Multi-sport star Wagner now has single-minded focus
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Ahmad Wagner's buddies asked him to go out for football as a freshman.
No, thanks, he told them. Sophomore and junior season, same answer.
See, basketball was Wagner's first love. Even in a football-crazy state like Ohio. He accepted Iowa coach Fran McCaffery's scholarship offer last August, right before the start of his senior season at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio.
Then he said yes to his buddies, and joined the football team for the 2014 season.
"I didn't even think I'd be that good," Wagner said.
He was. A gifted athlete at 6-7 and a good pair of hands, Wagner had instant success — First-team all-state success — in Ohio's largest class. Several Division I programs offered scholarships.
"I didn't see it coming," Wagner said. "I was just going out there to help my teammates. They needed a receiver, and asked me to play. I was like, 'It's my senior year, let's go out there and have some fun.' It just kind of blew up."
When Tim Hinton, an assistant to Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, showed up at Wayne one day to visit with Wagner, things got real. No scholarship offer was put on the table, but Wagner was told one would be coming if he decided to get serious about football.
"I was humbled," Wagner said. "For a high-level program to reach out to me in a sport where I hadn't put much work in, that was a blessing."
Wagner did take a timeout to replay his future.
"It was something I had to think about, especially being from Ohio and everything," Wagner said. "But I wanted to play basketball, and I decided to stick with it. Stick with my love."
Wagner, whose parents were both Division I athletes at Jackson State, has always had a passion for sports. But one stood out.
"As a young kid I did every sport," Wagner said. "Football, basketball, swimming, baseball, all that. But growing up, I stuck with basketball. When I finished a soccer game, I'd go play basketball. It was always something I loved."
It also punched his ticket to the Big Ten. He signed his letter of intent with the Hawkeyes in November after weighing his football option.
"I don't think the (Iowa) coaches were worried," Wagner said. "They started calling me when it started blowing up. It probably caught them by surprise, too."
Wagner's last football game came at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, in the Division I state title game. Wagner had an 11-yard touchdown catch and returned a kickoff 90 yards for another score in a 31-21 loss to Lakewood St. Edward.
Wagner received second-team all-state honors in basketball, helping the Warriors win the school's first state title. He also ran the anchor leg on Wayne's 4x100 relay team that finished fourth in the state track meet.
Now, he'll pour this energy into one sport.
McCaffery just struck gold with a lightly-recruited Ohio all-stater named Aaron White. He's hoping to do it again with Wagner, who has the size and strength to play Big Ten basketball at either forward position.
"Coach McCaffery told me we needed a rebounder, someone who can drive and stretch the floor and play different positions and guard different positions," Wagner said. "That's where I see myself fitting in."
Football was fun while it lasted, Wagner said, and he'll always have special memories of his senior season.
"But now I'm focused on basketball," he said.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.