On a February afternoon two years ago, Ronnie Chambliss almost ruined his chances of playing college football.
By conventional wisdom, the former South Forsyth wide receiver’s chances should have been slim to begin with. He was coming off a senior season with the War Eagles in which he caught 30 passes for 441 yards and seven touchdowns to help South win a region title and reach the quarterfinals of the Class 6A state playoffs. But Chambliss was listed at just 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, measurables that don’t fit the standard of most college football programs.
It was the juxtaposition of Chambliss’ stature and his impressive play-making that interested a few Division III and NAIA programs and eventually a tryout with Reinhardt University in Waleska in Cherokee County.
It didn’t go well.
“At first, we didn’t like Ronnie a whole lot,” Reinhardt head coach James Miller said. “When you see Ronnie when he walks in the door, if you took him to an elementary school, a teacher might try to take him back to class; he looks 10 years old.
“He didn’t have the greatest of workouts catching the ball. He dropped some balls. And (we) were unsure.”
Quentin Moses, a former Reinhardt assistant who eventually passed away this past February, lobbied for Miller to offer Chambliss a spot on the team despite the dubious tryout.
Chambliss has rewarded Reinhardt’s faith in him. He’s become the Eagles’ No. 1 wide receiver in just his redshirt freshman season, leading the team in receiving yards (331) and receiving touchdowns (six) on 17 catches to help Reinhardt go 13-0 and earn a spot in the NAIA Football National Championship against St. Francis this Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla.
In the Eagles’ 37-34 double-overtime win against Southern Oregon in the NAIA Football Championship Series Semifinals on Dec. 2, Chambliss had five catches for 74 yards and two touchdowns. He had a 9-yard catch for a first down to extend Reinhardt’s eventual game-winning drive in the second overtime.
“We count on him every game,” Miller said.
South Forsyth assistant coach Trevor Williams knew they would. Williams, now the team’s defensive coordinator, coached defensive backs in 2015. The group included three eventual college signees in Jalen Camp (Georgia Tech), Curtis Roach (Western Carolina) and Elijah Smith (Albany State).
None of them wanted to face Chambliss during practice.
“He was so diligent in his work and his route-running and how he sets routes up, and he’s got great hands,” Williams said. “It got to a point in practice where our varsity (defensive backs) wouldn’t want to go cover him in 1-on-1s. They were like, ‘Nah, coach, we’re good.’”
Chambliss made highlight plays all season – in marquee wins against Alpharetta and rival Lambert and powerhouse Tucker in the state playoffs – but heard nothing from college coaches.
That didn’t surprise Chambliss.
“I wanted to (play college football),” Chambliss said, “but I didn’t know what the chances were, because everybody says if you’re only 120 pounds that it’s going to be hard to play at the college level.”
Williams and South’s coaching staff continued pitching Chambliss to colleges, particularly Division III and NAIA programs, confident that a school would see past Chambliss’ build and instead see his production and skills. Williams saw Reinhardt as a perfect fit, a young program that started in 2011 and played its inaugural season in 2013. Chambliss felt the same after his tryout.
“It was close to home, and I saw they had had a good season,” Chambliss said. “I wanted them to offer me, and so when they did I was pretty quick to reply back.”
Chambliss redshirted his first season but quickly gained a reputation on the scout team as a playmaking threat. Reinhardt’s receiving corps was hit hard by graduation, and Chambliss entered spring practice as the team’s No. 2 receiver. By the time this season arrived, he was elevated to No. 1.
“That’s what I envisioned,” Chambliss said.
Chambliss’ passion for football has pushed him through every anxious moment of his playing career – the broken ankle that cost him his junior season at South, the silence from colleges during that standout senior season. Miller notes his pure love for the game, in particular the Dallas Cowboys and star receiver Dez Bryant. Williams remembers Chambliss in friendly arguments with South teammates, ready to defend his favorite NFL team and role model with the necessary statistics. At South’s team banquet after Chambliss’ senior season, he was awarded the program’s Life Teammate Scholarship for, in part, displaying a love for the game.
“There may not be a guy who likes football more than Ronnie,” Miller said.
Another anxious moment awaits Chambliss and Reinhardt: their first appearance ever in the NAIA Football National Championship.
Chambliss can’t wait.
“I’ve never played in a championship game before, besides rec football,” Chambliss said. “It’s definitely going to be a new experience for me. I think we’re going to have a good time.”