ATHENS — Orson Charles was at a turning point, although he didn’t realize it.
He had transferred to Tampa’s Plant High School before his senior season and wasn’t giving full effort during a drill. Receivers coach T.J. Lane called out Charles and let him have it before kicking him out of practice.
Both men now point to that day as a vital experience in the evolution of Charles as a player and a person.
“I was kind of feeling myself when I first transferred,” he said. “From there, everything changed. It took somebody like him to show me that. That’s why I still respect him and still love him, and that’s why he’s still in my corner to this day.”
Lane vividly remembers that practice.
“He loves telling that story,” Lane said. “I hate telling that story because you never want to berate a child, but it was kind of at a breaking point. After that, it was a 180. Ever since that day, there was never one single issue with him putting in full effort.”
In May, Charles will finish what he started and graduate from the University of Georgia with a degree in housing. After leaving UGA early to enter the 2012 NFL Draft, he returned to complete his education and make good on a promise he made to mother.
“It was a must with a capital M,” said Naseline Linton, Charles’ mother. “I always told him to get an education. I told him, ‘If you’re going to leave early, promise me you’re going to go back.’ ”
Linton, who was born and raised on the Caribbean island of Dominica, stressed the importance of education to Charles from the time he was a child. Having the importance of education instilled in her from her parents, she always emphasized to Charles that athletics could always be taken away from him, but no one could take away what was in his mind.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him, honestly,” said Nelson Vazquez, Charles’ best friend, who played with him at Plant. “Forget seeing his name on TV. That will be crazy when I’m there to see them call his name because he’s graduating.”
Charles is working out and working with his agent with hopes of earning a spot on an NFL roster next season. Charles has played sparingly since being drafted, first for the Cincinnati Bengals and then as a member of the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad.
He has nine career catches, but just turned 25.
His plans beyond football include dreams of building low-income student housing along the East Coast to help struggling families pursue their academic dreams.
“There isn’t one iota of bull that comes from him,” Lane said. “A lot of his attributes get lost because he’s a big, black, fast, muscular athlete, but there’s a lot of depth to him that people just really don’t know.”
For Charles and those close to him, graduation will be the culmination of a long journey. While the NFL dream is still alive for Charles, he is preparing himself for life after the NFL.
“I would not miss (Charles’ graduation),” Linton said. “If I have to walk to get there, I’ll start walking. That’s an accomplishment that I’m very happy he went back for.”
Patrick O’Shea, the author of this story, is a junior in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.