HOW IS A LEADER MADE? SPECIFICALLY, HOW DOES AN INTROVERTED YOUNGEST CHILD OF three, a boy with two older sisters, end up a role model to a squad of more than 100 young men? For Charles Sawyer III, the key lies in his close and abiding relationship with his father. "I look at my dad like he's my brother," he says. "I got everything from him."
He found football by observing and absorbing his dad's love for the game. At six-year-old Charles's request, his father, Charles Jr., an automotive painter, enrolled the boy in flag football, then a year later in Pop Warner. Charles III went on to play cornerback at Coral Reef High in Miami, making 63 tackles and six interceptions as a senior and attracting the interest of programs in his home state and beyond. His father and mother, Sabrina, hoped he would accept an offer he got from Florida, but Sawyer fell in love with Oxford on his official visit. "Everybody knows you here," he says. "How tall you are, everything." (He happens to be 5' 11" and 175 pounds.) "It's amazing that little kids look up to you, that people will drop everything to just be [at the game]."
Though the 1,000-mile separation was hard for the father to accept, he knew that for the son to strengthen his wings he needed to leave the nest. "I'm there if you need me," he told Charles.
The son needed him a few weeks after arriving at Ole Miss. "I don't know if I can do this," said the homesick freshman during a call home. But his father urged him to hang in there. And when the coaches decided to redshirt Sawyer, his dad again encouraged him to persevere. "I learned a lot that year, watching [the veterans]," the Rebels starter now says, "learning the ins and outs of the game, getting my feet wet during practice."
When Sawyer finally made his college debut, against Jacksonville State in September 2010, his parents, of course, were there. "I would've walked to that one," the proud papa says.
Last season Sawyer finished second on the team with 70 tackles and third in the SEC with 13 passes defended, and he was Ole Miss's nominee for the Conerly Trophy, an award given to the state's top collegiate football player. Beyond those contributions, Sawyer's model behavior stands out on a team that has struggled with discipline. "I just do my best to show my teammates the right thing to do, on and off the field," says the soft-spoken 21-year-old.
"Early on it was obvious to me that he would be one of our leaders, and he certainly did not disappoint," says coach Hugh Freeze. "We know we can depend on him to get us the great attitude and effort every day."
Quiet by nature, Sawyer prefers to lead by example, but as an upperclassman he has learned to be more vocal. When a few players arrived late for practice this past spring, he confronted them. "Coach Freeze spent a lot of time telling us to protect the team," he explains. "The team is jelling, and I'm excited for this year."
He is far more secure on the eve of this season than he was before last year's opener, when he was moved from corner to free safety. "I went into the game nervous, but I had a good interception," he says modestly. The "good interception" was a 96-yard pick-six, and his parents were there to see it. Before the game they had been at the Grove, lining the Walk of Champions. As Charles III made his way through the thousands of screaming Rebels fans, he suddenly looked up and locked eyes with one cheering man in an OLE MISS DAD T-shirt and grinned.
A fan next to Sawyer's father was impressed: "He knows your voice!" he said.