The AJC's Steve Hummer talks to former UGA great Scott Woerner.

Scott Woerner: An old Bulldog has his day

Not so long as there are fifth graders to herd, and he is only one shepherd.

“Don’t cut across the grass!”

“You two, let’s go, you’re sandbagging on me!”

“Good job, good job! You can get one more!”

The timeless bellow of the phys-ed teacher cut through the misty mountain morning at Rabun County Elementary. Thursday was a rare warm break in the North Georgia winter. All of Mr. Woerner’s classes could escape outside and stretch and breathe and work something other than a PlayStation controller. The kids did laps around the parking lot, keeping count by the Popsicle stick they earned for each one completed.

All the children in school, every class, including the special-needs group, eventually get to know Mr. Woerner. And he learns them in return. “One thing I pride myself on is taking the time and trouble to get to know every kid in the school, every one of their first names. In the 13 years I’ve been here (teaching primary and elementary grades) I must know every kid in the county.”

And if any of these children knew about Woerner’s connection to the indisputably most successful Georgia Bulldogs football team ever, it is only in the most disconnected way.

“They find out, some of them that do, that I played. But it has been so long ago. I’m just the overweight P.E. teacher,” he said.

While Woerner, 55, has missed precious few days in a quarter century teaching science and physical education at various postings around the state, he played hooky Friday. He had to get to Macon, where Saturday he was among eight inductees into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

The weekend was for basking in the memories of 1980, when Woerner was a defensive back, return man and bona fide difference maker on the national-championship Bulldogs. So much of his time is spent living in the now, invested in servicing the future as a teacher, that he seldom gets the luxury of just lounging in the past.

Not that Woerner is terribly interested in going through life as the used-to-be football star.

“Truthfully (making the state hall of fame) is a validation that I played a game well. It’s not life-changing. I didn’t invent some miracle drug. I played a game,” he said.

“It’s an honor and privilege to be in the Hall of Fame, but when you get right down to the crux of it, I’ve been a teacher for 26 years, and we’ll find out whether or not I’ve made a difference somewhere down the road (in those he taught), I hope.”

Woerner played at a level that may one day elevate him to the other shrine — the one under construction in Atlanta — the College Football Hall of Fame.

“One of the best I ever played with,” said the Bulldogs’ quarterback of that era, Buck Belue. “And the best teammate ever.”

Woerner finished in Athens in 1980 with 13 career interceptions, fifth on Georgia’s all-time list. He still holds the single-season team record for punt-return yardage (483 in 1980). “When he returned punts there was no running east and west; he was going to run right into the chaos,” Belue said.

Time for an old war story or two. Herschel Walker was the centerpiece of that 1980 team, but the senior Woerner was at least one chamber of its heart.

To begin with, he never will be invited to join any pork-related hall of fame. Woerner engineered the great pig heist at the end of 1980 spring practice that became a chapter of lore. He and some fellow seniors slaughtered one of the hogs at the university’s swine research facility and barbecued the beast for a team party. Once they were found out by coach Vince Dooley, the lot of them was subjected to a hot, hard summer of atonement. But when football camp began, they reported in the best shape of their lives. And unified by their shared suffering. That hog had given its life for a worthy cause.

And the season ended with Woerner cradling the interception that preserved a 17-10 Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame.

In between it might be worth noting the Clemson game, a 20-16 victory in which Woerner returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown and returned an interception 98 yards to set up another.

How could that Sugar Bowl memory — “My last play was an interception, and it ended the most amazing season that Georgia probably ever will see” — not top Woerner’s list?

“I remember I’m holding the ball in my hands and people are climbing over the wall, Georgia fans coming down onto the field,” he said. “My girlfriend (his eventual wife, Marianne) is standing beside me on the sidelines and it’s 1,000 degrees. It was so hot and we were so tired after the game, the fans flooded the field. Thank God all those people were there, they kept me standing up. I was that exhausted.”

Woerner won two other championships. Not that you heard much about them. They were with the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. That was after spending a mostly forgettable year with the Falcons.

When football was finally through with Woerner, he took the unconventional route, one that did not automatically trade on his name. He went back to get his master’s degree in physical education at Georgia and went off to teach.

After stops in four counties, working at every level of education, Woerner concluded he preferred working with the younger students. No matter that it is uncommon enough to find a man teaching in elementary school, let alone one who owns a national-championship ring. “If you’re going to change anything, you’re going to change it early, as opposed to later when they form all those bad habits,” he said.

In multiple ways he does not conform easily to stereotypes of the ex-jock.

He’ll wear a coat and tie to a job where short shorts, a polyester shirt and a whistle long have been the dress code because he thinks it important to set a serious example for the kids.

Rather than drive to Athens, Woerner more likely will stay at home listening to a Bulldogs game on the radio. It also is likely that he’ll be multitasking, canning the fall vegetables from his garden while the game rages.

He hasn’t coached football since working with the middle-school program four seasons ago. Not that he wouldn’t coach again — he may look into it during a sabbatical after this school year. He wants to take a little time off to spend it with his elderly mother, fix up a Clayton County home for sale and maybe do a late-life career make-over.

“There are a lot bigger things out there in this world to worry about rather than a funny little game that is as violent as all get out,” he said with a smile.

For one weekend, Woerner will get to celebrate his sometimes underestimated place in that funny little game. It will be a nice diversion, however brief.

For he is back at school Monday. To the best of his memory, the lesson plan calls for working on the kids’ movement and coordination through dance.

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