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Willy Korn's Clemson dreams derailed. The journey kick-started a career, and his life

Willy Korn reflects on playing days, talks coaching career

Coastal Carolina receivers coach Willy Korn discusses playing, coaching career
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Coastal Carolina receivers coach Willy Korn discusses playing, coaching career

Willy Korn sits in a meeting room with other offensive coaches preparing for the 2018 season. It's clear that he belongs.

Korn keeps the mood light with his fun, lighthearted personality, and he offers plenty of suggestions for how to improve the Coastal Carolina University football team’s offensive production.

A black Coastal Carolina polo shirt represents where the wide receivers coach is in his football career. Across the hall in his office are several photos that offer a glimpse into a complex and, at times, difficult past.

There are pictures of his wife, Charlotte, a picture of brothers Kip and Colton, and a picture of former North Greenville teammate Freddie Martino scoring his first NFL touchdown.

Then there's a picture of Korn running off the field during his one and only start at Clemson and being greeted by an angry Dabo Swinney, in his first game as the Tigers’ interim head coach.

The photo includes a signed note from Swinney that reads, "Willy, Must of been really loud in Valley that day. Proud of you!"

That day, Oct. 18, 2008, was loud and painful. Korn injured his shoulder and left the game.

It was another roadblock encountered in his career as a Tiger. He ran into a dead end in 2009, transferred from the program and was left questioning whether he could ever enjoy football again.

Nearly a decade later, that question has been answered. Korn is thrilled with the way his life, both in football and away from the game, is playing out.

“It may not have been the storybook thing that I would’ve written at the time,” Korn said. “But I do know now that that’s the way the story was supposed to be written.”

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The savior?

Before Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson were leading the Tigers to national prominence, and long before Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence were sought-after prospects, there was Willy Korn — a player most recruiting services considered a top 10 quarterback in the country.

Korn had his life planned out.

The Duncan native grew up a diehard Clemson fan and would be a star for the Tigers before going on to have a long NFL career filled with awards and accolades.

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From August 2006: Willy Korn in his Byrnes High days C. ALUKA BERRY The State file photo

"I started going to Death Valley when I was in fourth grade," Korn recalled. "We sat at the top of the stadium, and me and my two younger brothers would split some nachos. We’d go on the field after the game. ... I was really passionate about Clemson."

For years, the plan was on track.

He led Byrnes High to a pair of state titles, signed with Clemson in 2007 as one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country and played some as a freshman.

Korn earned the backup quarterback job behind Cullen Harper in 2007 and played in two of Clemson’s first three games. In the third game of the season, a 38-10 win against Furman, Korn suffered a broken collarbone that forced him to miss the rest of the year.

He still practiced, but was frustrated about losing arm strength and not being the same player he used to be. Swinney, Clemson’s receivers coach at the time, noticed Korn’s disappointment and went out of his way to help.

“I was leaving the building one day and he said, ‘Hop in the car,’ and we just kind of drove around campus and parked and he just kind of said, ‘Is everything OK?’ Looking back on that now, that’s pretty special,” Korn said. “I just remember him encouraging me and telling me that he believed in me, and it was a really positive conversation when I was struggling through some things.”

Swinney vividly remembers the talk more than a decade later and how Korn "had a lot on him and a lot that he was dealing with" that first season.

“He was incredibly talented, but a couple of injuries that he had set him back a little bit,” Swinney said. “Willy is one of the best young people we’ve had come through here. Just incredibly committed to being the best he can be. I’ve never had anybody that’s been more committed to being great. He got off to a really good start here and then he obviously had some injuries.”

Swinney’s talk helped then and it still resonates with Korn today, but the quarterback’s struggles at Clemson were just beginning.

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From Oct. 18, 2008: Fans of Clemson quarterback Willy Korn in the first quarter of the game. Jeff Blake The State file photo

Vision, reality don't match up

After receiving a medical redshirt in 2007, Korn again earned the backup job in 2008. He barely played early in the year but was named Clemson’s starter for the seventh game of the season, against Georgia Tech, Swinney’s first game as the interim head coach after the departure of Tommy Bowden.

Korn suffered another shoulder injury that day, this time a torn labrum. He considers the moments that followed the injury on Oct. 18, 2008, the low point of his football career.

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Willy Korn's career Clemson stats: 2007: 8-for-11, 100 yards, 1 TD, 0 int. 2008: 26-for-38, 216 yards, 1 TD, 1 int. 2009: 12-for-17, 90 yards, 1 TD, 1 int. Rich Glickstein The State file photo

“I came off to the sideline. I knew something was messed up, and I tried to throw,” Korn said. “My arm felt like it was disconnected or something. Really, after that injury, it really took my arm a long time to get back to throwing the same way.”

Korn waited until halfway through his sophomore season to be named Clemson’s starting quarterback, fulfilling a lifelong dream, and he didn’t make it through the second quarter of the game. In his only career start, he was 4-of-6 passing for 28 yards and one interception.

His dream was crushed.

“I remember going off at halftime, and I knew I wasn’t going back in,” Korn said. “Changing from your equipment and taking your shoulder pads and your helmet off and switching back into your warm-up suit ... I just remember it was depressing walking back out to the stadium. You’ve finally got that chance to have that moment, and then it was gone.”

Korn saw minimal playing time throughout the 2008 season but was never 100 percent the rest of that year. He battled with Kyle Parker for the starting QB job in 2009, still not fully healthy, before losing out to the eventual first-round MLB draft pick.

Korn announced following the 2009 season that he was transferring to Marshall.

“Every player you talk to has a vision of what they want their career to look like,” said Korn, who earned a degree in communication studies at Clemson. “I certainly had that vision. ... The frustrating part came from not being able to do things that you know you’re capable of doing, and then the reality not lining up with your vision.”

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From February 2007: Willy Korn, in front of Tillman Hall at Clemson as a freshman Jeff Blake The State file photo

Second chances

Korn’s time at Marshall was so short that he jokingly pretends it was nonexistent.

“Marshall didn’t actually happen,” he said with a smile, before pausing.

“Just kidding.”

He was going through preseason practices at Marshall when the coaching staff approached him about switching to safety. Korn was willing to consider the move, but his father, Larry Korn, started emailing coaches at smaller schools back home in South Carolina after receiving the news of a position change from Willy.

Jamey Chadwell, at the time the head coach at Division II North Greenville, was quick to respond. The Crusaders had lost two quarterbacks to injuries in the preseason and were in desperate need of depth at the position.

Larry told Willy that he had found a school where he could play quarterback. That idea was much better than bulking up and trying to be a special teams contributor at Marshall.

Chadwell was thrilled.

“We’re going into the season with basically one quarterback that’s healthy, a kid that’s a redshirt freshman. We have a practice and come back into the office and I check my email and I had an email from Willy’s dad,” Chadwell said. “Willy came down, and I let him know the situation and we went from there.”

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Willy Korn during his time at North Greenville North Greenville Athletics

After arriving at North Greenville late in the preseason, Korn was given pads that “looked like they were from 1974” and “an O-lineman’s face mask,” according to Chadwell.

Korn didn’t mind.

“We didn’t have much at that time back then. But I think he was so appreciative for the opportunity to play,” Chadwell said. “I think when he first got there it was almost like he was broken. ... You could tell that there was not a joy.”

It did not take Korn long to get back to enjoying football. The bright lights, sold-out ACC stadiums and constant pressure were all gone, and he was finally 100 percent healthy again.

Korn went 18-4 as a starter in two seasons as North Greenville, accounting for more than 5,000 total yards and 56 touchdowns during his time at the Division II school.

“It was so much fun because you’re just playing ball again, and that’s what I wanted. If there were 80,000 in the stands like at Death Valley or a thousand like we had at Tigerville, it’s just fun to get to play the game you love again,” Korn said. “We had some really good players on those teams and a lot of Upstate guys. These were guys I knew and had played against or played with in high school. I lived with two of my closest friends from high school, so it was the most fun two years you could put together for yourself as a player.”

Decision time

Korn finished his college career at North Greenville in 2011 and spent 2012 training and searching for an opportunity to play professional football.

In the spring of 2013 he got his chance and signed with the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League.

Korn spent two weeks with the Rattlers in the preseason and believed there was about a 50 percent chance he was going to be cut from the team. It was then he started searching for an opportunity to begin his coaching career, just in case.

Korn was looking for a grad assistant position, and his first call was to Chadwell, his former coach at North Greenville, who was now the head coach at Charleston Southern.

Korn asked about a grad assistant opening. Chadwell replied, asking if Korn would be interested in being the full-time receivers coach.

"He said he wanted to think about it," Chadwell recalled. "I said, ‘Well that’s fine, I’m going to fill it in two days.' ”

Korn hopped in his car and drove from Arizona to Charleston rather than waiting four days to find out if he had made the team.

His coaching career was set to begin.

The makings of a successful coach

Chadwell was a firm believer that Korn would be a successful coach, and, so far, he has been proved right.

Korn served as the receivers coach at Charleston Southern in 2013 and added the title of recruiting coordinator for the Buccaneers his final three years. In Korn’s four seasons at Charleston Southern the Buccaneers won a pair of Big South titles and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first and only two times in school history.

Chadwell deserves plenty of credit for CSU’s success, but he also believes that Korn had a lot to do with it. Chadwell was so impressed with Korn that when he was named the offensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina in 2017, he brough Korn along with him.

“He’s got a great personality," Chadwell said. "You just want to be around him. He’s got that 'it' factor. He’s charismatic. I knew he’d do well as far as being appealing to recruits. But I also think, because of the trajectory of his career and the ups and downs, he had a good foundation, a good base. ... The players that play for him love him and love being around him.”

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Willy Korn during Clemson's 2009 media day photo shoot Kim Kim Foster-Tobin The State file photo

Korn credits his high school coach and South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley, Swinney and Chadwell for helping to mold him into the coach he is today.

He has aspirations of being a head coach. And although his time at Clemson and playing for Swinney did not end the way he wanted it to, he still admires the Tigers’ head coach.

“You study the way he runs his program from afar and there’s so many concepts and so many things that resonate with me and things that, if I ever have the opportunity to be a head coach one day, I want to employ a lot of those same things,” Korn said. “I think as a coach you’re kind of always wired to take a little bit from this guy and a little bit from this guy and try to make it your own. But there’s a lot of the same concepts that he does and the way he builds a team and the family environment. Those are the things I want in a program.”

At 29 years old, Korn is just starting his coaching career.

In his first five years, he went from searching for a job as a grad assistant to being a position coach at the FBS level. Chadwell expects Korn to continue to climb the ranks.

“I think he’ll be a coordinator or a FCS head coach within the next five years. I believe that. After that, I think the sky’s the limit for him,” Chadwell said. “The way he works, the way he recruits, the way the kids play for him, he’s put himself in a position to continue to grow in the game. ... There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be a successful head coach one day, because he has all the characteristics. I’m hoping he just takes me along for the ride.”

Swinney, who regularly sees Korn at coaching events and occasionally exchanges text messages with him, agrees with Chadwell’s assessment.

“I think he’s had a great journey and a great understanding of all the dynamics involved,” Swinney said. “Obviously great history and just his own personal history as far as great success as a high school player and the recruiting process and the ups and downs of college and all the challenges.

“I think he’s going to do a great job as a coach. He’s got a lot to offer and can relate to a lot of these guys. I’m just really proud of him. He’s one of those guys that will eventually be a head coach. I don’t have any doubt about it.”

Relying on faith

Injuries at Clemson. A position switch at Marshall. A father's email and North Greenville's dire need of a quarterback.

Without all those, who knows where Korn would be now.

He met his wife, Charlotte, a former volleyball player at North Greenville, during his time in Tigerville. The two recently celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary.

Korn’s college career also allowed him to learn from Swinney and Chadwell and eventually get his coaching career started under Chadwell. He is now learning from Coastal's head coach Joe Moglia, a successful football coach and businessman who was formerly the CEO of TD Ameritrade.

“When you take a look back now at how impactful those two years at North Greenville were for me, I’m coaching now because of that and I’m married now because of that experience,” Korn said. “My goodness. That’s life-changing taking that route and going there. I was supposed to meet my wife at North Greenville and she’s my best friend, just an amazing woman and so thankful for her.

“It’s not a coincidence at all. This was the way it was supposed to be. It was supposed to work out this way."

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