Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Unknown Hokie finds solace as weekday warrior

For four years, walk-on and Cave Spring graduate Jeff Wardach has mimicked opponents to get Tech set for game day.

BLACKSBURG -- He's No. 96 this week. No name. Just digits.

Jeff Wardach never really concerns himself with the names. If his job were to learn all about Nick Jenkins the person, then he would. He'd find out about his wit and charm and make note of the long, wild hair.

But all Wardach needs to know about is Jenkins, the Virginia defensive tackle. Where does he line up? How does he work with the linebackers? What's his technique like?

You can do that without names. So Wardach is No. 96.

For four years, Wardach has been on the Virginia Tech scout team, an ever-changing number. It's hard to judge your progress that way. As much as you'd like to make a name for yourself, your job is to be somebody else.

But this season, the rewards finally have started to flow for the Roanoke native. On Saturday, he'll dress with the team for the seventh time in his career. Then, they'll invite him out to midfield for senior day -- and call his name.

If things go well, maybe he'll even get to play.

n n n

Few people set out to be scout-teamers. Almost always, the job is accepted as a window to something more, a temporary task on the path to paradise.

For Wardach, it was no different. He left Cave Spring High School in 2007 as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive lineman, but he didn't plan on staying 230 pounds. Too slow to play defensive end at the highest level in college, he was determined to bulk up and ultimately break through as a walk-on defensive tackle.

It hasn't happened. Four years later -- despite his best caloric-intake efforts -- he's still only 240 pounds.

"It's been really frustrating," said Wardach, who can bench press 375 pounds. "Ugh. You try to do everything right, eat everything you see. Then I'll start to put on some weight and it'll be the wrong weight. Getting bigger, I want to increase muscle and lose fat, which is pretty much impossible for me."

For his first three years at Tech, Wardach practiced five days a week, sacrificing his social life, straining his schedule. He never got the game-day payoff. He watched the home games from the stands, the road games from his sofa. More than a few times, he wondered if it was worth it.

"In high school, you're the go-to guy," he said. "You're starting both ways. You're on special teams. You don't come off the field. And for those three years that I didn't dress in college, it almost felt like you're not playing football."

Except, of course, when he woke up in the mornings and felt his body ache.

Yep. He was playing football, all right. But first, he'd better get to class.

n n n

One day after the Hokies lost to James Madison to fall to 0-2, the school made an announcement. Starting defensive tackle Kwamaine Battle would need surgery to repair a torn ACL. He would miss the rest of the year.

That Thursday, Wardach received a backpack filled with sweats -- the gear he would need to wear at Hotel Roanoke the night before Tech played East Carolina.

He would be dressing.

"It really took me by surprise," Wardach said. "I've always had in the back of my mind, 'Maybe I'll dress.' It's just really cool to work for it and finally get it."

His parents attended the game like they always did. This time, his two older brothers came, too. And on Sept. 18, Wardach achieved one of the main goals of his young life: running through the tunnel at Lane Stadium.

"Insane," he said with a smile. "Just the energy level. It was an experience. I've got to say it was right there with what I thought it would be."

Wardach didn't get a chance to play that day, but it was a start. And later that week, as he performed his usual scout-team tasks, he learned he would be making his first road trip, to Boston College.

So long, sofa.

n n n

Although BC remains his lone road trip, Wardach has dressed for every home game since ECU. Coincidentally, the Hokies have not lost.

When Tech blew out Central Michigan on Oct. 9, Wardach played his first college snaps late in the fourth quarter. He also saw a little action in the romp over Duke. Both times, crossing the sideline and entering the game sent his heart thumping.

"It was the biggest feeling of accomplishment," he said. "It was amazing. I was a big Tech fan in high school. I went to all the home games and everything, always envisioned myself one day actually playing. Even though they're the end-of-the-game reps, they're still reps, you know?"

The Hokies are favored by more than three touchdowns this Saturday. Maybe the game will go as Vegas predicts and Wardach will get to play. Maybe his role as No. 96 all week will help the offensive linemen dominate Jenkins and UVa, opening the door for guys like him to taste the rivalry first-hand.

Or maybe not. Either way, Wardach will graduate this spring with a psychology degree. He hopes to coach one day. Having "Virginia Tech football player" on the resume won't hurt that pursuit.

So Wardach is thankful. For staying with the team, for getting his chance -- for all of it.

"I've made a couple of big decisions in my life," he said. "One was to come here. That's been an awesome decision. There's been times in the past four years where I've said, 'Man, I really don't want to do this any more. I'm just stuck in a rut right now, just running without any traction.' But I'm so glad that I stuck it out and saw it through.

"I don't want to say 'I made it,' because by making it I'd be in the rotation. But I did get in the game, dress, run through the tunnel."

He smiled.

"That's pretty cool," he said.

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