Little Big Man

How could a skinny guy like Andre Wadsworth grow up to be a first-round draft pick?

by Jim Crosby

As Andre Wadsworth stands at attention for the singing of the National Anthem, an Arizona Cardinal helmet tucked under his arm, the memories of an improbable journey will flood his mind. The story of how he went from an insecure walk-on at Florida State to the highest Seminole draft-pick ever is one of hard work and faith.

In 1993, all was well for Florida State as the Seminoles, led by Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, captured the national championship in the Orange Bowl. For freshman defender Wadsworth—a native of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, who moved to Miami at the age of 5—the trip home was depressing.

Team chaplain Clint Purvis recalls talking with Wadsworth at the bowl game. Purvis didn’t even know his name at the time, but could see that this tall, skinny player was depressed. "You look like you have lost your best friend," Purvis told Andre. "What’s wrong?"

"I don’t think football is for me. I’m a walk-on, and I’m not very good," Wadsworth replied. "I’m thinking of quitting football."

He didn’t know it, but Wadsworth already had his supporters.

Later, Purvis asked offensive coach Brad Scott, who was leaving for South Carolina, about Wadsworth. "If there was one player I could take with me to my new job, it would be Andre Wadsworth," said Scott. At that point, Wadsworth had not played a single down for FSU!

Playing for tiny Florida Christian High School in Miami, with only 58 students in the graduating class, Wadsworth had not attracted much attention. Florida State was the only Division 1 school to offer him the opportunity to walk-on as a defensive end.

To complicate matters, before he could head for Tallahassee for his freshman year, Wadsworth suffered a back injury in a car accident. He arrived 2 weeks later than the other players—weakened by the accident.

Seminole strength coach Dave Van Halanger didn’t know him either. "Andre walked up and said, ‘Coach Van, I need to get on a weight program.’"

Van Halanger looked at him and said, "You sure do, if you’re going to play on the defensive line." Wadsworth could bench press only about 250 pounds.

His goals were not overly optimistic. "Coach Van had us list our goals, and I wrote that I wanted to start in my senior year and get a scholarship," recalls Wadsworth. "Whatever goals I had for myself, the Lord had bigger ones."

He went to work.

He first attracted some attention at practice when he knocked a veteran 282-pound offensive lineman flat on his backside. Soon he was being looked at as a noseguard. By the end of his redshirt season, he weighed 260—with a good chance to become a starter.

Then misfortune struck again! His dad, Andrew, had his lower leg amputated because of diabetes, and Andre returned to St. Croix to save the family auto parts business. Unable to work out all summer, his weight plummeted to 237.

"When I saw Andre, he looked so light," says chaplain Purvis. "I thought there was no hope. Those lineman would eat his lunch." But through hard work, Andre gained back 20 pounds and became a force. By the time he was a senior, he would weigh 280 and bench press 500 pounds.

The switch from defensive end to the middle of the line paid long-range dividends. "The experience at noseguard definitely helped Andre become a better player," says FSU’s defensive end coach Jim Gladden. "He really had to be a fighter in there because of the double-team coverage." In his first season at noseguard, Wadsworth made 47 tackles, followed by 77 the next year, and 52 in an injury-plagued junior season.

Then Wadsworth faced a major decision. Should he turn pro? His roommate, defensive end Peter Boulware, entered the NFL draft and urged him to do the same. He was projected as a first-rounder. After much prayer Andre decided to stay at Florida State. "I never asked why. I just let the Lord do what He is doing in my life. But I feel the reason He wanted me to stay was to be the spiritual leader on the team," says Wadsworth.

He returned to Tallahassee for his senior year with a new position. He was now ready for the challenge of the high-profile defensive end position.

"I really committed my life to Christ at Florida State. I was getting spiritual food and developing physically and as a football player," says Wadsworth, who was also Academic All-ACC.

"Andre never missed a workout. He just had a great work ethic. His faith kept him balanced," says Van Halanger. "I’ve seen him challenge people about their faith in the weight room, not in a condemning way, but to get them to examine where they stand."

On the playing field, senior Wadsworth registered 16 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss. His two sacks against Florida and two others against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl gained the attention of NFL scouts. The Arizona Cardinals became believers and leaped at the chance to draft Wadsworth with the third pick in the first round. Secure at QB with Jake Plummer, who set rookie records with 2,303 passing yards and 15 TDs, Arizona was happy when the Colts selected Peyton Manning and the Chargers got Ryan Leaf, leaving Andre available.

Bob Ferguson, Cardinal vice president of player personnel became emotional on draft day in explaining why Arizona chose Wadsworth. "I have two single daughters, and if they are ever fortunate enough to find a guy with the qualities of Andre Wadsworth—not just in sports—I’d feel like a lucky father," Ferguson told reporters while choking back tears.

Andre’s college line coach Gladden is not surprised Ferguson feels that way. "Andre’s biggest asset is his character. I told NFL guys they would get more than a great player. Andre is a guy who will get things done behind the closed doors of the locker room they can’t do. He is the total package."

Despite a 4-12 season in 1997, the Cardinals are building a strong defense. Andre fits in and will take some pressure off Simeon Rice, a former No. 3 pick who tied the rookie sack record with 12-1/2 in 1996 before falling off to 5 sacks in 1997.

Wadsworth is unbothered by the pressure. "The Lord has blessed me in going to a defense that is already established. I’m not looked on to be a savior," Andre says. "I’m just another piece of the puzzle."

During the tough times that come his way, Wadsworth continues to be sustained by an active prayer life and Bible study. A favorite Bible verse he refers to often is Ephesians 2:8-9. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."

Some day the Cardinals may look back on the selection of Andre Wadsworth as the decision that turned them from a losing team into winners. As coach Gladden observed, "A strong man seeking God’s will rubs off on others. That’s what Andre did for us!"


 

Taken from Sports Spectrum, a Christian sports magazine. Used by permission. For subscription information call 1-800-283-8333.