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How John Wolford’s long football journey prepared him for NFL opportunity

Rams quarterback John Wolford throws next to Jared Goff during training camp in August.
Rams quarterback John Wolford, front, throws next to Jared Goff during training camp in August. Wolford will make his first NFL start Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals as the Rams look to clinch a playoff berth.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

His football journey includes a record-breaking high school career in Florida and at Wake Forest. He played in one NFL preseason game for the New York Jets and, before it went bust, eight games in the Alliance of American Football.

Now Rams quarterback John Wolford is preparing for the biggest moment of his career.

On Sunday at SoFi Stadium, with a playoff berth on the line, Wolford will start in the season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.

“It’s something you kind of dreamed about your entire life,” Wolford said.

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Though probably not under these circumstances. When Jared Goff broke his right thumb during last week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, he played through the injury and finished the game.

But the $134-million quarterback had surgery on Monday, sidelining him for Sunday’s game and putting the Rams’ playoff chances in Wolford’s inexperienced hands. Wolford, 25, has spent two seasons primarily running the scout team against the Rams’ first-team defense.

John Wolford heads into his first NFL game on Sunday looking to push the Rams into the postseason and prove that sports dreams can come true.

“What better moment for someone to come in and prove who they are as a player,” receiver Robert Woods said.

Wolford said he would be prepared.

Coach Sean McVay does not appear worried.

“This isn’t too big for him,” McVay said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

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Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford passes during a game against Syracuse on Nov. 11, 2017.
(Brett Carlsen / Associated Press)

Wolford did not have to wait long for an opportunity to play quarterback at Bishop Kenny High in Jacksonville, Fla.

As a 14-year old freshman, he won the starting job on the varsity.

“He was a very mature kid and had a lot of ability and lot of skills,” said Mark Thorson, his high school coach, “but just to walk in as a freshman and handle the huddle and all the things that are expected of you, I knew at that point he was pretty special.”

Early in the season, Wolford led a 90-yard, game-winning scoring drive in the final minutes against Clay High.

“The moment wasn’t too big,” former Clay coach Josh Hoekstra said. “He had so much composure … even as a ninth-grader.”

Three years later, with Wolford on his way to breaking several of Tim Tebow’s state passing and touchdown records, Bishop Kenny played Clay in a second-round game of Class 5A, the fourth-largest of Florida’s eight high school football divisions.

Wolford passed for eight touchdowns and ran for two while amassing 773 yards of total offense in a history-making 74-73 loss.

“Next thing I know, John looks like the freaking No. 1 quarterback in the country. He was automatic. Didn’t miss a throw.”

Cam Serigne, former Wake Forest tight end

“They couldn’t stop us running the ball,” Hoekstra said, “and we couldn’t stop John.”

Seven years later, Thorson and Hoekstra will be watching on Sunday when Wolford starts for the Rams.

Hoekstra expects that Wolford will play well. Thorson agrees.

“Just knowing him,” he said of Wolford, “he’s relishing this.”

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Wolford had committed to play at East Carolina when then-newly hired Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero visited his home after his senior season in 2013.

Clawson and Ruggiero had experienced success at Bowling Green with mobile, multi-skilled quarterbacks. That’s what they saw in Wolford.

“We really didn’t need or want a guy that was 6-5,” Ruggiero said. “We wanted guys that were around that 6-foot area that were great passers, had great mobility, and really were just ballers, gamers.

“So, he was really perfect for what we were looking for.”

At the time, Wake Forest did not have a lot of talent —though the roster included two players who would gain fame outside of football. Quarterback Tyler Cameron had a prominent role in the television show “The Bachelorette,” and receiver Matt James is about to make his debut on “The Bachelor.”

Tight end Cam Serigne was a redshirt freshman when he hosted the 6-foot-1 Wolford on a recruiting visit. The players were aware that Wolford had broken some of Tebow’s records.

Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford passes against Georgia Tech during a game on Oct. 21, 2017.
(Scott Cunningham / Getty Images)

“Everybody was like, ‘Golden Arm’s here,’” Serigne said. “Everyone was really excited about John.”

Wolford started as a freshman, when Wake Forest finished 3-9. The Demon Deacons posted the same record the next season before improving to 7-6.

Going into his senior season, Wolford was in a competition with Kendall Hinton for the starting job. Serigne said that Wolford “started to just absolutely grind” through the spring and summer preparing for his final season.

“Next thing I know, John looks like the freaking No. 1 quarterback in the country,” Serigne said. “He was automatic. Didn’t miss a throw.”

Midway through the season, Wolford caught fire.

In a 42-32 victory over Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, he passed for 461 yards and five touchdowns, also running for a score.

The next week, he passed for 331 yards and accounted for three touchdowns in a loss to Notre Dame. He followed that by passing for three touchdowns and running for three in a victory over Syracuse.

He finished his career by passing for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M.

Thirteen quarterbacks were selected in the 2018 NFL draft, but Wolford was not.

Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford celebrates after being named the MVP of the Belk Bowl.
Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford celebrates after being named the MVP of the Belk Bowl following a 55-52 win over Texas A&M on Dec. 29, 2017.
(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)

Ruggiero said he told Ted Monago, the Rams’ assistant director of college scouting, that the Rams should sign Wolford as a free agent.

“I was like, ‘Why didn’t you guys take him? You’re crazy,’” Ruggiero said.

This week, Ruggiero received a text from Monago.

“I said, ‘Congratulations, it’s funny how things work out,’” Monago said. “’He’s starting. You always believed in him.’”

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Wolford got a brief taste of the NFL in the spring of 2018 when he participated in a Jets rookie minicamp. Later that summer, the team summoned him near the end of the preseason, and he played in one game before he was released.

Wolford later was the 11th quarterback chosen in the upstart AAF’s four-round quarterback draft. The Arizona Hotshots took Trevor Knight with the sixth pick before selecting Wolford in the second round.

To receiver Rashad Ross, however, it was clear from the first workouts that Wolford should start.

Every time the offense went to a no-huddle situation and had to drive down the field, Wolford came through, Ross said.

“By the third practice I was already Team John,” he said.

Rick Neuheisel coached John Wolford in the Alliance of American Football and swears the backup quarterback will come through for the Rams in season finale against Arizona.

In eight games under coach Rick Neuheisel, Wolford passed for 14 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. In what turned out to be the unexpected finale, Wolford and Ross connected on a 58-yard touchdown pass in a victory over San Antonio.

“Usually quarterbacks have a read, but I just said … ‘Just throw it far enough where I’m the only person that can get it,’” Ross said, “and that’s what happened.”

Before playing for the Hotshots, Ross played two NFL seasons for Washington, where McVay was the offensive coordinator.

Like McVay, Ross said, Wolford wins players’ confidence by offering encouragement, not criticism, after mistakes. He is not surprised that the coach and quarterback are in sync.

Wolford’s knowledge, quick release, accuracy and mobility should serve him well Sunday, Ross said.

“If he goes in and he’s confident and starts making plays early that will make him more confident and he’ll have a great game,” Ross said. “He has all the talent.”

To play in any league?

“He’s an NFL quarterback,” he said.

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Arizona Hotshots quarterback John Wolford runs onto the field.
Arizona Hotshots quarterback John Wolford runs onto the field before the Alliance of American Football game against the San Diego Fleet on March 24, 2019.
(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

The Rams signed Wolford after a workout at their Thousand Oaks facility in April 2019, paying him a $150,000 signing bonus.

Veteran Blake Bortles was Goff’s backup last season while Wolford ran the scout team against the first-team defense. Bortles left as a free agent after last season and Wolford was elevated to No. 2 on the depth chart.

As the Rams prepared for their regular-season finale, the strongest endorsement of Wolford came from coaches and starters on a Rams defense that ranks among the best in the NFL. They, more than anyone, have seen Wolford in action.

“That’s a rare thing when you can have full respect of your teammates without actually having performed in an NFL game,” defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said. “That should tell you about his character and about what he’s capable of.

“I think we’re all excited for him and his opportunity.”

Wolford will “do what he needs to do to help this team win,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said.

At only 32, Courtney Stockmal has accomplished a lot in a relatively short time in her rise to become a leading name in sports broadcast production.

“I’m confident,” Donald said. “The way he prepares, the way he gets himself ready.”

Cornerback Jalen Ramsey also said that the team has confidence in Wolford.

“We have seen how he works,” Ramsey said. “He had a good week of practice. I hope it continues and carries over to Sunday.”

Wolford is not overwhelmed.

The dream that began when he first started playing football as a child is about to become reality.

“It’s been a fun journey for me,” he said, “getting to this point.”


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