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October 17, 2014

A Dream-Come-True Starting Debut at Arkansas

Pledger's starting debut at Arkansas in 1992 was one to
remember for the Athens native. 
Growing up both in Athens and just outside the city, I was more inclined to follow Bulldog players from the Classic City and its surrounding areas  when I was younger. Therefore, when I recently thought of the Bulldogs playing Arkansas in Little Rock tomorrow for the first time ever, it was rather natural of me to think back to when Georgia was hosted by the Razorbacks for the first time in 1992, and the hometown boy who experienced a memorable first in the state then known as "The Land of Opportunity."

Attending school in Athens while growing up but living just outside of Clarke County, Charles Pledger had his pick in the mid-1980s of which Athens-area high school to attenda choice that was obvious: Clarke Central High School, where Billy Henderson was the head coach of the football team.  Henderson had been a standout halfback at UGA in the late-1940s, and was amidst a legendary coaching career still considered one of the greatest in Georgia high school football history.

"Billy was the best; he truly cared about the kids," Pledger informed me this week from his office in Atlanta.  "On Christmas Day, he'd open the gym at the school, and if there was a kid who didn't have a home or a family to celebrate with, Billy was waiting for you."

Pledger added Henderson was "the best motivator of young men I have ever seen," which is fitting since Henderson once regarded Pledger as "the most coachable young man I have ever seen."

At Clarke Central, Pledger tallied 19 career interceptions from his safety position, including leading the state's AAAA classification in interceptions as a junior in 1988.  It was during that season Pledger began to be recruited by colleges, in a way, by accident.  

Teammate Adrian Jarrell, who would attend Notre Dame, was one of the most highly-recruited quarterbacks in the country that year. "It seemed like everytime [recruiters] would come watch Adrian play, I'd make an interception," Pledger said laughing.

At a UGA football camp the summer prior to his senior year, Pledger did something rather uncommon for 20+ years ago: commit to a school early, and pledged his allegiance to the Georgia Bulldogs.

"Growing up in the Athens area and playing Saturday football games for the YMCA at Sanford Stadium, it was obviously a childhood dream come true to attend Georgia and play for the Bulldogs," Pledger said. 

After redshirting in 1990, Pledger was one of Georgia's top defensive backups in 1991. Now playing cornerback, he was a backup the following season, as well, until the fourth game of the season against Ole Miss, when starting safety Mike Jones was injured.  Jones' injury moved starting cornerback Al Jackson to safety, leaving Jackson's spot open for Pledger.  Against the Rebels, Pledger recorded his first career interception as a Bulldog.

Next on the schedule for Georgia was a 750-mile trip to the newest member of the SEC along with the University of South Carolinathe Arkansas Razorbacksplaying their first SEC game in Fayetteville, while the Bulldogs were playing in the state of Arkansas for the first time.

"It was such a unique trip because we stayed in a golf course community with more than 100 holes of golf instead of hotel rooms," Pledger recalled.  "They were like cottages or golf course homes, and a really different experience from what we were used to. Also, we were located more than an hour from the stadium, and the game had a really early start (11:40 a.m. local time)."

Former Clemson coaching great Danny Ford had been hired by Arkansas as an "Offensive Assistant" just days before the game (Ford would become the Hogs' head coach the following season).  Ford, who had recruited Pledger heavily in high school in an attempt to seize another Athens boy for Clemson, decided to pick on the first-time starter on the very first play from scrimmage.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Pledger said.  "On the very first play, the Arkansas quarterback threw a bomb for the receiver I was covering.  I would have an interception later, but I should've had two that game because the long pass hit off my fingertips for an incompletion."

With Georgia leading 17-3 in the third quarter, but with Arkansas nearing midfield, Pledger corralled his memorable interception.

"I played wide side [cornerback], so I was pretty much man-to-man the entire game," Pledger said.  "The Arkansas receiver ran a crossing route, and I just read the quarterback's eyes and jumped on it, making what was kind of a diving interception."

Pledger's interception led to a Garrison Hearst touchdown runhis second of the game. The Bulldogs would go onto an impressive 27-3 road victory.  Georgia's pass defense, led by its first-time starter, held the Razorbacks to a lowly 9 of 29 passing for 87 yards and 3 interceptions.  Besides his interception, Pledger also added six tackles (four solo), including a touchdown-saving stop, in a game which left a lasting impression.

"Obviously, anytime you have your first start, especially coming against a team belonging to the caliber of the SEC, and especially in making an interception, it's a really great moment," Pledger said.

As soon as Jones returned from being injured, Pledger finished out his sophomore campaign as a backup like before; however, with the start of the 1993 season, he was starting at corner again.  As a junior, Pledger intercepted passes against Texas Tech and Ole Miss, while his team-leading eight passes broken up for the season were twice as many as any other Bulldog.

A recurring finger injury plagued Pledger in spring practice of his senior season. He could have another surgery on the fingerhis thirdand play football, but risk losing the finger permanently.

"I loved the game, but there comes a point when your body can only take so much," Pledger said.  "It seemed liked everytime I turned around, I was having an issue with my hand, and at cornerback, I used my hands a lot."

Prior to the 1994 season, Pledger decided to "retire" from the sport he loved.  

Today, golf is Pledger's sport to play. For work, he is Managing Director for Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a large commercial real estate service firm.  As far as maintaining his ties to Georgia football, according to him, "I stay in touch with some of the guys."

One of those "guys" he's gotten to know over the last decade or so is Jerome Rosettia walk-on/scout team member of Georgia's 1980 national championship team.

"Jerome is a great friend and a great coach, and we have a good time," Pledger said.
The one-time Bulldog player has been coaching
groups of younger "Bulldogs" for a decade.

Coaching their games at Chastain Park, Rosetti and Pledger have volunteer coached 9 and 10-year olds in NYO Football of Atlanta.  Fittingly named, Pledger's team, the Bulldogs, have won two championships, including last season, capping a perfect 12-0 campaign.  

"It's rewarding to coach 9 and 10-year olds and then see them play later at the high school level; four of the starters off Lovett's (The Lovett School) state championship team a year ago once played for us," Pledger proudly stated.  "I guess it's my way of giving back to the community."

Seemingly, beyond becoming a notable Georgia Bulldog player, it appears the great Billy Henderson"the best" who "truly cared about the kids"rubbed off on Charles Pledger in a number of ways.

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