There are many ways to be connected to the siren song of college football – season tickets, tailgates, booster clubs, sports bars or your living room television on a Saturday afternoon.
For a couple of honors students from Augusta Christian, the student-section bleachers wasn’t cutting it.
Evan Wells and Cole Turner took their HOPE Scholarships and went to college for all the right reasons. But after their freshman semesters watching Georgia and Georgia Tech football from the outside, they needed to get inside.
“I couldn’t watch it from the stands,” said Turner, a mechanical engineering major at Georgia Tech. “I just needed like a club and I really missed high school football. So I had to walk on.”
“I really needed to connect with a group,” said Wells, who is studying pre-med at Georgia. “So I thought about it over the Christmas break and decided I wanted to walk on. It wasn’t something I’d been planning for months. It was kind of a last-minute decision.”
With their sophomore years on deck, Wells and Turner are preparing for the most anticipated events of the collegiate year – the football season opener. Except they are getting ready by putting on pads and knocking heads on the practice fields of the two biggest football programs in the state.
Wells is a walk-on wide receiver working with theBulldogs scout team. Turner is a safety on the developmental squad for the Yellow Jackets. Both can’t wait to be a part of all the energy on the sidelines when the 2011 season kicks off this week.
“I’d always dreamed of playing college football, but coming from Augusta Christian I didn’t get any looks from Division I schools,” said Wells, who holds the all-time receiving record for the small private school. “It really is just a dream come true. Every day when I walk in the locker room I’m so thankful for the privilege and how much I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to be a football player for Georgia. I always tell my friends that I’m living the dream.”
Neither Wells nor Turner thought they’d be playing football at this level. They attracted a little interest from Division I-AA programs like Samford, Wofford and Coastal Carolina, but they had their hearts set on pursuing educations in Athens and Atlanta. Football seemed like a childhood hobby that would have to be part of their past.
But when they couldn’t get it out of their systems by watching their respective college teams struggle through the 2010 season, they acted on their athletic impulses. Wells contacted his former Augusta Christian coach Bruce Lane to inquire about the proper channels for walking on. Turner emailed the Georgia Tech staff and asked about open tryouts in the spring. They both impressed the coaches enough with their standing long jumps and 40-yard times. They each went through spring practice and were invited to preseason camp.
Turner, who played linebacker and running back at Augusta Christian, is learning to play safety for the Yellow Jackets since they have been thinner in the secondary with the injury to sophomore reserve safety Fred Holton.
“It’s a lot of backpedaling,” Turner said of making the transition to safety. “I got the form down backpedaling in spring and after camp I’ve got a more complete knowledge of the defense. I’m not as fast as the starters. If there’s one thing holding me back it’s probably my speed. As far as knowledge, I know as much as the rest of them.”
Wells is enjoying his role on the scout team for the Bulldogs.
“That’s kind of the challenge I’ve taken on, just to make the people around me better,” he said.
Not that being a guinea pig in practice doesn’t have its own surprising rewards. Wells enjoyed a rare experience for any Bulldog this week. His job was to play the role of Boise State receiver Kirby Moore, the younger brother to Broncos star quarterback Kellen Moore.
“I pulled on the jersey – No. 34,” said Wells, the significance of the revered and retired digits in a Bulldog uniform not escaping him. “I’m thinking great, I’m going to Georgia practice wearing Herschel’s number. I’m going out to practice and some of the coaches said, ‘Wow, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a No. 34 out here.’ I felt a little bit of added pressure during practice to make sure I was working hard and represented the number well.”
While Turner hopes to be in uniform Thursday night when Georgia Tech opens against Western Carolina and Wells hopes to be on the sidelines of the Georgia Dome on Saturday against Boise State, their example already resonates back at Augusta Christian,
“Of course it’s a pretty big deal,” said Lions coach Keith Walton. “Don’t let anybody discount you because you come from a small school. Small schools have great players, too.”
“I think it’s great for the school to be able to say they have two graduates playing for the two biggest schools in the state of Georgia,” Wells said.
Whether they see any playing time this week, this year or next, Wells and Turner didn’t take no for an answer and have connected with their school spirit in ways few ever have the guts to try.