(Note: This is part of a series of stories on legendary Georgia Bulldogs.)
ATHENS – It’s all very different now, the layout of the Georgia practice fields. First of all, there wasn’t a $30 million indoor facility plopped right in the middle of it. But when Scott Woerner looks down from the patio area on the back of the Butts-Mehre Building to the vast expanse that has always been known as the Woodruff Practice Fields, in his mind he can still see the terraced grass fields that used to be there.
Back when Woerner played for the Bulldogs, the offense used to practice on the upper fields and the defense would practice on the lower fields. When he arrived at UGA from Jonesboro High as a highly-touted recruit in 1977, Woerner started out practicing on those upper fields.
He’d come as a quarterback. He’d leave as an All-American defensive back – and a national champion.
There was nothing fancy or dramatic about the initial transition from one to the other. But Woerner still recalls it like it was yesterday.
“I’m standing there on the elevated field with the offense and Coach Dooley walks up,” Woerner said as he toured the UGA facilities earlier this summer. “I’m standing there and he says, ‘Scott, how do you feel about playing defense?’ I said, ‘Coach, I don’t care where I play. I just want to play.’”
Woerner, gimpy with a quadricep pull at the time, said he and Dooley simply turned and walked together down the steeply-sloped berm down to the defensive field below. Dooley then introduced Woerner to secondary coach Sam Mitchell.
‘Here’s your new defensive back’
“He said, ‘Here’s your new defensive back,” Woerner said, laughing at the memory. “That was about how it happened.”
Neither could have known then what a big deal that would be. Woerner had been a highly sought-after quarterback prospect. He ran the option, which was the offense du jour of the time. So Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Texas, they’d all beat down the Woerners’ door in Jonesboro trying to convince Woerner to come run their offense.
Georgia made no such pitch. He started at UGA as a quarterback and then moved to running back in that first training camp. But it had never really been discussed what position he might play. And Woerner liked that.
“Coach Dooley never said, ‘come to Georgia and play quarterback.’ Nobody did,” Woerner said. “They said, ‘come to Georgia and play football.’ I was a football player. I enjoyed every position on the field. I liked defense; I liked the offense. I just wanted to be on the field.”
A funny thing happened to Woerner on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer. After working with Georgia’s defensive backs for a while, he noticed a trend.
“It was quite comical,” Woerner said. “I knew Chris Welton at the time. We’d done the banquet circuit coming out of high school. He’d played quarterback and now he was a rover. Turns out, there were a whole bunch of us quarterbacks in the secondary. I start talking to everybody. ‘What’d you play? Quarterback. What’d you play? Quarterback.’ I’m talking to all those guys and I thought, ‘man, okay. I see!’ The whole secondary was basically retired quarterbacks.”
Woerner said he thinks that’s why Georgia ended up with such a great defensive backfield in 1980, the year they’d win the national championship. He said it certainly wasn’t because of their great speed and tremendous athleticism.
But the Bulldogs ended up leading the nation in interceptions (24) and turnover margin that season. They had five takeaways in the national championship game alone – including two interceptions by Woerner. Woerner had five picks and safety Jeff Hipp led the team with eight that year.
“I really think it helped because we saw the game from the offensive side of the ball,” Woerner said. “We could see the plays forming and happening. I think it really benefited all of us having played on that side of the ball for so long.”
Anticipation was the name of their game. Georgia’s 1980 defense, under the direction of legendary defensive coordinator Erk Russell, was known for its bend-but-don’t-break style. Typically it would give up a lot of yards and first downs. But when it came time to make a play and get off the field, somebody usually would.
And it was often Woerner. Sometimes on defense, sometimes on special teams.
‘Like a fourth grader at recess’
Woerner would leave college as Georgia’s career leader in punt return yards (today’s he’s second with 1,077) and he still holds the single-year record from that 1980 season (488). But he insists his success both as a returner and a defensive back had less to do with his athleticism and more to do with anticipation and risk-taking.
Woerner laughed out loud when asked if he’d describe his playing style as “reckless.”
“Like a fourth grader at recess,” he said. “I never lost focus about what was going on in the game itself. But even in the championship game I did some things that were extremely unorthodox. One time, I blitzed from the corner. I just did it. They’d run the same play several times and I’d seen it, and this time I didn’t take the bait. I kind of baited them instead and ran in and made the tackle for loss. Welton comes up out of the pile saying, ‘what are you doing in here?’… So, yeah, I took a lot of risks. I paid for it at times, too.”
Woerner said he got burned so many times as a young defensive back that his teammates came to call him “Toast.” But it would soon morph him into one of college football’s greatest play-makers of all time.
That recklessness didn’t translate as well at the next level, however. Woerner was drafted in the third round by the Atlanta Falcons and played one season with them before getting waived. He’d play three seasons in the USFL, winning two of that short-lived league’s championships. He’d play one more year of pro ball with the New Orleans Saints during the strike year of 1987, then he retired. He said the speed of the pro game was just too great.
Woerner then moved quietly into his post-football life. Though he had numerous offers to coach on the college and pro and even high school level, he chose instead to settle into a blissful life of routine with his longtime sweetheart and wife Marianne as an elementary and middle-school physical education teacher.
“When you’re involved in (football) at a high level and you see it all, the pressure, the stress and everything that goes along with, I’d been in it long enough,” Woerner said. “I had traveled enough and flown on enough airplanes. I really wanted just to calm down and get into a routine that let me stay at home. It was nice.”
Woerner coached middle school ball for a few years and called it the most fun he’d ever had in the game besides that whimsical season of 1980 at Georgia.
He retired from teaching after 27 years just last year, and then only because obligations as a Hall of Fame inductee and a serious illness with his sister would take him away from work too much. He hasn’t returned and figures he probably won’t now.
Last year was a whirlwind and Woerner’s still catching his breath from it. It ended in December with his official induction into the Collegiate Football Hall of Fame during ceremonies at the swank Waldorf Astoria in downtown New York City. All his 1980’s buddies attended the black-tie affair.
And, of course, Dooley, a member himself, was there, too. It’s for that man that Woerner probably has the most affinity of anyone he met in football.
Woerner knows that he wouldn’t be in the Hall today had he not been on Georgia’s 1980 national championship and if Dooley hadn’t put his arm around him 40 years ago and walked him down that slope to the defensive field below.
“It changed my life, changed my career and is probably the biggest reason I was an All-American and ended up in the Hall of Fame, that move from offense to defense,” Woerner said. “I probably would have never had that chance had I stayed on the offensive side of the ball.”
Turns out Coach Dooley probably knew what he was doing. And Scott Woerner, too.