A Georgia Southern Man

Shai Werts Overcomes Obstacles
on and off the Gridiron

It was supposed to be a blowout.

Campbell University, a middle-tier, lower-division program from North Carolina, should’ve been an easy meal for an Eagles team looking to shake off a roller coaster offseason marred by the pandemic.

Instead, the Eagles took the home field without 33 of their players, several of them starters. Some were sidelined with COVID-19, some were injured, and some were pulled at the coach’s discretion.

In a game that fans expected to be lopsided, the Eagles had to fight for every point with whoever was available. In the fourth quarter, they were trailing the Camels 20-13 before winning the game in a nail-biting finish.

For Shai Werts, senior quarterback for Georgia Southern, challenges like this have been familiar territory. In four years as starter for the Eagles, he’s faced some of the most difficult and unimaginable obstacles a young player — a young man — could ever face. In spite of that, he’s not only become one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play for the University, but he’s also grown into the model of a Georgia Southern man.

“We talk about identity,” said Head Football Coach Chad Lunsford. “We talk about being blue collar. We talk about being disciplined and tough. He’s definitely got a great work ethic. He is a very self-disciplined person. And when we talk about toughness, it’s not just physical. We talk about mental toughness and, you know, for what he’s had to overcome and what he’s had to face adversity-wise, he’s definitely tough.”

When Werts joined the Eagles back in 2016, he wasn’t used to losing. He’d just finished a dazzling four-year run as the starting quarterback for the Newberry High School Bulldogs in Newberry, South Carolina.

During his tenure as QB1, Werts accounted for more than 6,000 yards and 73 touchdowns and was named the 2015 High School Sports Report – South Carolina High School League Division I AA Offensive Player of the Year. 247Sports rated him the No. 37 dual-threat quarterback in the country.

At Georgia Southern, however, he arrived on a team in transition. As he rode the bench his redshirt freshman year, he watched a bowl-winning team that went 9-4 the previous season flounder at 5-7 under a new coach. And when he finally made his debut as starting quarterback the next year, under a new offensive coordinator and brand new offense, the Eagles lost six games in a row.

“I took every loss on the chin,” he said. “That year was probably one of the lowest points of my life — one of the lowest points in my playing career, but I persevered through it all. I didn’t tuck my tail. I didn’t run from the competition. I didn’t run from the naysayers.”

The losing season alone would’ve been enough to sap the confidence of any college quarterback, but before Werts could even begin to work for his vindication on the field, he was dealing with crushing personal struggles off of it.

During the 2018 football camp, Werts and his family lost everything in a house fire. No one was hurt, but Werts couldn’t be there with his family to sort through the ashes of their grief. Eagle Nation rallied behind the quarterback and his family, raising money to help them rebuild their lives. For anyone else, the calamity might have served as a distraction. For Werts, it was motivation.

The Eagles soared in 2018, going 10-3 and winning one of the most thrilling bowl games of the year against Eastern Michigan. It was a singular moment for the team, a moment they couldn’t imagine being overshadowed by anything. But at the beginning of the 2019 season, Werts would face his most grueling personal trial.

As he was traveling to Georgia Southern to report for football camp, police in Saluda, South Carolina, stopped Werts for speeding and subjected him to a contentious interview which led them to search his car.

Police noticed a white substance on the hood, which Werts swore was “bird poop.” A field test kit said it was cocaine. He was arrested for speeding and misdemeanor possession of cocaine. In an instant, everything he worked for, all of his ambitions and his future hung in the balance.

“If you looked at how the headlines were portraying it, you would think I was 100% guilty. No doubt,” said Werts. “So you’ve got all these different kinds of stories. In my cell I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to explain this? Are they going to believe me? Are they going to think I’m lying?’”

Werts was suspended from the team pending the investigation, but Lunsford went to bat for his quarterback. Lawyers quickly had the substance examined with a more reliable substance test, and it was found to be bird poop. Werts was cleared, but it didn’t make everything go away.

“The arrest, it messed with me a lot,” he said. “It was traumatic. I expected that when I got out of it, things would go just back to normal. It was really the complete opposite. I couldn’t really sleep. Eventually, I felt like I wasn’t really there. I didn’t have a terrible season, but I didn’t have the season I worked for and that I know I should’ve had.”

The Eagles went 7-5 that year, and suffered a tough bowl loss against a strong Liberty University team. Family members and teammates say Werts didn’t talk about the arrest or about his internal struggles, but he would find his voice in the midst of even more adversity.

As 2020 brought the coronavirus pandemic and threw the football season into question, Werts like many Americans was confronted with the realities of racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Werts was asked to speak publicly about the feelings he’d held onto so closely.

“What if that was me that night? It could’ve easily been me,” he said. “It’s things like that that were continually playing in my head for a few days. I know how my family felt, and I only spent 18 hours in the county jail. Imagine how his family feels and they’re never going to see him again.”

In September 2020, during football camp, Werts led his teammates in a peaceful Black Lives Matter march. For the young quarterback and his teammates, it was a way to express the pain they were feeling inside. For Lunsford, it was a way to support his players.

“There’s a lot of pressure being the quarterback at Georgia Southern,” Lunsford said. “But there’s a lot more pressure on him being a young black man that is the quarterback at Georgia Southern who does have a big platform. I’m just amazed at how he’s grown through this whole thing.”

Despite all the obstacles, Werts ranks among the top quarterbacks in Georgia Southern history. After the Eagles dominating bowl win in New Orleans, Werts has 34 career passing touchdowns, tied with legendary Eagles QB Tracy Ham. He is a member of the 3,000-3,000 club with more than 3,000 passing and rushing yards, and is currently second for total career offensive yards with 6,860, behind Ham’s 8,969.

Coach Lunsford once asked his quarterback what he wanted his legacy to be at Georgia Southern. Without hesitation, Werts answered, “I’m going to be the best quarterback to ever play for the Eagles.

“I feel like if you don’t have that kind of confidence when you step on the field, you don’t need to be playing this sport. I respect the hell out of Tracy Ham. I respect the hell out of Jayson Foster. But at the end of the day, when I leave here, I want to be known as one of the best quarterbacks to ever put on a jersey.

“So they’ll say every time that boy there stepped on the field, he gave it his all.”

No matter what stood in his way. — Doy Cave