Charlie and his father Kent pose in front of Rabun County High. AJC / CHIP TOWERS
“I actually got sick of hearing that,” Woerner says of the narrative that he was simply following his uncle’s legacy to Athens. “You know, at the end of every article, ‘Charlie Woerner, nephew of Scott Woerner.’ I couldn’t get away from it.”
No, with Charlie, it’s all about immediate family. It envelopes him and defines him. That may or may not have been a matter of choice, considering that unit goes nine deep.
Charlie is the product of a crowded, bustling and vibrant household. He is one of seven children born to Kent and Kathie Woerner. Conveniently separated in increments of two to three years, Charlie is the baby brother of a massive mountain clan.
The Woerner children are Rachel (29), Allen (27), Peter (25), Jack (23), Sally (20), Charlie (18) and Lucy (15). With the exception of a brief stint in Atlanta, they all grew up here in the northeasternmost county of Georgia.
“People ask me, ‘Who did you look up to when you were young?’” Woerner said in a recent interview at Rabun County High School. “I don’t say some pro athlete or college athlete. I’ve always looked up to my big brothers. They’re who I spent all my time with. Definitely, without a doubt, they’re the biggest influences in my life.”
There is a little more room in the Woerner’s five-bedroom house nowadays. Rachel Woerner Marshall is married now and lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. Allen is also married and Sally runs track and studies at Western Carolina University most of the year. But Jack, Peter, Charlie and Lucy are all still at home.
Charlie, who spent most of his life in a one-bunk bed of a four-bunk room, will be next to leave. A 4-star prospect as a wide receiver, he signed with the Bulldogs in February and will report to Athens with the rest of the 2016 incoming class the first week of June.
The fact that he’ll be looking at just a 90-minute drive up scenic Highway 441 to get back home is the biggest reason Charlie opted to go to UGA as opposed to the dozens of other schools vying for his services.
“I really just wanted to go there and stay close to home,” he said.
Hearing the family tales of growing up in the shadow of Tiger Mountain, it’s hard to blame Charlie for not wanting to venture far from home. He’s the product of a family that does most of its living outdoors, and there’s a lot of outdoor living to be done in the 5½-acre wilderness paradise they settled on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Behind the Woerner property there’s an unoccupied seven-acre plot and, beyond that, thousands of acres of federally protected land.
But don’t mistake the Woerners for live-off-the-land, Appalachian simpletons. They’re a family of educators who long ago decided to put down roots and raise their kids here.
The Woerners are a serious hunting family. SPECIAL PHOTO
Think “Duck Dynasty” meets “The Waltons.”
“We like to hunt and fish and hike and kayak, all that stuff,” said Charlie’s father Kent, a recently retired educator who served as principal at three Rabun County schools. “That’s the way Scott and I were raised by our parents and that’s the way I’m raising my family, just to enjoy the great outdoors. I just think it’s a healthy thing.”
Charlie is fine with that. Where else can a senior who doesn’t have to be at his first class until 10 a.m. get in an early-morning hunt before school? He and his brother Peter have several kills to their credit this semester, including a wild turkey and hog.
Woerner credits outdoor living for much his athleticism.
“I think a lot of it was just being outside playing,” he said. “Mom and Dad would make us stay outside for the whole day. We’d go inside and try to get water and they’d just shove us right back outside. We were always in the woods running around.”
It’s actually as an exceptional outdoor sportsman – not a legendary football figure — that Charlie Woerner always identified his Uncle Scott. He used to take Charlie and his brothers on exotic hunting and fishing trips when they were children.
It wasn’t until around the time Charlie took physical education classes from his uncle in middle school that he was made aware of his tremendous gridiron accomplishments. Scott Woerner still holds several UGA records, including most kickoff return yards in a single game (190) and most punt return yards in a season (488 yards in 1980). Bulldogs’ fans best remember Scott Woerner for his punt and interception returns to beat Clemson in 1980, and for intercepting the Notre Dame pass in the end zone that helped seal Georgia’s national championship win in the Sugar Bowl.
Already a member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, Scott Woerner has been designated for induction into the National College Football Hall of Fame in New York City this December.
“I knew they won a national championship and everything, but it really didn’t hit me until middle school that he was that big,” Charlie said.
While the Woerners can hunt and fish, they can play a little ball, too. Football is sort in the family DNA, and that extends beyond Uncle Scott.
Kent Woerner was a pretty good football player in his own right. He was two years older and, at 6-foot-3, bigger than his brother Scott, and he preceded him in landing a full ride to college. He played fullback and noseguard at Furman University, and was good enough to get a free-agent tryout with the New York Giants.
Kent had another brother that played briefly at West Georgia College before a neck injury ended his career. All three played for Weyman Sellers at Jonesboro High after they moved to Georgia from Texas.
Georgia signee Charlie Woerner poses in front of a trophy case at Rabun County High School. He has added a few region track trophies to the display recently. AJC / CHIP TOWERS
“Scott used to give me credit – he doesn’t give credit anymore – for being such a great punt returner,” Kent shares. “The reason, I was a real good punter. I actually won a punt, pass and kick contest in Texas when I was 10 years old. Got the trophy on my mantle to prove it. So Scott had to catch all my punts. I’d sit in my front yard, we had a big ol’ flat square, and I would punt and he would catch them; I’d punt, he’d catch them. I say that’s why he was such a good punt returner.”
And so, football also came naturally to Kent’s kids. All the boys have made it to college in the sport, albeit on a lower level than Charlie. Allen was an exceptional tight end at Mars Hill University, Peter played defensive line at LaGrange and then Brevard, and Jack played fullback at Brevard.
Even sister Sally demonstrates the family’s athletic gifts. She’s on track scholarship and runs multi-events at Western Carolina.
“There was a time, up until about eighth grade or so, that Sally could still outrun Charlie,” Kent said. “Charlie eventually got his speed and it made Sally so mad.”
Indeed, the family credits “Little Brother Syndrome” for Charlie growing into the freakish athlete that will enroll at Georgia next month. He also plays basketball and runs track. He recently won region in discus and shot put and also qualified for state in the 100 meters.
“I mean, I had three older brothers and they were always beating me up,” Charlie said, half-joking. “I was always trying to keep up with them. I was always tagging along with them and I think that made me mature a little faster, following them around all the time.”
Except for stints in college, the brothers rarely have been far from each other. Charlie hunts with Peter almost daily, while Allen, an IT specialist at Rabun County High, served as his position coach the past four years.
Woerner legend grows
It didn’t take long for Woerner to out-grow the shadows of his big brothers. The seeds of his legend were planted in Rabun County youth ball, where he led his teams to several mountain-league titles. And like his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame, his legend grew tall and stately as a four-year starter for coach Lee Shaw at Rabun County High.
As a relatively gangly ninth-grader of about 6-3, 190, Shaw first inserted Charlie Woerner into the lineup at free safety on defense. He gave him the simplistic charge of “go find the football,” and Woerner quickly proved he could fulfill that mission.
In the third game of the season against a very good Commerce team, Woerner racked up “30-something” tackles, Shaw said. The Wildcats narrowly lost 18-17, but Shaw found himself a free safety that would not be budged from the position for the next four years.
“Everybody would look at him and wonder why he wasn’t playing defensive end,” Shaw said. “I’d just ask them, ‘have you seen him play free safety?’ Here’s a cat that can flat-out run the alley.”
Free safety was always Woerner’s primary position with the Wildcats. His move to wide receiver and then into a major role as a full-fledged offensive target was more gradual.
In fact, Woerner became more of a special weapon on offense than a standard fixture. Armed with other capable players on that side of the ball, Shaw wanted Woerner to play 100 percent of the meaningful snaps on defense. But he’d deploy him selectively on offense, sometimes as a receiver, sometimes as a running back, sometimes as a running quarterback.
Just ask mountain rival Union County, which in 2013 was surprised to see Woerner line up in the backfield as the “Wildcat.” He ran the football to the tune of 241 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 53 yards and intercepted one on defense and returned it 53 yards to set up another score.
“I compare him to (Rob) Gronkowski as far as versatility,” Shaw said. “He can be attached as the tight end, he can be flexed in a kind of a slot position, or he could be singled up in trips-open against a small defensive back in the red zone or the goal line. He can jump out of the gym, too.
“It’s going to be fun to see where his fit is finally going to be, because Charlie can play a lot of positions.”
Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has a similar plan for Woerner between the hedges. While he is signing with the Bulldogs as a wide receiver, Charlie said he has been told they plan to utilize him first as a tight end. But it will be in a specialized hybrid, or H-back role, where he will occasionally flex out wide and sometimes block out of the backfield.
Georgia is already well-stocked at tight end. Woerner will arrive with Jeb Blazevich, Jordan Davis, Jackson Harris and Isaac Nauta already manning the position. But because of his versatility, Shaw wouldn’t be surprised if Woerner is utilized in other ways, including special teams and possibly even defense.
Shaw said he would’ve played Woerner every minute of every game if he could have.
“We had to be smart about how we used him,” he said. “We had to figure out some ways to save some heartbeats. It became about managing his body.”
Time to move on
Recruiting was relatively painless for Charlie, and for the Bulldogs. But don’t be mistaken. He seriously contemplated going somewhere other than Georgia. The family was particularly fond of Clemson and of Alabama. And Charlie found himself with a special affinity for Oregon.
That remains his only recruiting regret, that he didn’t accept the Duck’s invitation to visit Eugene, Ore.
“I really liked the genuineness of the coaches out there, but I never went,” he said. “That’s when it hit me that I needed to stay close.”
Woerner committed to Georgia and then head coach Mark Richt last July. He never wavered even after the coaching change in early December.
This billboard advertising Kent Woerner as a candidate for a seat in House District 8 sits on a mountainside about a quarter mile from Rabun County High School. DANIELLE TOWERS / SPECIAL
Now the attention of the family has shifted from baby brother to Dad. Only a year removed from retirement as a principal at Rabun County Elementary School, Kent Woerner was recruited by friends and local citizens to run on the Republican ticket for the District 8 seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.
So the past couple of months have seen Kent Woerner traveling back and forth between Rabun, Union and Town counties and to Atlanta to campaign and politic. It’s a crowded race in which he is opposed by David Barton, Matt Gurtler and Joshua Littrell.
“I was thinking about running for the board of education, but I never really expected to be doing this,” Kent Woerner says with a laugh.
Charlie Woerner figures his father has the perfect platform on which to run.
“I always thought Dad was higher up than a principal anyways,” Charlie said. “He always knew so many people, could speak so well in a crowd, I always thought he would do something like that. I just always saw him as more than a principal. You’ve got seven kids, not many parents can do that and stay together at the same time. Mom and Dad have both done a great job raising seven kids and actually being able to pay for all of us and making us into good people.
“I think Dad’s biggest accolade going into this race is raising seven children.”
Hard to argue with that.
Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.
THE NEXT GENERATION SERIES