The voicemail greeting on Willy Korn’s cell phone is a humorous ode to the Jimmy MacElroy character in the Will Ferrell movie “Blades of Glory.”
“If you can dream it, you can do it!”
“I’ve had it for three years,” Korn told Packer Report. “It was kind of a joke at first but some people get inspired by it, so I kept it.”
Little did he know at the time, but the greeting is a perfect summation of the quarterback’s path to the NFL Draft. Little did he know that his story would turn out to be inspiring, as well.
Korn was a Scout.com five-star recruit and one of the nation’s top quarterbacks coming out of James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C. He led Byrnes to state championships as a sophomore and junior. With 125 career touchdown passes, he ranked in the top 10 in national high school history. Following his senior season in 2006, he was named Gatorade’s Player of the Year for South Carolina. He threw a touchdown pass in the U.S. Army All-America Bowl.
He signed with Clemson, and expectations were merely a national championship and Heisman Trophy. When he trotted onto the field for the first time, during the third quarter of the second game of the 2007 season against Louisiana-Monroe, he was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd of 77,000. And that’s after those fans had watched starter Cullen Harper throw for a school-record five touchdown passes
Then it all came crashing down to earth.
The next week against Furman, Korn was hit and sustained a broken collarbone. While Korn was granted a medical redshirt, the coaches had him throwing almost immediately while the injury healed.
Midway through the 2008 season, with the Tigers struggling at 3-3, Harper was benched in favor of Korn. Korn learned about it on Facebook, of all places. A few days later, two-time ACC Coach of the Year Tommy Bowden was fired.
Korn started in interim coach Dabo Sweeney’s debut. On the Tigers’ third offensive series, Georgia Tech star defensive end Derrick Morgan drilled Korn as he was about to throw. The medical staff called it a “bone bruise” and Korn played in a reserve role the next three games. A second MRI a few weeks later discovered the injury was actually a partially torn labrum. Moreover, during the surgery, doctors found a chip from Korn’s broken collarbone had lodged in the AC joint of his throwing shoulder. A few weeks after the surgery, Korn was throwing in practices leading up to the Gator Bowl.
Asked if he harbored any grudges for being rushed into action, Korn took the blame — and the high road.
“Being rushed back a little too quickly from the injuries is more my fault than anyone else,” he said. “I guess it would have been nice for someone to say, ‘All right, you’re not throwing correctly. You need to shut it down and get back to throwing correctly.’”
Mark Moore/Courtesy North Greenville
Heading into the 2009 season, Korn battled another hot recruit, Kyle Parker, for the starting job. Parker emerged the winner.
“After back-to-back seasons of having injuries on my throwing shoulder, I got into some really, really bad habits throwing the football,” Korn said. “In high school, I was known for getting rid of the ball really quick and having a quick release. There wasn’t a whole lot of wasted motion because I was never a guy who could just pick it up and throw it 80 yards. I had to rely on good fundamentals and mechanics. After the injuries, I got into some really bad habits. That’s kind of what screwed me up for my last year at Clemson.”
Korn threw 17 passes all year, and at season’s end, he transferred to Marshall, where he would be the starter. Instead, a week into 2010 fall camp, the coaches wanted Korn to move to safety. He reluctantly agreed and took part in a couple of practices before deciding to go home and ponder his future. The options: play safety at Marshall, transfer again or quit the game he used to love but no longer did.
“It was really embarrassing,” Korn said. “The front page of my hometown newspaper basically said I failed to win another starting position at a different school. I didn’t want to show my face anywhere around my hometown. A very strong possibility for me was I was just going to quit because I was so frustrated with it and embarrassed. I was just tired of being miserable all the time because I couldn’t get anything to go right for me in football. Looking back on it, I don’t want to make it sound like football was the only thing that’s important for me, but it’s the same for someone who’s a talented musician or artist and you’ve lost your ability to do something you’ve always been good at naturally.”
With the 2010 season approaching, Korn’s father, Larry, sent e-mails to some area Division II schools to gauge their interest. North Greenville University, located about 45 minutes away, needed a quarterback after its top two on the depth chart had sustained serious injuries.
Amazingly, injuries had ruined Korn career, and now, injuries would help him rebuild it.
Because Korn had graduated in May 2010 and because he was moving down a rung in competition, the NCAA agreed to let Korn transfer again and play immediately.
North Greenville coach Jamey Chadwell welcomed Korn with open arms and a refreshing attitude.
“‘You know what?’” Korn remembers Chadwell saying. “‘You’ve had all this pressure and expectations on top of you. You were supposed to win two Heisman Trophies and two national championships at Clemson and all this stuff. The expectations are a lot different here. I want you to just come here and enjoy playing the game again and have fun and hopefully win some football games at the same time.’ That meant a lot to me that he said that.”
Mark Moore/Courtesy North Greenville
Korn learned the offense on the fly and played in a reserve role in the first game. His shoulder feeling better, Korn made some throws that he hadn’t made since before the injuries. He started the rest of the season, and with his confidence growing with each game, he completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,533 yards with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. A team that had an all-time record of 61-105 and went 2-8 in 2009 finished 9-3, including 9-2 with Korn in the starting lineup.
“The biggest and most important thing for a quarterback is his confidence level,” Korn said. “You can work on your mechanics until the sun goes down but if you don’t have any confidence or belief in yourself, you’re not going to be as good as you can be.”
During the offseason between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Korn worked tirelessly with his dad. He’d throw for a half-hour and watch the film, then repeat. His mechanics came back, as did his arm strength. Korn completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,525 yards, with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions. A program that had never played in the postseason won two playoff games to reach the Division II quarterfinals and finished with a school-best No. 12 ranking.
“I just wanted to get back to enjoying the game again,” Korn said. “After playing two years there, I really — honest to goodness — wouldn’t change anything about how the past five years worked out. That school and those players and those coaches mean the absolute world to me. They gave me something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life. I found my joy of playing quarterback and playing football again.”
Korn turned his attention to the draft, following the same throwing-then-film approach as the year before. Agents Joel and Justin Turner got Korn into the Clemson and Coastal Carolina pro days — two of the bigger events on the pro day circuit, with Clemson being a national powerhouse and Coastal Carolina featuring small-school stud cornerback Josh Norman. Those days “couldn’t have gone any better,” said Korn (6-foot-2), who was timed at 4.67 in the 40-yard dash.
“There were a lot of scouts there to watch,” Korn said. “They didn’t come to look at Willy Korn but that’s what pro days are all about is trying to get on somebody’s radar, and I think I was able to do that.”
Now, the draft awaits in two weeks. Five years ago, when Korn was going through his first spring practices at Clemson, he figured this day was coming. Had he stayed healthy, had he made those expectations come true, his name might have been mentioned alongside Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill.
Instead, all Korn wants is a chance. Maybe he’ll be taken in the seventh round. If not, he’ll join some team after the draft as a free agent.
Instead of an injured shoulder, he’s got a chip on his shoulder and a hunger to make good on a career that had so much promise.
“There’s no doubt at all,” Korn said about making it in the NFL. “I really feel like — no, I know — I’m throwing the football better than I ever was before my shoulder injuries. I’m throwing it better than this past year at North Greenville. This is as confident as I’ve ever been as a quarterback. I know some of these quarterbacks might be more talented in some areas but I can guarantee you that nobody is going to outwork me. I 100 percent believe that I can make a team if I’m given the opportunity.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.