Akrum Wadley: From the 'doghouse' to an elite Iowa football running back

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Sharonda Phelps sent her second of five sons from Newark, N.J., to play college football in Iowa City, she remembers telling Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz in all seriousness: "Don’t send him back until 2017."

“I grew up around a lot of … grown men who are still calling Mom and saying, ‘I need Pampers, I need milk.’ I look at that and say, ‘I don’t want my boys to grow up like that,’” said Phelps, the mother of Iowa star running back Akrum Wadley. “I have to put them in a position so that when they get that age, they’ll be responsible grown men.

“I don’t want to take care of no grown men.”

Her son has certainly grown up — and is about to reach the triumphant finish line.

Akrum Wadley's gone into the end zone 34 times during his Hawkeye football career. Here, he smiles with teammates after his go-ahead touchdown run earlier this season against Penn State at Kinnick Stadium.

Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl in New York City is the final game of Wadley's Hawkeye career and serves as a fitting homecoming for one of the most prolific producers in Iowa football history.

His 34 career touchdowns are two shy of Tavian Banks’ Hawkeye record.

Iowa's all-time rushing leaders are (in order) Sedrick Shaw, Ladell Betts, Albert Young, Banks ... and Wadley.

Wadley's 3,521 yards from scrimmage (2,784 rushing, 737 receiving) also rank fifth in school history.

“Full disclosure,” Ferentz said this week, “it snuck up on me. … Somewhere around mid-season, I started looking at that (and thinking), ‘Holy smokes, this guy is adding them up.’ I don't want to say quietly, but it's amazing what he's done, the company he's with.”

The climb to get here began with doubts, frustration and setbacks.

In fact, as Wadley reflected on his career in a recent sit-down interview with the Des Moines Register, he candidly wished he could "do it all over."

Not the part about coming to Iowa.

The part about his early days in Iowa City, when as a teenager he struggled with loneliness, grades and a big off-field mistake.

“When I first got here,” Wadley said, “I let a lot of things slide.”

The first year

As a boy, Wadley looked up to an older cousin named Jamil, who left to play college football at a small school in southern New York. But Jamil returned home before his first season even began.

"He was probably the best football player I’ve ever seen," Wadley said. "... He couldn’t adjust. He wasn’t used to being alone. I learned from his mistake."

It wasn't easy.

Because of his prolonged school schedule back home, Wadley arrived to campus later than most of his new Iowa teammates in the summer of 2013. From the get-go, making friends was difficult.

He didn’t know the area, so each day he would go to the same Dubuque Street sandwich shop. He spent free time holed up with a queue of movies.

“I barely went outside. It was rough,” he said. “I wanted to come home a few times.”

But he could always find joy in playing football.

Wadley was redshirting in Year 1 and part of the scout team. That can be a lonely place for freshmen, with coaches' attention predominantly given to those who actually play on Saturdays.

But once he learned that Iowa would award scout-team MVPs each week, the intense competitor inside him ramped things up.

Akrum Wadley, right, and his mother, Sharonda Phelps.

Wadley recalled as a scout-teamer burning future NFL linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey — then Iowa seniors — more than a few times in 2013 practice.

“If you’re going against the starting defense, you shouldn’t get anything,” Wadley said. “I was doing my thing.”

On the field, his confidence swelled.

Off it, his mind struggled.

Wadley’s first-semester GPA of 1.4 put him on academic probation.

Mom stepped in with advice.

“All professors have office hours,” she told Akrum. “You need to see them outside of the classroom. You talk to them and let them know, ‘I’m interested in the class. I just don’t get it.’”

He upped his time in Iowa's learning centers. His next-semester GPA shot up to 2.8, lifting him into good academic standing.

He had conquered homesickness and overcome the bad grades.

One year in, things were trending up.

Into the 'doghouse'

It was a big deal for Wadley, a lightly recruited two-star prospect whose only other FBS offer came from Temple, to play at a Big Ten Conference school.

So when he arrived at Iowa, he thought: “Maybe if I get one snap, I’ll be fine with that.”

About halfway through his redshirt freshman season of 2014, he checked that box as part of Iowa’s kick coverage.

Then the goal for football happiness became: “Maybe if I get a carry.’”

In Week 8, with Iowa’s backfield riddled with injuries, he got a chance against Northwestern. He became an instant revelation.

Wadley showed his shifty gifts and electric speed to run for 106 yards on 15 carries — thus becoming Iowa’s first 100-yard rusher in 10 games. His 5-yard touchdown run completed a dominating 48-7 victory.

“When I got my first touchdown, I just felt like it’s possible,” Wadley said, "that I could do it.”

Two football things held him back.

One, coaches wanted his weight to be at 185 pounds; Wadley estimates he was around 175 in that Northwestern game, after coming to Iowa around 166. To Iowa coaches, a player not reaching his target weight is an issue of self-discipline.

Two, Wadley struggled with ball security. He lost a fumble in that Northwestern game, then another the next week at Minnesota. “That’s a long jog to the sideline,” he said. And a big no-no for Ferentz's ball-control style.

Wadley got only nine carries in Iowa’s final four games of the season.

Then he made things worse when he threw a late-January party and sent a Facebook message inviting the entire UI class of 2017. He and a teammate were charged with having a disorderly house.

“That put me in the doghouse,” Wadley said of what he now calls a “bonehead” decision.

Frustration stepped in.

But (again), so did Mom.

“His dad was ready to tell him, ‘Let’s go to Temple.’ I said no,” Phelps said.

She told Akrum: “Coach Ferentz is telling me that you need to eat. You’re going to leave because somebody wants you to eat?”

She told Ferentz: Her son would earn his position back.

“And that was the end of that,” she said.

The revival

Going into his third season, Wadley was behind Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels Jr. on the depth chart. Then in Iowa’s first game of 2015, on his third carry, he lost a fumble ... again.

Two steps forward, two steps back.

Back to the bench he went. He didn’t get a carry in four of Iowa’s next five games.

Wadley felt his career was slipping away.

Most Hawkeye fans remember what happened next.

Iowa was a surprising 6-0 entering a Week 7 game at Northwestern but banged up at almost every key offensive position. Daniels was out. Then Canzeri suffered a game-ending ankle sprain in the first quarter.

Enter Wadley. Iowa coaches had little choice but to trust him. To that point, Wadley's 2½ seasons on campus netted just 220 yards.

He famously said later, “I knew this game would probably either make me or break me.”

Twenty-six carries, 204 yards and four touchdowns later ... Iowa had a resounding 40-10 win.

The game he loved didn’t break him; in fact, Wadley had broken through.

“I just felt on top of the world at that moment,” Wadley said. “After that, I knew I never wanted to look back.”

He got 19 carries and a touchdown the next week against Maryland, then enjoyed one of the favorite memories of his career the next at Indiana.

The 8-0 Hawkeyes had become a national story. And there was Wadley, in Iowa's backfield for the game's first drive.

“The first play was an outside-zone play,” Wadley recalled. “And ... the linebacker, he tackled me (for a 1-yard gain). He started talking so much trash. He got my helmet down at the bottom of the pile; he was talking so much trash. And I was really new to that.”

The next play, Wadley took a draw handoff from C.J. Beathard, cut outside to his left, and raced past that same linebacker — and everyone else — untouched for a career-long (to that point) 65-yard touchdown.

“The rest of the game,” Wadley said with his signature grin, “he wasn’t really talking much trash.”

Wadley rushed for 120 yards on 12 carries before he got hurt, an ankle injury that limited him to four carries for the rest of Iowa’s 12-0 regular season.

But even so, he was on his way to being a Hawkeye fixture for two years to come.

A highlight-reel career

Wadley took off in his junior and senior seasons.

Between them, there was that issue of a stay-or-go NFL decision. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated him as the 2017 draft’s sixth-best running back prospect.

“Oh, I was serious,” said Wadley, who now packs a sturdier 191 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame. "I felt like I could go.”

Akrum Wadley topped 1,000 rushing yards and was named third-team all-Big Ten in each of the past two seasons. He's coming off a 159-yard game at Nebraska, pictured.

Again, Mom stepped in. She wanted him to stay in school and get his degree. He’ll graduate this spring, after he finishes some foreign-language credits in Swahili.

Wadley was on board. And by gaining 159 yards in the regular-season finale at Nebraska, Wadley became the first Hawkeye since Fred Russell (in 2002 and 2003) to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

Beyond the stats, though, Wadley will be remembered for clutch runs and highlight-reel moments.

There were last year’s game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdown runs at Rutgers and Minnesota. He also went 75 yards to the house twice in 2016, against Purdue and Nebraska.

He’ll be remembered as a big-game back. He dazzled the nation with his 28-touch, 167-yard performance in 2016's upset of the year, Iowa’s 14-13 win vs. 9-0 Michigan as a 24-point underdog.

He gained 115 hard-earned yards against Florida; another 118 this year in the seismic win against Ohio State. He's proven he can star against college football's best.

His scintillating 70-yard touchdown catch-and-run and 35-yard TD run in the fourth quarter against Penn State had Kinnick Stadium rocking.

“Those type of games you always remember,” Wadley said. “You play the best teams in the league, you’ve got to bring it. Or you’re going to be embarrassed.”

Perhaps his most memorable play of 2017, though, was the middle screen pass he caught from Nate Stanley late in the fourth quarter Sept. 9 at Iowa State. Wadley skipped through the tackle attempt of Cyclone linebacker Joel Lanning, then weaved, stutter-stepped and powered his way into the end zone for a tying touchdown in what became a stirring, 44-41 overtime win.

Wadley was gassed before that play even began.

But, much like his career, he fought through the adversity to reach the goal line.

“I was so tired, I couldn’t really celebrate,” Wadley said. “I think I earned a lot of respect.”

One more time

Wadley earned respect off the field, too. His teammates voted him a captain for the North Texas game, which to him was a huge badge of honor.

Just this week, he called his mom filled with happiness after a smile-filled visit to patients at the UI's Stead Family Children's Hospital.

“(The growth), it’s in all areas. School, his every day approach to life," teammate, friend and all-American cornerback Josh Jackson said. "He comes in and works really hard at football, works really hard off the field. I see he gives back a lot to the community, which is really good.

“He’s genuinely a good guy. He’s not phony or anything. He really cares about people.”

And now, with the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College mere days away, it’s time to appreciate and celebrate Wadley’s fantastic Iowa career.

Mom — the 13th of 16 children who tells people, "we’re rich in babysitters, but we don’t have any money” — said as of Thursday the list was at 29 family and close friends attending Wednesday’s 4:15 p.m. CT game. There were also plans to run a bus of students from Wadley’s high school to Yankee Stadium.

The 204 yards at Northwestern in 2015 remain Wadley's career high. It may sound like a stretch, but with 216 yards against Boston College’s leaky rush defense, Wadley would reach 3,000 for his career.

Phelps trusted that her son was in the right place to get through the tough, early times.

“Because I knew what Iowa was made of,” she said. “Ferentz and his coaches, they’re classy, family men.”

The guy who couldn’t make the grade, who couldn’t maintain his weight, who couldn’t hold onto the football … became one of Iowa's most prolific runners ever.

Up next: The Senior Bowl, then (by all projections) the NFL. 

“It's been growth all along the way,” Ferentz said. “Every step, you have seen the signs, but didn't see the consistency.

“His best football is still ahead of him. Hopefully next Wednesday night is the best football. After that, I think he'll just keep getting better as long as he keeps working hard, which I don't know why he wouldn't.”

Mom tells it like it is: She thinks if her son had applied himself earlier at Iowa, he would be the school's all-time leading rusher.

Still, she's proud to say he finished strong. Wadley is, too.

“It wasn’t easy," Mom said. "And I’m so thankful he hung in there.”

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.

Akrum Wadley: By the numbers

With one game to go, where Wadley ranks in several Iowa football career categories:

Total touchdowns

1. Tavian Banks, 36 (1994-97)

2. Sedrick Shaw, 35 (1993-96)

3. Akrum Wadley, 34 (2014-present)

4. Mark Weisman, 33 (2011-14)

T5. Tim Dwight, 32 (1994-97)

T5. Ronnie Harmon, 32 (1982-85)

Rushing yards

1. Sedrick Shaw, 4,156, 5.0 ypc (1993-96)

2. Ladell Betts, 3,686, 4.4 ypc (1998-2001)

3. Albert Young, 3,173, 4.8 ypc (2004-07)

4. Tavian Banks, 2,977, 5.9 ypc (1994-97)

5. Akrum Wadley, 2,784, 5.4 ypc (2014-present)

Yards from scrimmage

1. Sedrick Shaw, 4,594 (4,156 rushing, 438 receiving)

2. Ladell Betts, 4,388 (3,686 rushing, 702 receiving)

3. Ronnie Harmon, 4,316 (2,271 rushing, 2,045 receiving)

4. Albert Young, 3,876 (3,173 rushing, 703 receiving)

5. Akrum Wadley, 3,521 (2,784 rushing, 737 receiving)