
In one play against Florida State in 2017, Dortch caught a screen pass two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Three FSU defenders came flying toward him in what surely looked like a busted play for negative yards. Dortch then cut it back inside to position two blockers between him and the defenders in pursuit. Yet, by cutting inside he ran right into the Seminoles’ middle linebacker perfectly positioned for an open-field tackle. Dortch then juked the linebacker out of his shoes who fell in the opposite direction. He then quickly accelerated up-field for a 17-yard gain in what was destined to be a negative play. It was the closest version in football to a basketball crossover.
Dortch’s mesmerizing misdirection plays became so famous within the Wake Forest community that fans created the twitter hashtag #YouGotDORTCHED, which could also be seen on t-shirts on gamedays. He was enjoying his top form.
During a home game against Louisville in 2017, Dortch was executing one of the most basic plays on the Wake Forest playbook. He was supposed to swing out of the backfield towards the left sideline and beat the opposing cornerback in space to what should be an easy touchdown pick up on a First and Goal. Dortch did just that as he blew past the defender with ease and stretched over the orange pylon for his second touchdown of the game.
Yet, as soon as the play was over, he bent his head towards his knee and crouched on the dark turf of the end zone. At the time, Dortch, full of adrenaline, thought he should be fine. He continued playing and had a terrific second half scoring two other touchdowns to set a Wake Forest record for most receiving touchdowns in a single game (four). Dortch finished the game with 167 receiving yards, which was by far the best overall performance in his young and bright career.
It wasn’t until later than Dortch felt something was wrong in his abdomen.
“After the game was over, I took a shower and met with my family. I had a lot of family going to that game. So, I was taking pictures, hugging kids, laughing and [doing] other stuff, and I couldn’t laugh,” said Dortch. “I basically wasn’t myself. It wasn’t like a burning feeling, it was like a sharp pain. I knew there was something wrong with me.”
Dortch described the feeling to his family as if he was somehow hollow.
“That was a word that we had never heard before to describe pain,” said Loretta Dortch, Greg’s mother in an interview with The Athletic. “That’s what actually made them take him to the hospital. He probably would have lost his life had he not gone to the hospital.”
He was rushed into the hospital to take a CT scan and X-rays. The doctors found out that the pylon had punctured his small intestine, and he had to be rushed into as quickly as possible.
“That whole night was just weird. It felt like a movie,” said Dortch. “I just remember getting on the bed and being pushed back into the surgery, and it was like all white. It was all white like I was in heaven or something, like it was a dream.”
The doctors said that Dortch was fortunate to not have aggravated his injury during the second half. Had he reinjured himself or went back to his dorm, the consequences would be irreversible.
“What the doctors said, and what the trainer said, too, was that that type of injury is so incredibly painful, that his pain tolerance had to be through the roof to be able to do what he did [play the whole second half] with that injury,” said Head Coach Dave Clawson in an interview with The Athletic.
Dortch missed the remaining four games of the season, including a signature bowl win over SEC giant Texas A&M. He still finished the season leading all receivers with 53 catches to 722 yards and nine touchdowns in eight games. He earned second-team All-ACC honors and finished in second place for the 2017 ACC Freshman of the Year award behind Boston College’s star running back A.J. Dillon.
His great year fell just short of what could’ve been one of the best seasons by a Wake Forest receiver. Yet, for people who knew Dortch this was only the beginning.
“He got a little down as anybody would. But, eventually he started embracing the process that he needed to embrace to get back to where he was,” said Morrison. “With the things that he likes, he’s very persistent. If he wants to do something, he’s going to do it.”
By the time fall camp rolled around in 2018, there was Dortch back again with his teammates. Same smile, and same positive presence, the only difference is that now he was sporting a crop top that showed a long scar across his abdomen all the way to his belly-button. The scary injury was a thing of the past now.
“He’s like a little kid, very energetic. Always having fun. Always smiling. You rarely ever see a bad day with him,” said Malik Grate, his roommate. “What you see on the field; him playing around, being energetic, that’s what you get [from him] every day. We’re used to call him little energizer bunny, because it is never a dull moment with him.”
Things this season were not as smooth initially as last season for the Deacs though. Without many key pieces on defense due to injuries, Wake Forest found itself with a 4-5 record heading into its last three games against then No. 14 NC State, Coastal champions Pittsburgh and Duke. They had to win two of the three to qualify for a bowl game and with only the Pittsburgh game being at home, the odds didn’t look in the Deacs’ favor.
“[Playing in a bowl game] would definitely be really big,” said Dortch. “Wake Forest isn’t a school like Florida State that’s gone to a bowl game 40-straight years. Every bowl game that Wake gets is exciting.”
The Deacs managed to give new life to their season by pulling perhaps the biggest upset of the season in the ACC when they defeated NC State on the road. Wake Forest was projected as a 19-point underdog and without its starting quarterback Sam Hartman, who suffered a season-ending injury the previous week. None of that mattered, as the Deacs won 27-23, behind a touchdown by Dortch in the second half.
Wake then fell at home to Pittsburgh, setting up a do-or-die matchup at Duke for the season finale.
In what would wind up being the final game of Greg Dortch’s collegiate career, he and the Deacs battled out adversity once more; this time around in remarkable fashion. Wake Forest did not only get to its 6th win of the season to become bowl-eligible, but it also did so with the largest margin against an ACC team in its 130 year history in a 59-7 beatdown of the Blue Devils in their own stadium.
Dortch finished the game leading all receivers with 10 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
He would wind up with 1,078 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns on the season and was awarded the ACC’s Brian Piccolo Award given to a player that made the most contributions to a team after coming back from a serious injury. He also received All-American honors by multiple media outlets (Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, and Associated Press).
He was having the triumphant comeback he longed for and the national recognition he deserved.
Unfortunately, he wound up sitting out the Birmingham Bowl due to a finger injury sustained during the Duke game, and watched it from the sidelines as his teammates grabbed a 37-34 last second win over Memphis. The Deacs now have three straight wins in bowl games for the first time in school history.
Dortch declared for the 2019 NFL Draft the day after the Birmingham Bowl ending his college career at Wake Forest. Despite missing both bowl games, he’ll go down as one of the best receivers in Wake Forest history, finishing with 142 catches for 1,800 receiving yards and 17 receiving touchdowns in 20 games.
His 1,078 receiving yards in 2018 is second all-time in yards by a Wake Forest receiver, only trailing Chris Givens (1,330). He also holds the record for most receiving touchdowns by a Wake Forest receiver in a game, with four, on two occasions.
Moving forward, Dortch will go through the draft process where he will no doubt be overlooked once again by many scouts due to his size.
If there is one thing that Dortch’s career at Wake Forest has showed it is that he is pretty good at proving people wrong.
For two years you couldn’t think of Wake Forest Football without thinking of Greg Dortch. Now, Dortch will be a reminder of Wake Forest on Sundays.
Dortch embodies the spirit and enthusiasm of Wake Forest and is a prime example of the Mark Twain saying that “it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog.” Wake Forest fans have always known that, but now they have a new favorite son who idealizes that in the flesh.
We are honored to have seen Mr. Dortch come to the hallowed grounds of Mother So Dear and know that he will continue to impress and make us proud in all walks of life beyond campus.