Leistikow: The Akrum Wadley interview I'll never forget

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — After football games, a reporter’s time is of the essence. If you’re lucky, you might spend five minutes with a player.

You’re even luckier if you get him alone to ask one or two questions.

They’re on a controlled schedule. Especially in newspapers, you’re on a deadline. Media members are looking for content and are in a necessary rush to produce it. It's a blur.

In covering Iowa football, one of my most vivid postgame interviews occurred on Oct. 17, 2015. The banged-up Hawkeyes had just improved to 7-0 with a 40-10 win at Northwestern, a rout nobody — not even Kirk Ferentz — could have seen coming.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley runs down field for a 46-yard game-tying touchdown at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.

I don’t remember why, but I ducked out of Ferentz’s news conference early. When I got to where players were assembling, there was Akrum Wadley, standing alone, between the team bus and an entry ramp to Ryan Field.

As I approached the young fourth-string running back from Newark, N.J., he began to smile.

If the smile left his face in the minutes we talked before other reporters arrived, it was only briefly.

This was a young man whose football life had been crumbling. He was essentially benched after a fumble in the season opener against Illinois State, and coaches continued to harp on his inability to maintain a proper weight. Maybe the recruiting pundits who rated him with two stars were right. He wasn’t ready for the big-time.

But when injuries sidelined Iowa’s top two options (LeShun Daniels Jr. was out, and Jordan Canzeri suffered a game-ending injury in the first quarter), in-a-pinch Iowa coaches turned to Wadley — a chance he couldn’t have counted on coming.

He delivered.

I’ll never forget the combination of happiness and relief emanating from Wadley’s voice and his face after he had become an unlikely hero: 26 carries, 204 yards, four touchdowns … and no fumbles.

“Just been grinding, day in and day out,” Wadley said afterward. “Today was a great day for me.”

It was the type of postgame interview that doesn’t come along often. Wadley confided some other stuff that day, like how he was struggling to follow through with the food consumption plan the coaches had for him.

The most memorable and telling quote of what was going on inside his head still sticks in my memory.

“I knew this game would probably either make me,” he said then, “or break me.”

Now, almost two years later — even after his one-man show in 2016 to help stun Michigan and his highlight-reel performance in Saturday’s 44-41 overtime win at Iowa State — Wadley still considers what happened in Evanston, Ill., as his favorite performance.

“That was like a turning point,” he said Tuesday.

For him. And for the Hawkeyes.

Without Wadley, there are at least two Iowa wins last year (Minnesota, Michigan) that are likely losses.

And there’s no way the Hawkeyes rally from multiple fourth-quarter deficits past the Cyclones last Saturday without Wadley’s heroics.

He racked up 260 all-purpose yards (118 rushing, 72 receiving and 70 on kick returns) on a career-high 35 touches. His 46-yard catch and run with 69 seconds left in regulation that forced overtime still has Hawkeye fans buzzing.

Yeah, he’s re-watched that play, too, where he beat Iowa State linebacker Joel Lanning, then scooted up the left sideline, eluding and powering through defenders before lunging past the goal line.

“I just can hear coaches in my ear. 'Finish runs,'” Wadley said. “Vertical and violent. Coach (Chris) Doyle always talks about that. And just being a finisher. That’s what coach Brian (Ferentz) always talks about. Finish, finish.”

Wadley’s career, like getting his weight over 190 pounds, has been a process.

Last fall, thrust into a co-starter role with Daniels, he delivered memorable moments. He busted a 54-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run to beat the Gophers; his 75-yarder began the 40-10 season-ending rout against Nebraska. For the year, he compiled nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage and was met with a stay-or-go decision regarding the NFL.

He stayed.

And now he’s the man at Iowa. And that’s despite the addition of grad-transfer James Butler, a big rusher in the Mountain West. 

Wadley has 52 of Iowa’s 72 running-back carries and ranks fourth nationally with 203 all-purpose yards per game.

Like Wadley, Iowa’s coach has come a long way on this topic.

Last year, Kirk Ferentz rarely completed an answer about Wadley without mentioning his needing to up his body weight.

In July at Big Ten Conference media days, Ferentz took exception with a comparison between Wadley and former Hawkeye Ronnie Harmon.

By Tuesday, Ferentz had come around on the Wadley-Harmon similarities.

Wadley even spilled the beans that Ferentz had instructed him to watch some old Harmon highlights from the 1980s. (He planned to do it Tuesday after class.)

“The comparison there would be Akrum does some stuff with the ball in his hands that none of us can coach,” Ferentz said. “We'd love to, but you can't coach or give that to a guy. Ronnie was the same way. I think they're similar in the fact that Ronnie's one of the tougher, more competitive guys I've ever been around.

“Akrum likes playing. That was a full day's work he got in the other day. Probably more than he needed, but we needed him. That last touchdown he scored, that was a lot of individual effort, and Ronnie had some of those similarities, too.”

At some point, Ferentz acknowledged, Wadley needs to have his workload lightened. Wadley had a light wrap around his right knee during interviews Tuesday.

“That’s for fashion,” he said. “I’m fine.”

There was that grin again, the one he flashes often and certainly had after the Northwestern game in 2015.

And he'll have it on Saturday against North Texas when, for the first time, Wadley will be a gameday captain at Iowa.

From a guy the coaches couldn’t trust to getting the honor of walking to midfield with his Hawkeye brothers for the coin toss.

It’s been quite an unlikely journey. But Wadley has earned this.

That’s worth a smile.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.