A different kind of football player – probably a different kind of college student – Charles enters his junior season as one of the top tight ends in the SEC.
“I am very comfortable with him,” quarterback Aaron Murray said earlier this year.
Murray is right. It’s hard not to be comfortable around Charles. He sort of puts people at ease. Smiles are easy to come by with the Tampa native.
But more than that Charles possesses a unique combination of raw physical talent, leadership and an eagerness to be great.
The first time I met Orson Charles was the day Murray was set to commit to Georgia. That day a rather nervous Murray stood in front of a slew of reporters and teammates to announce that he was headed to Athens. I’d previously asked Plant coach Robert Weiner if he would set up a photo shoot with Charles as well as Murray for later that day, which he did.
Charles went first under the hot Tampa sun. He was shy… the only thing he wanted that day from me was to take a photo of him with his cell phone so he could have a shot to keep for himself of him in his high school uniform. A few moments later Murray came to the middle of Plant’s field where Charles and I were waiting for him. I told Murray what was going on as far as the photo shoot was concerned… then he turned to Charles.
“He will put the two of us on the cover of his magazine if you will commit to Georgia in time,” Murray said – pleading with Charles about going to Georgia. Charles just smiled.
Murray explained to me earlier in the day that he desperately wanted Charles to come with him to Georgia, but that he really didn’t want to pressure him to do so – and he meant it.
Later that day Plant participated in a seven-on-seven camp, which they won. It was obvious that afternoon how good Murray was. What was more compelling was that Charles was probably just a little bit better than Murray – and that’s saying something.
But getting to Plant, as it turned out, was perhaps the biggest decision of Charles’ early life. He said he struggled with it, but decided it was the best move for him and is now glad he made that call.
“Going to Plant was the hardest and most important decision I made in my life,” Charles said. “I spoke with my pastor and my family – and prayed about it. It worked out for the best. I didn’t think that decision would wind up with me at Georgia.”
The move may have been simple for Charles – after all he wouldn’t be the one responsible for relocating. His mother, Naseline Charles, wanted to do the best for her child, but a move was a very difficult thing to consider.
“I didn’t want to move,” his mother admitted. “I didn’t know where Plant was. It was expensive to move, but Orson enlightened me. He told me that Plant was a better school (than Riverview – where Charles was attending). When I got to learn about Plant I knew I had to move for Orson. Moving to Plant was something that he really wanted – something that he was hungry for.”
Charles’ mother went on to say that her son convinced her that he would get a better opportunity for a college scholarship if he played under the bright lights at Plant.
“As a woman I didn’t know anything about football,” she said. “But Orson was a go getter. He told me that playing at Plant would allow him to get a better scholarship.”
Naseline Charles had moved to the United States from her home in the Caribbean country of Dominica when she was 15. She might not have known the first thing about football, but she was certain of one thing: she would do her best to get her child into position to go to college, but he would have to get a scholarship of some sort to go to a college. She wanted him to go, but paying for all of college was totally out of the question for her.
Orson Charles before the Bulldogs' season opener in 2010. Dean Legge/Dawg Post
So the move to Plant took place, and the name Orson Charles was about to take off in recruiting circles.
A few months after a state championships Orson Charles hit the road. A slew of unofficial and official trips to colleges around the country made for a very long spring for him in 2009. By the time March 6th rolled around Charles was eager to make the final call about where he’d be going to college.
Naseline Charles wouldn’t have to worry about a scholarship – by then that was the least of her concerns – college recruiters were lining up begging for the tight end to come to their school.
“We were very close when we were at Plant. I recruited him very hard to come to Georgia with me,” Aaron Murray said this fall. Murray was already enrolled at Georgia and was going through spring drills when Charles decided to announce his decision to the college football world.
“I wanted to go to a college where I knew somebody, or with someone I’d grown up playing with,” Charles said recollecting the thought process of what had become one of the nuttiest recruiting situations in a while. “Aaron being at Georgia did have something to do with me coming here, but it was also a gut feeling.”
The decision to play for Georgia wasn’t as simple as: “Aaron is at Georgia, so that’s where I am going to go”. It went deeper than that for Charles.
“I knew I’d made the right decision the moment I said that I was going to Georgia. I just felt comfortable,” he said.
“Orson liked Georgia because of the Christian background (of Mark Richt and John Lilly), but he needed someone to talk to,” his mother said. “Aaron is a leader. Their relationship has grown. They have chemistry. I think Orson liked Aaron being up there.”
So up there he went. Soon Charles was on a plane to Oklahoma for the first game of his college career. He was happy; he was smiling. He was where he’d always thought of being – hitting the big time of college sports. The game, a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State, and the season, a disappointing 8-5, didn’t go the way Charles wanted. But he earned praise from his peers, and his professors.
“He’s really good,” said former teammate A.J. Green. “I believe that Orson is going to be one of the best tight ends to walk through here. He’s a good guy on and off the field – and he’s a good guy. When I saw him and the way he could run his routes – I knew he was good the first time I saw him. I knew he could help us out a lot.”
Charles during Georgia's 10-6 loss to UCF. Dean Legge/Dawg Post
“I think Orson has a chance to be special because of the way he approaches work day in and day out,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. “He always comes to work – not only to be the best here at Georgia – but to be the best in the country. He works like that, and if he continues to mature, he’s got a chance to be a very special tight end.”
“Orson is definitely a one-of-kind athlete,” Murray said. “He’s a big kid. He’s probably one of the strongest kids on the team; just unbelievable strength. In the weight room he works non-stop. He has unbelievable speed. It’s hard to defend him, especially for a linebacker. I don’t think there’s any linebacker who can cover Orson one-on-one. That’s something to be said because we play in the SEC, and those guys are pretty fast. He’s working hard, so he’s definitely a mismatch for anyone we play against.”
The duo’s strong bond from high school has gotten stronger according to Charles.
“We work very hard together, “ the signal caller said. “He is always calling me up during the week and weekends saying: ‘Let’s go throw; Let’s go throw.’ I have probably thrown more balls to him than anyone else on the team because he always wants to work 24-7.”
I spotted Charles hanging out with Murray and the other three quarterbacks last summer. It was almost like Charles was supposed to be there – even though he wasn’t a quarterback and Murray had obviously organized the throwing opportunity for the signal callers only – nevertheless Charles was there.
“He’s an unbelievable worker. He’s pushing me, too,” Murray said. “Orson and I are very, very tight. You can tell because everyone always jokes, ‘Hey, you’re always looking for Orson.’ That’s because usually he’s open. He’s definitely a hard worker. He’s pushed me pretty much all spring and summer. He’s wanted to throw at night, and on weekends he’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s go do some stuff.’ He’s really been pushing me to work harder, too. The more we work together the more comfortable I get with him.”
“I can’t believe I am playing with Aaron in college,” Charles said with a smile last fall. “I just thank God I know someone at quarterback who I have been through the trenches with. Aaron just stands out. It shows. No one asked about him because it shows. I know where Aaron is going with the ball. We call it the scramble drill. That’s when the play breaks down, and I just go to him.”
Charles during Georgia's win over Idaho State. Dean Legge/Dawg Post
The two have been going to one another for a few years now. Murray has a safety net that involves Charles and his brother Josh – a former walk-on safety on the roster, while Charles has Murray and former offensive lineman Josh Davis.
“I’m glad he came to Georgia,” Murray said. “The relationship has only grown since we got here.”
Naseline Charles’ hopes for her son have been fulfilled thus far, too.
“Aaron is mature, and I think Orson is maturing, too,” she said.
Charles’ mother tries to make it up for each game. Her big hope is that her son will make those that surround him proud.
“I hate a lot of the stereotypes of the dumb black athlete,” she said. “Me not having an education – we couldn’t go on vacation. I couldn’t afford a car. We lived in a modest house. I knew that if I had an education that you could escape the hard life. If he doesn’t make it in football, he can work.”
“She knows that my first semester was a 3.8 (GPA), and now I have a 3.5 (GPA), and that I was Freshman Academic All-American. She’s an academic person. She could care less (about football); she wants me to go to college and get a degree. That’s the number one thing in our house – getting the degree.”
“Getting the degree, because of the life I had, that is the most important thing,” the tight end’s mother reiterated. “I never had an education. When you get that, it is something no one else can take from you. He has to learn all sorts of things – public speaking; the economy – everything.”
Not to be outdone, Naseline Charles just completed her bachelor’s degree
“It was hard,” she said. “I was working on my bachelor’s while he was at Plant.”
She giggled, like her son often does, saying that she was not about to let him beat her to the finish line that is graduation from college.
The race, however, is not yet done for Charles. His critics point to the work he needs to do on the field. Known more for catching than for blocking, Charles said one of his long-term goals is to be more well rounded Between the Hedges.
“I don’t want to be known as a tight end who just catches the ball. I want to be known as a traditional tight end – one who can block and catch the ball, too,” he said.
But Charles is not like other tight ends. He’s shorter than most; he’s faster than most. He isn’t the traditional tight end… why would he be? Not much is traditional or conventional about him. Trying to put him in a box is a big mistake.
Charles hauls in a pass against Georgia Tech. Dean Legge/Dawg Post
Have mom purchase his clothing while in high school? No, Charles says, that’s not going to make him be a man. Instead? Work the weekend shift at McDonald’s for a few months.
“If I wanted something I had to go work,” he of his high school days. “I didn’t want to ask my mom for stuff. I wanted to show her that I was grown up. I wanted some shoes and some stuff, and that’s not something you go to ask your mom about.”
Charles said his old high school job taught him important lessons – and a dislike of food from the golden arches.
“I would go there after church, and I wouldn’t leave until about midnight or later. People there worked hard, but one thing I do not want to do is eat at McDonald’s, and I don’t want to work there for a living,” he said. “I felt like I had to go out there and be a man and find a job. It was my idea. Mom could have helped me get the stuff I wanted, but how would I have grown up as a man if I just kept on asking my mother for stuff.”
“We never had it easy,” Naseline Charles said – going into a few more details than her son offered. “We were never hungry, but we didn’t have the finer things in life. Everyone else had it, but Orson didn’t. We just ate basic.”
It was quite the contrast when young Orson moved from Riverview to uber-wealthy Plant. It’s not that Charles was treated poorly at Plant – it was totally the opposite, in fact. But the stark reality of moving schools may have driven home the differences in Charles and, say, Aaron Murray. Still, that’s not something that bothers Charles. In fact, it’s hard to know if it affects him it all.
“Orson takes a lot of negative and makes something out of it,” his mother said. “He tells me not to worry about things. He didn’t have a good life. He would tell me: “It is what it is”. He always looks at the glass half full. He always believes that there is always a possibility. He is always smiling.”
And he is always looking for something to do. Is Orson Charles hyper? The best way to put it is to say that Orson Charles is busy when he’s awake.
“Orson is a very active person,” his mother confirmed. “I am a little hyper myself. He always has something stimulating him. He always wants to strive to be better.”
“I hate sitting around the house doing nothing,” he admitted. “I just feel like I am wasting my time. I just feel like if you are sitting down someone else is getting better. I do feel like I sort of have this thing where I have got to go do something.”
Like enrolling in an ROTC class at Georgia? Why not?
“The ROTC guys were impressed and surprised,” Charles recalled. “I had a bet with my teacher that I wouldn’t come out there for the PT, and that I wouldn’t make the two-mile run. She said I would not make the time, but I did. I did the whole PT – it was like 4 AM – with push-ups and sit-ups, and the two-mile run. I wanted to win the bet.”
It’s becoming clear that Charles is not a good person to bet against. But his mother is keeping him grounded. The high grades and impressive work on the gridiron are a good start, but Naseline Charles drives home that she has certain expectations for her son.
“I don’t want Orson to be a statistic,” she said. “Orson doesn’t want to disappoint Christ. He lives up to the standards of being a Christian. When he does something wrong, he isn’t just disappointing himself; he’s disappointing Christ, his family and his university. They never just say Orson – they label him one of the Georgia boys. People always link you to your organizations.”
And, she adds, she wants him to have that degree when he’s done.