Two years ago, I had no idea where Garfield High School in Akron was.
To be honest, the only thing that I really knew about the school at that time was that Antoine Winfield hailed from there.
But ever since Chris Wells first burst upon the scene in his sophomore campaign for the Golden Rams, Garfield has been one of the schools that I've probably been to the most.
The home of the legendary Garfield head coach Babe Flossie is now the home of the legendary-in-the-making running back who will take his game to Ohio State after his senior football season and his first academic semester at Garfield is in the books.
The superlatives already being thrown at Wells the running back are, quite frankly, well deserving. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, the thickly sculpted Wells wasn't about to rest on his laurels over the summer. Despite being named as one of the top prep backs in the entire country by one national publication after another, Wells rose to the occasion and improved his stock even more by turning in a stellar performance at a Scout.com combine at the University of Akron and then in an encore presentation at an Ohio State senior camp.
The expectations going into his senior season couldn't be any higher for Wells than they currently are. Even Maurice Clarett wasn't near this stratosphere going into what turned out to be a tremendous senior season for him at Warren G. Harding High School.
Wells and Garfield open their season tonight
But despite all of the preseason attention being aimed at his team now, because of Wells being on it, Garfield head coach Box Sax is trying hard to keep everything in its proper perspective with regards to Wells and his role on the team.
"He's a four-year starter and he brings a lot of experience to the table for us," Sax said. "We just want him out there on the field doing the things that he did last year."
Last season, Wells averaged over 9 yards per carry as he rushed for 1,939 yards and scored 20 touchdowns on offense and played very well at linebacker whenever he was on the field on defense. And the game plan for Wells going into this season isn't going to change a whole lot.
"He's going to get a ton of carries, we're going to try to incorporate him into the passing game, spot him out there on the defensive side of the ball and if he can just bring some of that energy and experience to the rest of his teammates, then those guys are going to go to war with him, " Sax said. "If they see him out there doing his thing then it's going to rub off on everyone."
Whether or not the gravity of having a once-in-a-lifetime player like Wells on the team is actually understood by the players or even the coaching staff at Garfield will become obvious with how well they perform and the success that they have as a team as the season goes on. The bottom line is that it isn't very often that a team like Garfield will have a player like Wells at their disposal, if ever again.
"Every now and then I catch myself thinking about ‘Wow, I really do have this guy that everybody is saying is the number one running back in the United States,' " Sax said. "But I think about it for about five or 10 seconds and then I forget about it because it's a team thing and it's going to take the other 10 guys that are out there on the field with him to make things happen. But then I think about what he can do as well and I like his teammates, and so I'm really anxious to see us in action come Thursday."
But if the team concept isn't working, there may come a time that Wells will have to put the cape on and carry his teammates on his very broad shoulders. Tyrell Sutton, a close and personal friend of Wells, was so good at that last season and his shoulders weren't nearly as broad.
"I'm not thinking that way. I'm not thinking that I'm going to have to count on this guy to actually go out there and win us football games because he needs the other ones. I really believe in the team concept," Sax said. "I think he can take over a game. I've seen it last year a lot where he just makes the play calling so easy. I can just keep pounding this big guy at you and he wears down the defense and he just overpowers some of the kids that he's playing against. So I'm not going to try to out-coach myself."
But whether or not the mild-mannered and unassuming Wells will demand the football or not in times of need is really the big question to be answered.
Garfield head coach Bob Sax
"He's really stepped it up in that regard this year," Sax said. "He's been nosing around a lot about, ‘I want the ball. I want to run the football. Give me the football.' But in the scrimmages you're out there trying to see other things - I feel that I have a pretty good quarterback and a good receiver out there - and I know he's been a little frustrated. But he has been a little more vocal about ‘Coach come on, give me the ball.' "
And Sax claims that he wants Wells to demand the ball from him this season.
"I want the boy to want the ball 40 times a game. That's what I want," Sax said. "I would love to be able to run him that much and if he can carry it 40 times then I'd be more than happy to give it to him 40 times."
The chances for a Garfield victory get better with each and every carry by Wells, no question. But in Kyle Shaffer, the Rams also have a more than capable quarterback. Shaffer is a returning starter with good size who threw for 900 yards last year. And in Cortez Jones, they have a receiver who can not only stretch the field for the offense but he can also deliver punishing hits from his free safety position in the secondary. Jones dominated in the first two games last year before an ankle injury sent him to the sideline for the remainder of the season. And finally in Adam Guilmette, they have a quality kicker with a strong leg, who is equally adept at punting the football and booming the kickoff into the end zone. Last year Guilmette, with a range of about 40 yards in practice, was 42 of 44 on his PATs.
But if there's an area of concern for Garfield going into the season it has to be with the defense. And Wells might see more playing time on defense than Sax would actually like him to have.
"Defense is definitely our weak spot right now," Sax said. "We're young and inexperienced and were going to have Chris getting some reps over there. He's never going to be in there for any long period of time but he could be as good as he wants to be on that side of the ball."
But because of Wells, Garfield is going to be expected to win this year regardless of them having an inexperienced defense or not.
"I feel a lot better after having two days of practice preparing for Hoban and I think we're making progress," Sax said. "I really think we're coming along. I was happy with the offense and I think that the defense is making some strides."
The playoffs have been a rather elusive thing for Garfield in the past. The Rams have made three appearances in the state playoffs. Last season was the first time since 1989 when they lost in the second round to Massillon. In 1983, Garfield went all the way to the state championship game with a running back by the name of Charles Gladman when they lost to Cincinnati Princeton.
"We want to build on what we started last year. We want to make the playoffs and we want to go further," said Sax, whose season ended abruptly last year with a first-round loss to Copley. "We haven't won an opener at Garfield in about five years so we want to win our opener. And we want to be city champs. We want to take care of business in the non-league and then we want to take care of that city championship. If we do those things, then we feel like we're going to make the playoffs."
Anything short of making the playoffs would have to be considered a major disappointment for Sax and Rams. Besides, the lost last year left an unpleasant taste in their mouth during the off-season.
"The kids went in and played their hearts out and lost a tight game but it kind of gives them something to shoot for now," the coach said. "They got a taste of it, they liked being there and they liked playing that 11th week. And we got quite a few guys back so they want to make sure that they can do the same thing and go a little farther."
But fair or not, this team at Garfield will be perceived by many around Ohio as being Chris Wells' team and they'll be rooting for the Rams just because of Chris Wells.
"I don't look at that way. Other people may and that's okay," Sax said. "But I got a good senior class, I really like the seniors out there and I think it's their team."
That certainly doesn't mean that Sax isn't excited about the opportunity to coach Wells this season.
"For the first time in his life he's going to be playing against kids that are just his age and he's done pretty well as an underclassman," Sax said. "So I'm anxious to see what it's going to be like for him going against kids his same age now that he's bigger, stronger and faster than he was a year ago."
And for any Ohio State fan who's never seen Wells play before, Sax offered this advice: "Come and see him play. You're going to see a kid that plays with a lot of excitement and he just does some amazing things out there," he said. "Come see us play."
I couldn't have said it any better. Go see Wells and the Rams play.
For the past two years now I've watched the eventual Mr. Football award winner in Ohio play on Thursday in the opening week of the season. Two years ago I watched Ray Williams run all over Howland to start the season and then I watched Sutton have similar success against Garfield last year.
This year, I'll be at Dowed Field once again to start the season off in week one. And for the third year in a row, I'm confident that I'll be watching the state's Mr. Football award winner get his season off to an auspicious beginning.
Won't you join me!