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December 7, 2009

A Country Boy Can Survive - Sergio Render

By: Jimmy Robertson

Sergio Render grew up in rural Georgia, and his passion for the outdoors, along with a loving aunt and uncle, guided him from a troubling path.

Practically every morning in late autumn, the alarm clock goes off at 5 o’clock, vibrating not only the device itself, but also rattling the contents of his brain.

Yet unlike most 23-year-old college seniors, he gathers his senses quickly and pops out from under the warm covers. It doesn’t matter that the air is brisk and that God’s lamp hasn’t begun to peek over the eastern horizon. The passion for his hobby illuminates the dark and shields the cold.

He puts on his clothes, layer by layer – camouflage trousers, a heavy coat and boots, looking like a Realtree model. Then he grabs his rifle, a .270, and heads to his vehicle for a 20-minute drive down a winding road to Ellett Valley, a charming rural spot outside of Blacksburg. It’s here, on the property of a local landowner, where he spends many of his mornings, participating in a sport common among many southwest Virginians – hunting.

“I love it,” said Sergio Render, Tech’s starting left guard and the team’s resident expert in outdoor nature games. “I love being outdoors.”

He always has. The passion started when a family relative introduced him to hunting and fishing as a young child. By his guess, an 8-year-old at the time, he would sit on the woodpile in front of the family home in tiny Luthersville, Ga., and wait for the throaty rumble of Charles Tenney’s pick-up. Then he raced to the door before his great uncle could throw the gear into park and beg to go hunting or fishing.

More often than not, Tenney succumbed to the young child’s wishes. They’d go fishing or he would haul Render to his favorite deer stand, where they’d spend morning after morning waiting for an unsuspecting deer to wander across their path. Even as an 8-year-old, he never got bored.

“He’s just a country boy,” chuckled Render’s aunt, Kerri Geter. “He always has been.”

Geter knows this because she and her husband raised him – and helped save him.

Somewhere along the way, the country boy fell victim to big-city ways. He joined a gang; he got into fights; and he ran into trouble with the law – the venerable trinity of someone searching for a path to prison, or worse.

But a trinity of a higher power emerged; one in the form of an aunt and uncle who took him in, a football coach who provided discipline and guidance and made him into a great player, and of course, the outdoors, which provided him an alternative avenue to the streets.

Those three things helped this country boy survive.

Sergio Render (70) has been an anchor on Tech's offensive line for four years and earned second-team All-ACC honors for the second straight year.

Kerri Geter knew something was amiss when she got a call one fall afternoon from Render, who needed a ride home from football practice. Slightly evasive at the time, he told her to take him to a friend’s house instead of home. As a mother of three boys herself, she found herself troubled by such an odd request.

Come to find out, her 14-year-old nephew was actually living with his teenage friends.

“I’m not sure how it all came about,” Geter said. “I know my sister had moved to Atlanta and I think she had arranged it with one of the mothers [of the friends], but I’m not sure. I didn’t think it was a good situation.”

To make a long story short, Render and his mother, Vanessa Parks, were not getting along. In fact, they rarely got along. Actually, a quick look at Render’s bio in the Virginia Tech media guide mentions only his aunt and uncle. There is no mention of his mother or his father, who has never been a part of Render’s life. Render bluntly refuses to discuss his father.

Parks worked a lot, which left sparse time for raising any of her three children, let alone Sergio, the youngest. With the dad out of the picture, there was no one around to guide Render except his friends. Young teenage boys with too much time on their hands – and without strong male role models in their lives – make for a rather combustible combination.

“We were having hard times at home,” Render said. “I didn’t feel like my mom was around a lot and I started hanging out with some friends. If you don’t feel love from inside your home, and you hang out with your friends and you feel like they love you and they’ll be there for you, then you sometimes start drifting off and begin doing things they’re doing.”

His siblings, an older brother and an older sister, paid him no mind either. In fact, according to Render, they treated him poorly.

“They were around for a while,” Render said. “I wasn’t close to them because of the way they used to treat me. They didn’t treat me right.”

Parks moved her family from Luthersville to Newnan, a town of roughly 25,000 people or so just a short trip up Route 41. Then she moved to Atlanta, and the country boy ultimately found himself in a gang – and in a lot of trouble.

Bigger than most his age, he started bullying people around, mainly at the coercing of his friends. He sassed his teachers and laughed at his schoolwork and back-talked anyone of authority. A couple of times, he found himself in the back of a police cruiser.

“I was always in trouble,” Render admitted. “I’d get into trouble more than anything else when I was kid.”

He was on his way to becoming another troubling statistic. And Geter sensed it.

After dropping him off from football practice, she thought about what she had just seen and became more emboldened to do something about it. She raced home and posed the question to her husband, Eric, and then made the call to Render.

She asked him if he wanted to move in with them. He never hesitated.

“I’ve been there ever since,” he said.

“He was my nephew and I’d rather him stay with me,” Geter said.

She and her husband took pity on Render, but they also made it clear that they would not put up with foolishness. They ran a strict household. Homework was to be done, along with certain chores. Curfew was to be obeyed. Going to church every Sunday morning was mandatory, not optional and not open for debate.

“I had three boys of my own and he was 14,” Geter said. “You have to have rules and we had rules as far as doing homework and going to church and those types of things. He was used to being on his own and it was a little difficult at first. But we gave him the rules because we loved him. We wanted him to know that we were going to raise him like one of our own.

“I’m sure he probably didn’t like some of the rules. But he never disrespected us.”

“There were rules I had to abide by,” Render said. “I had to do my schoolwork and I had to go to church every Sunday. I had chores to do. I had to be respectful and do what they told me to do. It took me a while to get used to it, but I ended up doing everything.”

The Geters provided discipline and structure on the home front for Render.

But they couldn’t watch over him 24 hours a day. Someone needed to provide the discipline and structure at school.

Robert Herring took care of that.

Herring isn’t a household name in southwest Virginia, but residents of west Georgia and east Alabama certainly know him. He served as the head football coach at several high schools in that part of the South. He won a bunch of state championships and a bunch of football games – 301 to be exact – and coached at Newnan High for 10 years before hanging up his whistle after 45 years of disciplining young men and molding them – and saving them.

Render may have been Herring’s best reclamation project.

“He needed a lot of help,” Herring said in a deep Southern drawl. “He had no direction.”

But Herring saw something in Render that Render never saw in himself at that age. Herring saw an angry young boy in a man’s body, a body blessed with natural strength and surprisingly nimble feet. He only needed to channel that anger in a different direction before he found himself incarcerated – or worse.

Herring convinced him to come out for the football team as a freshman.

“It was my first time of playing on an organized team,” Render said. “I hadn’t played any football before.”

Herring felt so strongly about Render than he and one of his assistant coaches hauled Render 22 miles every day to Carrollton, Ga., for summer school to get him eligible (Newnan didn’t offer summer school courses). He stayed there all day and then either Herring or another assistant would go and get him.

Their devotion, and the structure provided by Uncle Eric and Aunt Kerri, started paying off. He started to morph into a fantastic football player. His grades started to improve.

More importantly, he started spending more time hunting and fishing in his free time, which kept him off the streets and out of trouble.

“When I moved in [with Eric and Kerri Geter], I tried to hunt and fish as much as possible, so that I wouldn’t go out,” Render said. “In football, my coaches in high school stayed on me a lot, too, so I tried to stay out of bad situations.”

Render became one of the best players in west Georgia his final two seasons, recording more than 100 pancake blocks as an offensive lineman each of those two years. His crowning moment, though, came as a defensive lineman during his senior year.

On Dec. 5, 2003, Newnan took on then-three time defending Class 5A champion Parkview in a quarterfinal playoff game. With the score tied at 14 in the waning moments, Render drilled Parkview quarterback Todd Faulkner, causing him to fumble. Newnan defensive end Santez Mays picked up the loose ball and ran 55 yards for a touchdown with 7.3 seconds left to give Newnan a landmark victory.

“After his freshman year, he really turned things around,” Herring said. “He started trusting us and realized that we wanted to help him. Of course, his uncle and aunt are just great role models. After that freshman year, he never got in trouble. We never had a problem with him. He became a leader we could depend on.”

Render parlayed his season into a scholarship offer from Florida State, which he accepted. But he de-committed in part because of Eric Geter – a former player at Clemson, who spent some time in both the CFL and NFL. Knowing all about the recruiting process, he told Render he really needed to take another visit and not just go off the impressions of his first visit. So he decided to take a trip to Virginia Tech. After a weekend in Blacksburg, he committed to the Hokies.

“I have to give my husband a lot of credit,” Kerri Geter said. “He treated him like one of our own. He helped Sergio stay focused and helped him become a man.”

Eric Geter’s wisdom certainly helped the Hokies. Of course, Blacksburg had something going for it that Tallahassee couldn’t match – good hunting and fishing spots.

“I didn’t like it too much there,” Render said of Tallahassee. “For one, it was way too hot for me. Even though I’m from Georgia, I don’t like playing in the heat. And I didn’t feel like I’d fit in with some of the players. They were different.

“And in the area, there was probably good fishing, but I don’t think I could hunt the way I wanted to.”

It’s the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving and Render and a buddy named Dave are in the woods. He met Dave at Sharkey’s one evening a while back and the two found they shared a common interest in the outdoors. The two struck up a friendship and spend every morsel of free time in the fall in the woods.

“If you fish and hunt, you’re alright with me,” Render said.

He admits he’d rather do this than play football. But the sport of pigskin may well secure his future.

He’s been a four-year starter for the Hokies, having started 51 career games. He has earned second-team All-ACC honors the past two seasons, and many NFL Draft “experts” expect him to go very high in next April’s NFL Draft.

“I have my ups and downs in football,” Render said. “I’m not perfect. In some games, I could have played better. But I’m not worried about it now. If it’s meant for me to play pro football, then it’ll happen. If not, I’ll move on to something else.”

He saved his best performance for his final game at Lane Stadium. Playing in front of his mother – their relationship is better now – and, of course, in front of Kerri and Eric Geter, and his great uncle, Charles Tenney, he recorded a career-high 10 knockdowns in the Hokies’ easy win over N.C. State.

“He had so many people telling him he’d never go to college,” Kerri Geter said. “If he doesn’t do anything else, I’m very proud of him. He could have made so many other choices, but he didn’t. He made the right ones. I’m so proud of him.”

“He stays in touch with me, and in 45 years of coaching, he’s the only one I’ve had who has stayed in touch,” Herring said. “He calls me all the time. He appreciates what we did for him. I admire what he’s done with his life.”

Render isn’t sure what his future holds. He only knows what it doesn’t hold – the choices of his past.

Pro football appears to be an option. Once he wraps up work on his degree in human development next spring, he figures he’ll have some options in the workforce. He may even try to pursue something that deals with hunting or fishing or the outdoors.

For sure, those are better options than the ones he was choosing just a few short years ago.

“I’d probably be dead or in jail or not doing much of anything,” Render said when asked where he’d be if his aunt and uncle hadn’t taken him in and if his high school coach hadn’t seen his potential.

Instead, the country boy has survived.