ATHENS - These days, Orson Charles is walking around the University of Georgia campus with a backpack. A year after leaving behind school, and college football, to pursue a pro career, he's back to being a regular student.
"I just got out of my last class," Charles said Thursday afternoon. "Yes I'm still focused on football, but now I'm mainly focused on life after football."
Charles just wrapped up his rookie season as a tight end with the Cincinnati Bengals. It wasn't exactly what he hoped for when he decided to skip his senior year at Georgia - Charles caught just eight passes for 101 yards this season - but he still might have a bright career in the NFL. And he made almost half a million dollars this past season.
So why is he trudging around campus, taking 15 hours of class per week?
Because of a promise Charles made to his mother, who dropped out of college when she became pregnant with him. She then returned to get her degree, while Charles was in high school, and that - along with a desire to be a good role model for his younger brother - motivated Charles to finish the drill.
It may take awhile: Charles has a couple more semesters ahead of him, even after this one. But he seems committed to it.
"I know his mom will be proud of him," said Houston Texans guard Ben Jones, another former Georgia player who is back this semester to take classes.
Four members of last year's team who are in the NFL are back in school this semester: Charles, Jones, Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh and Philadelphia cornerback-kick returner Brandon Boykin. Walsh isn't here this week - he jetted down to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. Boykin is taking his classes online.
Charles returning might be the most surprising: Most of the time a player who turns pro talks about coming back for his degree, but never follows through. Charles is following through.
Charles is living this semester with former Bulldogs Rennie Curran and Greg Lanier, who still live in Athens. The full load of 15 hours is an adjustment because as a student-athlete he would take no more than 14 hours, and he had team support staff on top of him.
Still, what's it like to have earned $390,000 a season (his salary goes up to $480,000 next season) and taking the same classes as students who are living off pizza and beer?
"To tell you the truth we're earning the same thing - I'm not earning that right now," Charles said, smiling. "Right now I don't have a job because we only get paid during the season."
Charles' major is housing. He said his goal, once his football career is over, is to build and manage homes, specifically Section 8 housing.
Last year, after a junior season in which he tied for second on the team in catches, Charles declared for the draft. It seemed a solid decision, considering he was one of the top two or three tight end prospects in the draft. But in March he was arrested for DUI in Athens, which didn't help his draft stock. (And neither did a poor 40-yard time at UGA's pro day.)
Charles has a message for the many Georgia players about to join him in the league, who are now preparing for the draft:
"Don't do what happened to me," he said. "I made a mistake before the draft. I'll tell them that all you have to do now is grind. Grind and it's gonna pay off. Work on your 40 (time), work on your drills, keep your nose clean, don't go partying."
Had Charles not had the DUI, he could have been drafted much higher, and not been a second-string tight end, sitting behind a Pro Bowler in Jermaine Gresham. So how does he reflect on it?
"I'm just definitely excited and happy that Cincinnati took a chance on me so I can learn from Jermaine," Charles said. "Jermaine made the Pro Bowl twice. Let me learn from him, let me see how the NFL is, and then hopefully if God thinks I can still stay in the NFL let me go to another team and do what I'm capable of doing, then that's fine. But right now I have no complaints. I'm satisfied. Let's face it, I'm in the NFL. A lot of people don't get that chance."
His regret is what happened after he turned pro - not the decision to turn pro. But as he watched Arthur Lynch catching passes in the SEC championship, he admits it did cross his mind that could have been him.
"But at the end of the day I'm happy. There was a small window of opportunity to chase my dreams, and I'm doing that right now," he said. "I'm happy for Arty and Jay Rome for succeeding - like I knew they would."
Aaron Murray, who was Charles' high school teammate in Tampa, made a different decision earlier this month, electing to return for his senior year. Charles said he and Murray talked about his decision; Charles said he didn't advise Murray either way, but he was surprised Murray returned.
"I thought he was (leaving), because what more did he have to come back to?" Charles said. "I mean he broke every record, let them as far as the SEC championship, like he did last year, so what is he coming back for? Now, he's going to break every record that has been set by a quarterback and could possibly go to the national championship. I'm definitely happy for him."