If Saturday was Shai Werts last game as a Georgia Southern Eagle it was a fitting finale for a player who has meant so much to Eagle Nation, and the Georgia Southern football program.
Where he ranks in the history of Georgia Southern football is something that can be argued about on message boards, but there is no arguing his importance this season, and what he has meant for the Eagles to rebound from back-to-back losing seasons.
Werts is third all-time at Georgia Southern in starting games at quarterback.. He is tied with Tracy Ham for most career touchdown passes. He is second in career total offense, and he third in career passing yards. His impact at Georgia Southern, though, goes much farther than all the numbers.
During his first year as a starter, Werts suffered through a painful season in which the Eagles lost 10 games and a head coach. Werts was very vocal in approaching then athletic director Tom Kleinlein and lobbying for Chad Lunsford to get the head coaching position.
Off the field things were even tougher as Werts suffered a catastrophic blow when his family lost everything in a house fire that August.
Werts persevered helping lead the Eagles to one of the biggest turnarounds in college football. The Eagles finished 10-3 and capped off the season with an exciting 23-21 Camellia Bowl victory over Eastern Michigan. Werts made Tyler Bass’ game winning field goal possible with an outstanding individual effort on fourth and 10 from the Eagle 41 as he took off on a 29-yard run with time running out.
Last year Werts helped guide the Eagles to another winning season and subsequent Cure Bowl appearance against Liberty. Highlighting the season, Werts helped knock off nationally ranked Appalachian State for the second straight year.
Off the field was even more stressful for Werts than on the field in 2019. In late July Werts was involved in a traffic stop in Saluda County, South Carolina. Werts initially was pulled over for speeding but then was charged with cocaine possession, a charge eventually proven to be false. Officers alleged that a white substance on Werts’ car was cocaine, Werts said it was not cocaine, but instead was bird droppings.
The story made national news, and Werts was cleared of the most serious charges brought against him. Werts’ incident shined a light on social justice issues that became much more pronounced the following summer.
The usually more reserved Werts became an outspoken advocate in regards to social justice, and helped lead Black Lives Matters rallies in Statesboro and on the Georgia Southern campus.
This season plenty of things could have split the Eagle team apart. In the midst of social justice movements, the Eagles seemed to band together when many teams could have been pulled apart. COVID-19 caused cancellations and rescheduling of games. The Eagles had a couple of prominent players arrested and suspended. The struggling offense came under fire, and eventually had a change at offensive coordinator.
Any one of these factors could have pulled the team apart, but with Lunsford at the helm, and Werts in the locker room, the Eagles not only survived, but came up with their finest effort of the season with a 38-3 thrashing Wednesday of Louisiana Tech in the New Orleans Bowl.
Werts admitted to injuring his shoulder in the Eagles’ first game of the season. He played through pain until he finally had to be pulled in both the Army and Georgia State games. Werts missed the last two regular season games and was doubtful for the New Orleans Bowl until just before game time.
“I seriously didn’t know whether he was going to be able to go until just before game time,” said Lunsford. “I saw the way he was talking to the guys in the locker room and I said, ‘He’s going to do it!’ I wasn’t hiding anything. I really didn’t know whether he was going to be able to go or not until right then.”
Seeing Werts take the field seemed to energize the whole team, including the players on defense.
“Shai is a dog, as I said in many other interviews,” said senior linebacker Rashad Byrd. “That guy comes to play. To find a way to come out here today and do what he did with three touchdowns and winning the MVP, that says a lot about him. When I talked to him, I knew he was going to start. I knew he wasn’t going to hold anything back, and I felt confident we were going to win. He showed he had something to prove, and he did it”
Lunsford believed it was only fitting that in what is probably Werts’ last game as a Georgia Southern Eagle — a redshirt senior, he already has earned his degree in sports management — that he would cap off his career with the kind of game he had with his MVP performance Wednesday.
“For him to be able to go out that way, the warrior that he is, was great,” Lunsford said. He’s been there through the bad times, he’s been there through the good times. He has battled adversity on and off the field. For him to step up for his brothers today and lead us to the bowl victory I think that’s just another thing to add to his legacy at Georgia Southern.
“I am super proud of him, and I think he is going to move onto the next part of his life,” Lunsford added. “I will always support him, and support any endeavor he has. Anything I can do for him I will, because that guy has meant the world to me and he’s meant a lot to this program.
I didn’t want Shai to have to go out with an injury. He really worked his butt off to get back, and has set the bar high as a quarterback.”
Showing that he is a leader on the field, off the field and in the classroom, for three straight years Werts was a member of the Sun Belt Conference academic honor roll.
Whoever ends up behind center next year will have big shoes to fill on and off the field. For a young man who has been through so much and continued to be a leader in so many ways, he deserved to go out a winner.
And he has.