IOWA CITY, Iowa – Driving up the busy New Jersey Turnpike, Sharonda Phelps looked in her rearview mirror. To here surprise, her son was out of his car seat. She turned around quickly to see young Akrum Wadley walking around back there. His energy was boundless.
The high level of activity continued. He’d run around the yard for hours before jetting through the front door and hurdling the couch. Channeling this liveliness was a must, Phelps thought.
Phelps learned her town offered organized sports for young children. She signed him in football and basketball when he was 6. He immediately took to both sports.
What started out as a way to burn off vivacity of youth has turned into a potential NFL career. The Iowa senior kicked off his final summer camp Sunday as one of the top running backs in the Big Ten. He’d come a long way from escaping his car seat.
“She’d throw me in the car and by the first few exits I’d be walking around. She stopped at a rest area one time and let me have it. She used to be real mad,” Wadley remembered.
Phelps has remained a guiding force in her son’s life. She gave her blessing on him leaving New Jersey for Iowa City. She convinced him to return to school for his senior season after looking at the NFL during the winter.
Last month, Wadley was named to watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the country’s top running back. Most NFL mocks have placed him among the top players at his position heading into next year’s draft.
Wadley has become one of the faces of Hawkeye Football this fall. It hasn’t been an easy ascension and he’s continued working during the offseason to climb higher.
HOUDINI WITH THE PIGSKIN
Wadley was known to Iowa fans and others around college football before lining up against Michigan last Nov. 12. The show he put on against the then third-ranked and unbeaten Wolverines in a 14-13 upset at Kinnick Stadium alerted a national audience to his immense talent.
A Michigan defense flush with NFL talent looked foolish at times trying to tackle Wadley in space. He finished with 115 yards on 23 carries and caught five passes for 52 more and a touchdown. The Hawkeyes only managed 230 yards total.
Back in New Jersey, a group of Wadley’s youth football teammates and coaches watched with pride, cheering together in a group on-line chat. The game kicked off with talk of Wolverine two-way standout Jabril Peppers in the Heisman Trophy hunt. It ended with him being shown up by his fellow New Jerseyan.
“There was a little New Jersey rivalry there. He outperformed (Peppers) in that game so we were very happy,” said Wadley’s youth coach with the Willingboro (NJ) Panthers, Arnold Carmichael.
“It was an example of pretty much what we saw when we had him. In big games and big moments, Akrum stood out above them all and led us to at least three championship games in his time he spent as our feature back. He was just extremely strong willed, loved challenges, was fearless. Pretty much everything you’re seeing now, that’s what we saw back then.”
For a short period, nobody saw what Wadley could do with the ball in his hands. His Panther career started at center. Carmichael said one of his assistants didn’t think he was cut out for running back.
That lasted a few practices. Carmichael intervened after watching Wadley at running back and moved him. He also heard from the boy’s parents when they saw him at center for a scrimmage.
“Nobody told me until I saw it that day. I was like wait, what? The coach’s excuse was that they needed a smarter football mind to play center. That wasn’t going to work. He’s a running back,” Phelps said.
“Usually they don’t listen to parents because everybody thinks their kid can do anything. I think (Carmichael) moved me to running back to keep my parents quiet. The first play at running back I scored. It was a long run,” Wadley said laughing, remembering his start.
Here’s a look at his moves as a youngster:
Wadley continued honing his game with the Panthers until it was time for high school. He started out at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City. The school built its athletic reputation behind a national powerhouse basketball program under coach Bob Hurley.
He played football and basketball at St. Anthony as a freshman. The family discovered it wasn’t working out. Phelps was continuously late for work because of the Jersey City traffic and was burdened by the high tuition at the private school.
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She enrolled her son at Newark’s University High for its strong academics. She realized it wasn’t best for his athletic success. She switched him to Weequahic High, where he could receive a strong education, high-end coaching and discipline. The staff was comprised of Newark police officers.
It turned out well. Wadley helped Weequahic to back-to-back state championship games during his final two seasons. In his final campaign, he rushed for 1,548 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 153 yards and a pair of scores and added 371 yards and four TDs on special teams, including 95-yard return in state title game.
Despite the success, colleges were reticent to move on Wadley. Schools questioned whether or not he could play running back in college at his size (5-11, 175). Temple took a chance and offered a scholarship. He committed to the Owls.
Iowa was searching for a running back late in the process and received a tip on Wadley. The Hawkeyes offered a scholarship and played host to him on an official visit.
“When I heard Iowa wanted him, I was like wait. My knowledge of Iowa was cornfields and country,” Phelps said. “I took the visit with him. I sat back and knew he would be good there. The coaching staff was likable and family men. It was a really easy choice.”
The transition proved difficult, however.
SLOW RISE TO THE TOP
Like most high school standouts, Wadley thought he’d play early, if not right away on the next level. Instead, he watched others run the football from the sidelines. In addition to that adjustment, it took time figuring out the time management necessary to succeed as a student-athlete at a Big Ten school.
Then came the fumbles. It led to a trial at cornerback.
As a redshirt freshman, Wadley flashed his ability with 106 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern midway through the season. The goodwill earned in that game evaporated when he couldn’t hang onto the football and his playing time regressed.
Iowa opened the ’15 season against Illinois State at home. Wadley fumbled on one of his first carries. You could see the disappointment on his face as he picked himself up off the turf. He didn’t play in three of the team’s next five games and sparingly in the other two. He was crushed but determined to fix the problem.
Wadley carried a football with him around campus. When teammates saw him, they’d attempt to knock it away. He locked onto to it, holding it high and tight.
Injuries hit the backfield before a Week 7 contest at Northwestern. With the top two running backs on the depth chart – Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels – sidelined with sprained ankles, coach Kirk Ferentz turned to Wadley. He responded by 204 yard on 26 carries and tied a school record with four touchdowns. Most importantly, he didn’t fumble.
Wadley started the next two games before getting hurt. He worked his way back and was one of the offense’s lone bright spots in losses to Michigan State on the Big Ten Championship game and to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. He finally had arrived.
“I used to text him every morning to work hard and pray for what you want,” Phelps said of the time when he son was struggling. “I know you and I’ve met the coaches. What coach Ferentz is saying is right. You have to get stronger so you don’t fumble. He did it. He understood and he waited his turn.”
Wadley finished ’15 with 496 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. He added six receptions for 94 yards and a score. He was only scratching the surface.
Last season, while splitting time with Daniels, Wadley led the team with 1,081 yards (6.4 per carry) and 10 touchdowns rushing. He finished second on the squad with 36 catches for 315 yards and three scores. The Michigan game raised his stock, but he was consistently good throughout the year, including against Florida’s stellar defense in the Outback Bowl.
He’s earned the respect of Ferentz, who often spoke publicly about Wadley’s fumbling issues and difficulties adding weight. He used it all as motivation.
“I’ve been running for years and every time I look back I got fumbling ready to hug me, my weight ready to hug me, got the bench ready get me. They’re ready to embrace me if I stop running so I have to keep running,” he said with a smile.
Wadley wanted the NFL after last season. Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. and others praised his chances at the next level after watching him against Michigan and Florida. He showed great natural gifts.
Phelps wasn’t having it. She told her son he was going to back to school.
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“It was hard for him because he just wants to reach that dream. The best thing is to finish school and it should still be there. It should be even better,” she said.
Wadley saw friends like Tahir Whitehead of the Detroit Lions enjoying life in the NFL. He wanted it, too. But, like so many times before, he knew his mother was right.
“Even the women I bring home, she calls them out if they’re not good. That always blew my mind. Even in high school, I would bring them home and she didn’t even know them and I knew them. And she was right. So, I don’t battle with her,” he said.
Phelps said she’s seen plenty of growth in her son during his time at Iowa. She’s convinced big things are ahead.
MATURING LIKE FINE WINE
Wadley is scheduled to graduate in December. While both of his parents own college diplomas (Phelps a master’s), many people in his family don’t.
Phelps guided Wadley academically without even knowing it. She studied for her master’s late at night when it was quiet. Her son did the same thing.
“I didn’t even realize he was watching me,” she said.
Wadley knows there are people looking up to him like he did with his mother. He remembers from where it is he came.
Carmichael said his former standout returns to Willingboro and speaks with the kids in the program. Eyes intently focus on him.
“He’s an inspiration to them, letting them know just as he had the opportunity to go through the program and go off to college and be successful, they have that same opportunity,” Carmichael said.
Phelps came out to Iowa City to spend time with her son this summer. She saw him at peace as they went bowling, out for ice cream or just hung out.
“I give credit to the coaching staff. They man you up. They mature you up. They don’t stand for any nonsense. He’s starting to be more of a professional than just a kid in college. I’m seeing him mature that way, too,” Phelps said.
Wadley appreciates Ferentz for giving him an opportunity.
“I was overlooked. That’s what we have on the Hawkeyes, walk-ons, some guys that were overlooked. I just appreciate him taking his time to get to know me and always being honest with me and allowing me to perform on a high level,” he said.
Phelps believes Ferentz developed what already was inside her son. She couldn’t bet more proud.
“I always tell people if I could have 100 kids like him I would. He’s an awesome kid. He’s got a great heart. He’s very humble compared to some of his peers. He’s awesome big brother,” she said.
Phelps also is a pretty big fan of his on-field abilities.
“Akrum knows I will be straight up with him. If there was somebody I thought was better, I would let him know. I think he is a fantastic running back. He’s different. He’s entertaining. His vision is a little different than most backs. He makes the move right on point to make them miss. I told them this year he needs to prove that he’s one of if not the best. He’s hungry,” she said.