Drew Wolitarsky is Minnesota’s leading returning receiver. That might not be his proudest collegiate achievement, however. This year, he also became a published author.
The senior’s six-part short story about a graveyard worker who can visit the underworld by being buried alive ran this spring in The Wake, Minnesota’s student-run magazine.
"It felt good to get a story out and get a reaction," Wolitarsky told ESPN.com. "People can see what’s inside you and get to know you a little better."
Those who know Wolitarsky expect to see him with his nose in a book or conjuring up characters on his laptop whenever he has free time away from the Golden Gophers football program. Last spring, you could find him every morning at the school’s Walter Library, where he spent two hours a day penning his first full-length novel before heading over to the football complex. He’s sort of a reverse George Plimpton -- an athlete moonlighting as a writer.
"Drew really breaks that stereotype or mold of what a football player does or what a football player should be," said friend and former teammate Luke McAvoy.
Wolitarsky wasn’t much different from other jocks until his junior year at Canyon County High School in Santa Clarita, California, where he would break several state receiving records. That fall, his older brother, Nathan -- a star shot-putter bound for a track scholarship at UCLA -- rammed his car into an oak tree going more than 80 mph.
Nathan survived, but suffered severe injuries. That fiery, near-fatal accident caused something to change inside Drew, making him realize there was more to life than just sports and hanging out with friends. Not long after, a high school teacher named Casey Cuny recommended that Drew read Mitch Albom's novel "The Five People You Meet in Heaven." Wolitarsky finished the book, coincidentally, right as his plane landed for his official visit to Minnesota.
"I was like, 'Wow, that was really good,'" he said. "It was the first book I’d ever really enjoyed."
Wolitarsky would later find himself unable to sleep at night, his mind racing as it did before a big football game. He had an idea for a story bouncing around his head, so he got up and started writing a novella about a group of boys about to head off to World War II.
"Looking back on it, it’s not really any good," he said. "But it was the start of something I really enjoyed doing."
Wolitarsky decided to pursue an English degree at Minnesota, where his reading and writing picked up even more steam. He befriended McAvoy, an offensive linemen who was one of only two other English majors on the team. They'd share book recommendations, and McAvoy would critique Wolitarsky's fiction. The time demands of football can make it tough to keep up on reading requirements, but fortunately Wolitarsky can devour a dense volume in a few short days. He is reading Stephen King's "The Shining" for enjoyment, along with his summer school work.
"Drew is one of the fastest readers I’ve ever met," said McAvoy, who is now teaching middle school English in Milwaukee. "He has gotten a lot better as a writer, too, and he wasn’t bad to begin with."
Finding someone with similar experiences -- one as deft at out routes as he is with allegories -- hasn’t always been easy. But through the Gophers’ career mentoring program, Wolitarsky met Sam Richter, a Minneapolis author of how-to sales books. Richter played wide receiver for the Gophers in the 1980s. The two will meet for coffee or lunch about once a month, and Wolitarsky will show his literary pieces to Richter for feedback.
Richter remembers when Wolitarsky gave him the first segment of the series that ran in The Wake. Richter said he got angry because he couldn’t wait to read the next installments.
"A lot of kids know how to write in 140 characters," Richter said. "Drew knows how to write in 140 pages. That’s pretty rare."
Wolitarsky's favorite authors include Ernest Hemingway, Dean Koontz and King. Wolitarsky favors stories with an element of fantasy or science fiction. The novel he wrote last spring, for example, is based on the premise that a powerful solar flare has knocked out all electricity on Earth, upending society and government.
He hasn’t shown that novel to many people, saying he wrote it mainly to practice his craft. He is sticking mostly to short bursts of fiction now, because he wants to focus on his senior football season. Wolitarsky had 39 catches for 524 yards and three touchdowns last season, and he will be counted on as the veteran leader for a young receiving corps.
Writing provides him a relief from the stress of football, though, and he says he can feel "overwhelmed" if he’s not expressing himself on the page. He’s not planning to become a full-time author after college -- "I’d probably be living off of Ramen for 10 years if I did that," he jokes. But it’s a passion that, once unleashed, can scarcely be controlled.
"I think I’ll always be a writer no matter what," he said. "I’ll always find the time to write."