- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Garrett Wolfe was never offended that Northern Illinois decided not to run a Heisman Trophy campaign for him prior to his 2006 season.
The way Wolfe saw it, Heisman campaigns were conducted for under-the-radar players, and by that time Wolfe no longer felt he was deemed as a small-school, small-statured running back by the national college football community.
People knew his name because of his ability, and when they discussed him as a Heisman Trophy candidate it was because of his skills and not because of some advertising package they received from Northern Illinois' sports information office.
"I remember the SID Donna Turner took flak from the local media for not having a Heisman campaign for me like they did for Michael Turner," Wolfe said of his accomplished Huskies predecessor, now with the Atlanta Falcons. "She said everyone knows [me]. We had to get out the message for Turner. For Garrett, we didn't have to. There was no point to build a campaign. That was fine by me."
Wolfe's confidence had been partially built by his 2004 and 2005 seasons, during which he totaled 3,236 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns. But what made him truly understand he was a peer of the country's top football players was a weekend gathering in Arizona put together by Playboy magazine prior to the 2006 season.
Wolfe was selected to be on Playboy's 2006 All-American Team and went out to the desert for the photo shoot. He was roommates with Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson and struck up a lasting friendship with Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith over the weekend.
Wolfe was ecstatic to be included in the group. These were players he watched every Saturday and he marveled at their skills. As the weekend passed, Wolfe soon discovered he was considered no different by them. Since Northern Illinois played several nationally televised games on weekdays, all of the players had seen Wolfe.
"That weekend being out there with those guys and the way they told me how they watched games and watched me on film, that kind of hit me," Wolfe said. "You never know who is watching. I knew I watched other teams. I didn't know they watched me."
Plenty of people were tuned in for Wolfe's season-opening performance in 2006. Northern Illinois traveled to face No. 1 Ohio State for an afternoon tilt on ABC.
Wolfe vividly recalls telling his Huskies teammates what they should expect when stepping foot into Ohio Stadium, which he had visited during a previous function.
"The stadium is different than Michigan's," Wolfe said. "Ohio State's stadium goes straight up. You can't see out. I told them, 'You'll never play in front of this many people. No stage will be bigger than this anytime for us in the near future.'"
Wolfe loved that about the Ohio State game. He wasn't nervous or afraid about facing the nation's top-ranked team. He was excited by it.
"I knew I'd be fine," Wolfe said. "There's only two ways to score with a football. You're either going to run it or throw it in. Football has always been simple to me. I was very confident in my ability. I didn't feel we were going to be outmatched or outshined."
Ohio State did get the better of the Huskies on that day, beating NIU 35-12, but people came away talking about Wolfe as much as they did the Buckeyes. He rushed for 171 yards on 26 carries. His longest run was for 51 yards. He also caught five passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. His longest reception was for 65 yards.
"He dragged some people in the end zone, hit them on screens from the backfield," said Turner, who remains the Northern Illinois sports information director. "It helps when you have that national spotlight at the beginning of the year."
Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel also was impressed.
"He's everything everyone's been talking about," Tressel said after the game in 2006. "He's a great runner, he's an excellent pass protector and he's one of their leading receivers. He's a guy that can keep them in every game, and when they talk about what's the definition of a Heisman Trophy winner, they talk about the person that makes the most profound impact on their team."
It would be just the beginning for Wolfe. He rushed for 196 yards and two touchdowns the following week against Ohio. In Week 3, he had 263 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo. Then he had 198 yards and four touchdowns against Indiana State.
On Sept. 30 at Ball State, he elevated his game. He ran for 353 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. He averaged 11.4 yards per carry. He had accumulated 1,181 rushing yards through five games and was leading the nation.
"Ball State, that was the big one," Turner said.
The interview requests increased. The publicity picked up. The Heisman talk grew.
As for Wolfe, he said he remained the same.
"I never really paid attention to it while it was happening," Wolfe said. "My intent wasn't to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. I just wanted to win football games. I never wanted to be the reason we didn't win or didn't have a big play or didn't score. I just wanted to be a part of the solution."
Opponents began to think the other way. If they were going to be beaten by Northern Illinois, someone other than Wolfe would have to produce. Wolfe will never forget seeing a nine-man box set up to contain him.
And contain him they did. The Heisman chatter slowed down after Wolfe was held to 25 yards on 18 carries against Western Michigan in Week 7. It was the start of a four-game stretch during which he was held to less than 100 yards rushing per game.
Despite those frustrating games, Wolfe still finished the season leading the country with 1,928 rushing yards. Rutgers' Ray Rice was second with 1,794 yards. Still, Wolfe fell out of the Heisman race. But his friend Smith would win the coveted bronze for the Buckeyes.
Wolfe went on to be selected by the Chicago Bears in the third round of the 2007 draft. He played four seasons with the Bears and saw most of his action on special teams. He was not re-signed after the 2010 season.
In May, Wolfe was arrested in Miami for allegedly refusing to pay a bar tab. He was charged with disorderly conduct, retail theft, assault of a police officer and resisting an officer with violence during the incident. All of the charges have since been dropped.
"It's something that should have never happened," Wolfe said. "My name was the one that got dragged through the mud. Everyone who knows me and has been around me knows the type of person I am and know I'm unable to do such things.
"I'm happy it's behind me," he said. "I haven't really decided fully how to move forward with it."
For the time being, Wolfe is enjoying his time off from the gridiron. He lives in Chicago and continues to work out in case an NFL team comes calling.
"My four years here didn't go as I planned, didn't play out how I imagined," Wolfe said of his time with the Bears. "That's life. If I'm done playing football at this point, I'm fine with how things went. Granted, from a competition standpoint, I want more. With professional football, you don't decide when you're done. Football retires. You don't retire from it."
Wolfe does look back fondly on his time at Northern Illinois. If he doesn't resume an NFL career, he could see himself returning to the campus in DeKalb to work in some capacity.
"The whole Heisman experience, I couldn't think of a better place to have enjoyed it and lived the things I went through than with the people I was surrounded by at Northern Illinois," Wolfe said.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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