The night before Kofi Wardlow’s first high school game the St. John’s roster gathered to compare notes.
The next day St. John’s would blow out Atlantic, 41-0, thanks in part to its back-up defensive end and part-time receiver. But for now, Wardlow was still just a junior package of gangly potential embracing a new sport.
That spring Wardlow had accepted, after consistent prodding from the St. John’s football staff, that there was no such thing as a 6-foot-3 power forward. He had no idea how those dimensions translated to edge rusher, but he wanted to find out.
During summer Wardlow had turned down a service trip to Nicaragua to train with the football program. Then he started impressing his teammates, including four-star defensive end Terrell Hall, who played a supporting role in Alabama’s defense as a freshman last season. Now it was time to show everyone else.
Because St. John’s plays a national schedule – it beat Pittsburgh Central Catholic and lost to IMG Academy in Wardlow’s senior year – the program turns road trips into retreats. Before facing Atlantic in Florida, players set goals together for the season and singled out teammates ready to make the biggest jumps.
When assistant strength coach Mike Ward gathered the players’ cards, Wardlow’s name popped up most within a program that would send players to Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, Texas A&M and Maryland from the junior and senior classes.
“Pretty much everybody in our group picked Kofi going into his junior year,” Ward said. “I had obviously known that Kofi could be unbelievable. Then I look at his sheet for the goals he set for himself. He wanted to have 10 sacks in one game.”
Ward said Wardlow had four the next day.
But it would take another 10 months before a college football program saw enough to offer. Kentucky Christian University was the first offer. Bowling Green came next. Wardlow tried to commit before the St. John’s staff stopped him.
It would be another seven months before Notre Dame came calling.
‘We were still saving …’
To go from backup defensive end to starter took more than time and graduation. Wardlow backed up Hall the rest of his junior year and showed a few flashes that he might be a capable replacement as a senior.
Still, Wardlow barely filled out his No. 85 jersey back then. It wasn’t a number that suggested a future pass rusher. The first clip of his highlight tape that year was actually a touchdown catch.
When that season ended Wardlow asked the coaching staff what he needed to do to grow into a legitimate defensive end. The college coaches visiting his teammates later that spring would help. So would an extra 20 pounds after playing at 200 as a junior.
Wardlow worked his spring schedule to match a free period with his lunch. Then he got creative with that block, eating an early lunch, then going to lift, then eating a second lunch.
“In a month and a half he was up to 220 and asked what we wanted him to do next,” Ward said. “Then senior year it all just kind of clicked. The more and more he played, the more confident he got, and the better he played. He can do so many things. Standup outside linebacker? He can do that. Put a hand in the dirt? He can do that too.”
It took until mid-season before Power 5 schools moved, as Maryland and Rutgers offered. Wardlow’s own parents caught on only slightly sooner.
“We were still saving up (for college) until that point,” said father Mark Wardlow. “When senior year started you could see something natural there. That’s when we said that we won’t have to worry about school.”
Wardlow finished his senior year with 28.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, then committed to Maryland in mid-December. That pledge didn’t last long enough for his parents to buy any Terps gear.
When defensive coordinator Mike Elko made first contact with Wardlow and scheduled a visit on his first day out recruiting in January, it set the wheels in motion for a National Signing Day flip that rounded out the Irish class.
Still, Wardlow switching from the Terps to the Irish took a lot more than Notre Dame throwing out its program résumé.
‘I want a challenge’
It’s not that Lesa Wardlow didn’t want her son to visit Notre Dame, it’s just that she needed to be convinced it was a good idea. When Elko made that visit contact in January, Lesa couldn’t make the meeting because she was getting the family ready for a weekend official visit to Pittsburgh.
Now her son was talking about expanding his recruitment at a time when it was supposed to be narrowing.
“This is really a little bit strange to do this now,” Lesa said. “Kofi just said, ‘Dad, mom, I know this is late. This is really late. But I feel I owe it to myself to make sure I’m making the right decision.’”
A week later Wardlow was in South Bend with both parents for his official visit, meeting with Elko, defensive line coach Mike Elston, and head coach Brian Kelly.
The family had a routine for those official visits, to take in the program as individuals and then share impressions that night at the hotel. Lesa was sold after the first day, which was before most of the heavy football stuff started. But she kept quiet in front of Kofi and waited to compare notes with her husband until that night.
“Oh my God, I like this, this is a good place for Kofi,” Lesa said of her first impression. “It feels like him. He’s very easy going, conservative, focused on education, likes sports, the small campus, the family feel. But I wasn’t saying anything. I wasn’t sure what his dad would say.
“We got to the hotel that night and he said, ‘I really like this place for Kofi.’ So we were having the same thoughts. We hoped that would seal it.”
Elko and the coaching staff checked all the boxes that weekend, including answering Mark’s question about why Notre Dame didn’t start recruiting Kofi earlier. Elko said he tracked him at Wake Forest but didn’t think the Demon Deacons would be a big enough draw for the three-star rush end.
“It had to be somewhere where I could see myself going for the next four years, see the players and see how they’re similar to me,” Kofi said. “Mindset. Coaching staff. Do I get them? Academics were gonna be challenge and I want a challenge.”
Mark and Lesa figured Notre Dame led when Kofi asked to buy gear before heading home. He wanted a hat but settled for a t-shirt. He hadn’t requested anything on other officials.
Considering how far the Irish had to come to make the family feel comfortable in north-central Indiana, it was a strong visit.
“Foreign land,” Lesa said. “South Bend, Indiana is a foreign land.”
Still, for all the ground Notre Dame made up with Wardlow during that official, flipping to the Irish from the Terps was hard. Choosing the Irish was like signing up for a marathon without having the ability to drop out.
The Sunday before National Signing Day, a week removed from his Irish official, Wardlow was still wrestling with the decision. The deliberation continued into Monday night when he called the staffs at Maryland and Notre Dame to go over the final details.
Then Wardlow look at the data.
“I didn’t really want accept it until Tuesday morning,” Wardlow said about when he knew it would be Notre Dame. “It was a real tough decision. I know the Maryland staff. I know their players. I know what that recruiting class is gonna be like. It was a really tough decision in terms leaving a place I’m comfortable with and going to a place I knew would be challenging for me.”
Wardlow was the final signed National Letter of Intent in to Brian Kelly on signing day, coming during his press conference.
When Wardlow signed during a ceremony at St. John’s on Feb. 1, he walked off the stage to take a picture with a school staffer who graduated from Notre Dame.
Wardlow is sure to have more of those moments, realizations he’s more connected to Notre Dame than he thought. He played against three incoming freshman last season – David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Robert Hainsey – even if he didn’t know it at the time.
“I have a long way to go,” Wardlow said. “Up until this year, I really never followed football. Not even the NFL level.”
Wardlow might be back in South Bend for the spring game. By then he’ll be a few months into the off-season program of strength coach Matt Balis, maybe adding a few more pounds to that frame Elko believes can help the Irish in multiple roles.
Turns out those St. John’s teammates had it right two years ago when they cast votes for Wardlow as the player with the most potential. There’s no other way to explain how a basketball kid went from no offers as a junior, to a MAC offer entering his senior year to a Notre Dame signee after it.
Now comes the harder part, but Wardlow and his support team seem ready for it.
“He’s self aware to the fact Notre Dame is going to be challenging for him,” Ward said. “That’s when you get the most growth. You don’t grow without being put in uncomfortable situations.”
“If it comes easy, it goes easy.”