At 5-foot-7, 172 pounds and soaking wet, there was never anything remotely diminutive about Northern Illinois University’s elusive tailback Garrett Wolfe, his numbers or his achievements.
Wolfe’s book of lists – even the abbreviated one that follows – are enormous, national in scope from a program that has produced superlative rushers such as Mark Kellar, Stacey Robinson, LeShon Johnson, Michael Turner and Jordan Lynch.
Three-time All-American (2004-06). Two years with Heisman Trophy votes (11th in 2006). NCAA FBS rushing and all-purpose yardage kingpin (2006). Top 15 all-time NCAA career ground-gainer (currently No. 14 with 5,164 yards). One of only six runners in major-college history with three-plus 1,500-yard seasons. Semifinalist for both the prestigious Maxwell and Doak Walker awards as a senior. Third-round NFL draft choice of the Bears (2007).
Now the latest honor: Enshrinement into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame this Oct. 6.
“In 40 years of coaching, Garrett might be the most natural football player I’ve ever seen,” said former NIU coach Joe Novak, a 2013 inductee into the same hall. “Natural, instinctive. He was a natural runner. Garrett made people miss. He caught the ball naturally. He had a intuitive football sense and was a more than willing pass protector. And even at 170 pounds, Garrett could put that left shoulder down and drive people.
“It was at Iowa State in 2004,” Novak recalled. “Garrett ran for a touchdown. It got called back on a penalty. Next down we ran the same exact play and he ran for a 21-yard score. We (coaches) knew then he would be good.”
Good might be typical Novak understatement.
Six days later against Bowling Green and on ESPN2, Wolfe recorded the first of an NIU-record 22 career 100-yard rushing games with 202 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-17 revenge victory over the Falcons en route to a 1,656-yard, 18 TD sophomore year.
Thoughts turned back to the recruiting process in 2000 when Novak vividly recalled watching Wolfe’s 40-minute highlight film from his prep days at Holy Cross.
“Amazing,” Novak admitted. “Garrett was a sensational high school player, tremendous production, accolades.”
So what could be the problem with a repeat All-Stater with 4,311 rushing yards and 56 TDs as an upperclassman at Holy Cross?
It wasn’t his home life.
“Wonderful family. Great parents. One of his brothers was a policeman,” Novak said.
So, what was it?
“Grade issues and size,” Novak said.
The Hollywood-like Wolfe success script could’ve been put on the shelf right there.
Enter the inner, steel-tough Garrett Wolfe.
“I was born with a chip on my shoulder,” Wolfe said. “Growing up, I was always the smallest. I always had the desire to prove everybody wrong.”
Wolfe eventually did on both counts.
Grades? The man turned his only real scholarship offer into three NIU degrees – including a double master’s after his four-year stint with the Bears and a brief time in the Canadian Football League.
Football? How many FBS backs moved up the NCAA hierarchy ladder as Wolfe did – No. 5 in the nation in rushing as a sophomore, No. 2 (1,580 yards) as a junior, and No. 1 (a MAC-record 1,928 yards) as a senior? As it said in the 2006 media guide: Last on the alphabetical roster and No. 1 in everything else.
Some wise-guy skeptics might dismiss Wolfe’s stats in the mid-major realm. Right, tell it to No. 1-ranked Ohio State when the Huskies’ No. 1 ran circles around the Buckeyes for 285 all-purpose yards (171 rushing) on a regional ABC telecast in the 2006 opener. Or his 148 yards rushing against No. 4 Michigan in the Big House – including the 76-yard cutback run on which Novak swears “... Garrett had eyes in the back of his head” in 2005 on another ABC game.
A week later, Wolfe cemented his spot on the 2006 Playboy All-America team – which might be the best pre-season individual football honor in program history – by shredding Northwestern for 245 ground yards and three TDs in the heartbreaking 38-37 overtime setback in Evanston. One of the NIU-NU spectators was Evanston resident Gary Cole, the sports editor for Chrissie Hefner.
“We got a kick out of proving everyone wrong, that NIU could compete,” Wolfe said about those mega-games and his chip. “We knew the gravity of those (games) and what it meant to our program.”
For three years, Wolfe made every NIU aficionado spring out of their Huskie Stadium seat or off their couches at home, plus even made a believer out of his SID.
When I received the letter from Cole that Garrett had made the Playboy All-America unit, Novak graciously allowed me (“Mike, it’s your deal”) to surprise Wolfe in my office.
When I handed him the envelope, Garrett opened it, read the letter, and smiled. It was Christmas morning in April for both of us.
A few weekends later, Garrett and I were at a Phoenix resort for the Playboy All-America shoot.
It was a revelation.
The other All-Americans all knew about Garrett or had seen him play on TV.
As they donned their uniforms on the other side of the large studio setup, I recalled Novak’s only team rule request: No pictures or video with Garrett’s fake diamond stud earrings.
To be honest, I forgot to tell Garrett. Now, I’m thinking “how am I going walk over there and ask him in front of his peers?” All the sudden, another SID came over and asked me something. Next thing I knew, Garrett was standing in front of me in uniform with his arm outstretched to me. As he opened his fist, Garrett asked: “Mr. Korcek, would you please hold onto these for me?”
It was the earrings.
When I asked his reaction about the NIU Hall of Fame honor this week, Garrett responded as I knew he would, citing how fortunate and blessed he was for all his teammates and coaches.
I’ve said it before. I had a great job. See what I mean?
• Mike Korcek is a 1970 graduate of NIU, and was the school’s head sports information director from 1984-2006. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.