KENT: Norman Wolfe Jr. thought his future was locked in football coach Claude Brown’s classroom at Buchtel High School.
Then a senior receiver, Wolfe desperately needed his game films to try to convince a college coach to take a chance on him. Wolfe knew he was a high-risk recruit because of his poor academic standing. But spurred by a talk with Brown late in his junior year, Wolfe was buckling down on his studies and trying to get an acceptable score on the ACT.
But he needed those films. And Brown was in prison, and no one else had a key.
Brown was sentenced in April 2007 after pleading guilty to two counts of sexual battery involving a 17-year-old student; he would serve nearly eight months. The Buchtel assistants couldn’t help Wolfe because they were volunteers, none holding a position in the Akron City Schools.
“I knew where he kept the stuff, but I couldn’t get it,” Wolfe said. “He’d normally keep it in his teaching room.
“That was a big problem because a lot of people couldn’t contact us. He had all our film. We had nothing to work with. We had nothing. That wasn’t just tough on me, that was tough on all our seniors. Nobody went nowhere.”
But Wolfe didn’t take nowhere for an answer.
He said he raised his grade-point average from 1.9 to about 2.6 by the time he graduated. He gutted through the ACT at least five times, the last a “residual” test good only for Kent State, a campus he knew because he had attended its Upward Bound program. He came to KSU as a walk-on and threw himself into academics, training with former teammates in seven-on-seven and one-on-one drills at Buchtel as he sat out his first season.
His perseverance prevailed. Despite being listed as 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, Wolfe became a three-year starter at cornerback. Tonight, he and the Golden Flashes (11-1) could put themselves in position to play in a BCS bowl with a victory over favored Northern Illinois (11-1) in the Mid-American Conference Championship at Ford Field in Detroit.
Wolfe will play his eighth consecutive game with a plate and six screws in his right forearm, broken Sept. 8 at Kentucky.
“The guy breaks his arm, and four weeks later, he’s back on the field, which is unheard of, in my opinion,” Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said Monday. “That shows a lot about his toughness and his love for this football team.”
It also says a lot about Wolfe’s love for his family and friends, especially those from Buchtel.
“A lot of people in our class look up to him and kind of live through him,” his best friend, Charles Dent III, whom Wolfe has known since the third grade, said by phone Tuesday. “A lot of guys go to the home games. We’re living the dream and trying to make the dream come true.”
Dent will be in Detroit and hopes for another “surreal moment” with Wolfe like he had in KSU’s 2011 opener at Alabama. Dent made the trip to Tuscaloosa and said Wolfe found him from the sideline. Moments later, Wolfe recorded one of his 10 career interceptions and returned it 37 yards to set up Kent State’s only touchdown.
“He looked me right in the eye, and on the next play, he caught that interception,” Dent said. “It was kind of a touching moment.”
Friends like Dent are one reason Wolfe rushed back to the field after arm surgery. He was also motivated because he broke his left foot last season, suffering a Jones fracture at the base of his little toe that also cost him four games.
“I know I’m a little guy, but I thought I’d never miss a game,” Wolfe said Monday during an interview at the M.A.C. Center. “Not unstoppable, but no matter what injuries I had, I could still play. That [foot] injury, there was no playing and it really hurt me. I wanted to start every game and I couldn’t.”
When he was hurt this year, Wolfe said he stayed in the game for two more plays.
“I kept my arm straight and it was fine. But once I rotated it, the pain went crazy,” Wolfe said.
His best friend on the team and three-year roommate, junior cornerback Darius Polk, said no one knew how badly Wolfe was injured until they watched film the next day. Hazell has since moved Wolfe to the “field corner” position, more involved in pass defense than run.
“[Being hurt] two years back to back, it was frustrating,” Wolfe said. “I was down a lot. I was better this year than I was my junior year as far as staying involved. I think that helped me. I tried to be positive and be with the team. I prepared like I was going to play, even though I knew I wasn’t. I still watched film. I didn’t want to get out of routine.”
Since that day in Kentucky, Wolfe has never let on how much pain he feels, even when Polk asks when he visits Wolfe’s apartment after games.
“He has the biggest heart on the team,” Polk said. “His heart, his desire to win and never quit, I admire everything about that man.”
Such qualities helped Wolfe become one of 50 in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I) to be nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the nation’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on.
Other nominees might have had fewer challenges. Wolfe’s difficult senior year at Butchel was surpassed by 2011, which included caring for a baby girl. His daughter, Milan, turns 2 in February.
“Last year was the toughest year of my life. Three hours of sleep and wake up for 6 a.m.’s and stuff like that,“ Wolfe said.
But Wolfe called fatherhood “a beautiful thing.”
“Especially a girl, it changes your life,” he said. “I think if you have a boy you can be the same man. But having a girl, you look at life different.”
This year, Wolfe and Milan moved into an apartment with his fiancee, KSU student Latoya McDaniel, Milan’s mother. He also has support from Milan’s godfathers, Polk and Dent, now at Kent State after spending four years on an academic scholarship at Ohio State.
“He’s big on family,” Polk said. “When his dad was sick he was always there. He’s a great father to Milan. Even when he broke his foot last year he was always positive. He’s always trying to make somebody else smile, make somebody else happy.”
Wolfe has managed to balance football, academics and fatherhood. He said he’s on track to graduate in December with a degree in sports administration, a minor in coaching and perhaps another in business. Coaching is a “backup backup plan.”
He’d love to play in the NFL but said, “But then again, I’m 5-8. I’m the shortest in my family, unfortunately. Ain’t nothing given to me. I’ve got to work for everything, no matter what.”
He’s toiled with little reward in his previous three years, when Kent State went 5-7 each season. While his friends came to the games, they didn’t want to talk as much about the Golden Flashes as they do now. KSU set school records with 11 victories and a 10-game winning streak and is bound for its first bowl game in 40 years.
Because it’s not over yet, Wolfe doesn’t reflect much. But his five-year journey could end with bigger dreams fulfilled than anyone at Buchtel could have ever imagined.
“I feel we had good teams, we had great players and it was just like a curse,” Wolfe said of his previous seasons at KSU. “Everything just went against us, nothing happened for us, nothing was given. Over the course of time we just got tired of it.
“It’s a good thing that’s going on right now. You couldn’t ask for a better senior season. It’s a blessing, you know?”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.