Ex-Aquinas teammates take unlikely roads

Patrick Nordmann will resist on Saturday the friendly urge that's been a natural part of his life since he was in elementary school at St. Mary on the Hill.

Dressed out in his No. 49 jersey on the Georgia Tech sideline, Nordmann will see his best friend and former Aquinas High School teammate Lee Malchow on the field playing defense for Wake Forest.

"It will be weird seeing Lee out there," Nordmann said. "We've been best friends since second grade and playing football together since I was 10. It's going to be hard for me not to jump out there. I may need someone to hold me back. Seeing Lee out there will make me want to play."

That Nordmann and Malchow are still putting on pads and part of football at all is amazing, much less on opposing rosters in a pivotal Atlantic Coast Conference game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Neither one of them was recruited out of high school or offered even a small-college scholarship. Yet neither one of them was ready to give up the game of their youth.

"I've played football since I was 8 and always liked it and it was something I still wanted to do," said Malchow, who through some contacts mustered an invitation as a preferred walk-on to Wake Forest.

Malchow and Nordmann were the senior stars of the Aquinas football and basketball programs that met with rare tastes of the postseason in 2005-06. But they were hardly the kind of athletes from a small Catholic school that college programs were looking for.

Malchow was a skinny 6-foot-5, 200-pound kid when he got to Wake Forest and was sent to the strength and conditioning coach in a long-range quest to bulk up. He didn't know what to expect from his efforts other than a quality education his family was paying for.

"It was always a hope," Malchow said of one day contributing on the field for the Deacons. "I always thought I could. I don't really know what I was thinking. I just thought I could."

Nordmann was under no such delusions. Even slighter than Malchow at 5-9, 155 pounds, he enrolled at Georgia Tech to pursue a civil engineering degree.

"I always dreamed of playing at Tech," he said of his father's alma mater. "I just never really thought I could or that it would happen. I always thought I was too small to play."

Malchow patiently waited for a chance. He redshirted his first season when Wake Forest beat Georgia Tech to win the ACC and go to the Orange Bowl. He continued to work hard on the scout teams and put 30 pounds on in the weight room. By last year he was contributing on special teams and climbed up the depth chart to backup linebacker.

"It's been kind of a long process," said Malchow, now a redshirt junior. "It's not like I came up here and started playing. It took awhile. I've learned a lot through our great coaches and watched the guys in front of me like Aaron Curry and learned how to play the game through watching them."

Malchow learned enough that Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe rewarded Malchow with a scholarship before this season. He's on course to graduate with a business degree in the spring, but he plans to stick around to use his last season of eligibility.

"I think sometimes as a coach you find a kid and you fall in love with him character-wise and attitude-wise," Grobe told the Winston-Salem Journal . "You want to be nice to him, so you're thinking, 'How can I find a way to give this guy something?' "

Nordmann knows nothing was handed to his friend.

"Lee is one of the hardest workers I know," he said. "He's worked his tail off up there and earned his scholarship. He deserved everything he's been getting up there."

Earlier this season, Malchow was given his first collegiate start as a stand-up defensive end against Navy's triple-option offense. He was fourth on the team in the 13-10 loss to Navy with seven tackles, five of them solo. For the season he has 21 tackles in nine games.

With Georgia Tech running the same triple option that Paul Johnson left behind at Navy, Malchow might see a similar role Saturday.

"Navy ran it to perfection and Georgia Tech even more so with better athletes," Malchow said.

Malchow's success at Wake Forest, as well as fellow Aquinas teammate John Douglas' scholarship offer from Auburn, inspired Nordmann to get the football itch all over again.

"I got up here and just missed playing the game so much," Nordmann said. "I saw my friends Lee and John playing at other Division I schools and thought if they can do it, why can't I? So I decided to give it a shot."

Nordmann managed to put on enough pounds to tip the scales at 175 before he approached Georgia Tech's director of player personnel Liam Klein last spring and asked if he could walk on to the team.

"His reaction at first was to ask if I was going out as a kicker because I was so small," Nordmann said.

Instead, Nordmann worked out over the summer at Aquinas with Malchow and got strong enough to play safety and cornerback on the scout teams. He had six tackles in Georgia Tech's spring game and Saturday will mark the third consecutive home game that he's earned the privilege of dressing out in uniform.

"I'm trying to get stronger and learn and get the team ready each week," said Nordmann, who plans to graduate in the fall of 2010. "I only have one year of eligibility left so I'm going to have to work hard this year and hopefully be able to contribute on the field next year."

Malchow got to be a part of the Deacons' ACC title and BCS trip in 2006, and now Nordmann hopes to be a part of the same for the Coastal Division-leading Yellow Jackets this season.

"I knew we could be a good team," Nordmann said. "For me being a part of it, I've been a Tech fan all my life. I guess you could say it's a dream come true."

The same can be said for Malchow, who as the son of two Georgia alums will get a second chance to try to derail the Ramblin' Wreck.

"I'm kind of a Bulldogs fan," he said. "The highlight of the year hopefully will be this weekend. It will be a fun experience."

That they'll get to share those dreams on the same field again Saturday just makes it more special.

"I guess it's going to be like playing in the backyard in the old days," Nordmann said.

Sure, if your backyard holds 50,000 screaming fans and a national television audience. It's a heady place for two Aquinas kids who refused to let the road end four years ago.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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