A strong faith, a surplus of patience and an incessant work ethic. Without that recipe, running back James Wofford admittedly wouldn't be wearing number 44 for the Minnesota Vikings this season.
Unlike many of the players whose nameplates line the Vikings locker room, Wofford's path to the NFL was far from direct. Like a bargain-basement Internet airfare deal, Wofford's trip from college to professional football was far from nonstop.
In fact, Wofford faced a season-long layover that, as the months passed, appeared to be the end of an NFL career that never began.
Wofford left the University of Nevada-Las Vegas with 1,861 career rushing yards. His totals were sixth highest in school history, just 64 yards shy of Ickey Woods. Even though he didn't expect to get drafted, he knew his phone would ring on draft weekend.
In April of 2001, after the draft had concluded, his phone did ring and the Vikings were on the line. Wofford signed with Minnesota as a free agent and survived every training-camp roster-cut deadline, except for the final one. The Vikings released Wofford on Sept. 2, 2001, just seven days before the season opener against Carolina.
"It was hard," Wofford said. "I felt I had a good training camp. I felt I did good in the preseason games I played in. It just didn't work out."
Football had never truly rejected Wofford before. Like every player ever to wear an NFL uniform, Wofford was a star in high school. After making his mark at Bakersfield (Calif.) High, Wofford heard from his share of recruiters, and once he started playing college football he was once again grabbing headlines.
But the Vikings didn't want him. Their 53-man roster had no room. After endless years of success Wofford collided with a roadblock, a barrier that stood between him and football's highest level.
"I was devastated. It hurt me," Wofford said. "I was devastated that first day and then I sat around for a week and moped around wishing I could be back there. But it happened for a reason. Once I shook it off I prayed to God for what to do next."
Wofford returned home to Nevada, where he began selling cars. It wasn't the career choice he had envisioned, but it worked with his schedule, allowing him to continue to work out with UNLV strength and conditioning coaches. Even though he was spending his time on car lots rather than football fields, Wofford still kept his NFL dream alive by keeping himself in top physical condition.
But the wounds from being rejected by the Vikings weren't healed. Scars still remained.
Wofford didn't carry resentment of any kind, but still it hurt not to be part of something he belonged to for a few short months that summer.
"Going through camp, I felt close to the guys," Wofford said. "Willie Howard, Isaac Keys, Kenny Clark, we were all pretty close. We all came in together. I'd talk to some of them on the phone during the season and they'd say someone was asking about me. To hear that Michael Bennett and Doug Chapman were asking about me, that helped. That kept me motivated."
Still, that rejection never healed. Instead, it was a reminder of the final obstacle that stood between him and the NFL.
"I couldn't watch Vikings games last year because I wanted to be part of it so bad," he said.
Wofford has been around football practically his entire life. His older brother, Steve, was an All-American running back in high school. James was a fullback when Steve was a senior. Rather than run the ball, James was blocking for his older brother.
Steve Wofford played college ball at Southern University, where he became the school's all-time leading rusher. He signed as a rookie free agent with the St. Louis Rams, who converted him to wide receiver. But he never fully made the transition and was eventually cut.
"Now he sells cars," James said. "We talk every day."
Once James graduated from high school, he became Bakersfield's top rusher.
"I ended up with 1,600 yards, which was a good year, but I wanted to get over 2,000," he said. "I never complained, but in my mind I wanted more carries. I didn't cry to the coach, but I played my part."
Wofford was highly recruited not only by UNLV, but by Southern California and Colorado State as well. Problem was, USC and Colorado State were offering a sales pitch to Wofford that he would be better suited to be a safety on defense rather than a running back on offense.
Wofford knew his strengths. But he knew his weaknesses, too.
"Actually, I couldn't cover anybody," he said. "I wanted to be on the field all the time in high school so I played defense. But in college I didn't want to be exposed because I couldn't cover anybody. I loved safety. I'd come up and hit. But as far as one-on-one, I didn't want to be out there covering a guy who ran a 4.4 40."
Running Rebels coach Jeff Horton, now a quarterback coach at Wisconsin, was the only college coach that assured Wofford he would be lining up in the backfield — on offense, not defense.
"I told him I wouldn't come unless I was getting recruited as a tailback," Wofford said. "Coach Horton agreed."
Wofford remained patient during the recruiting process. Rather than ride an emotional roller coaster, he allowed events to unfold. He tried to use that same approach as he was selling cars in Nevada, while his former training-camp teammates were playing professional football on Sundays in Minnesota.
"In the back of my mind I really wanted to be playing," Wofford said. "But I had a strong faith in God. And people there made it easy for me. My mom, my wife and my pastor — who's also my uncle — would tell me to do what I could do and everything else would fall into place. If it was meant to be, it would happen."
Last winter, Wofford was relaxing and watching TV. The phone rang. Unexpectedly, it was Mike Tice.
"I was laying in bed watching TV and he called," Wofford recalled. "I sat up in bed, and my heart started beating really fast. He told me who he was and asked me if I'd been working out. I said yeah, and he said he wanted me out there and said if I'd come out there I'd have a good chance at making the team."
Happily, Wofford attended developmental camps, minicamps and finally training camp once again. Before the Vikings were to scrimmage Kansas City in August, Wofford sprained his medial collateral ligament. Because of the injury, his second chance with the Vikings met fierce resistance.
"I cried. I cried," Wofford said. "I would miss a week-and-a-half. In training camp, that's an eternity when you practice two times a day. I thought if I was hurt, I couldn't make the team."
That wouldn't be the case.
"Coach Tice kept me calm the whole time," Wofford said. "Tice told me to relax, get well and show them what I could do."
Wofford hasn't been a major contributor on the field this year for the Vikings. But he hopes to get his chance soon. Not surprisingly, he continues to exercise patience.
"When I'm asked to do something, I try to do it to the best of my ability," Wofford said. "I go out every day and practice hard."
After what it took to get there, Wofford would approach it no other way.
Favorite movie: Harlem Nights
Favorite actor: Samuel L. Jackson
Favorite actress: Hale Barry
Favorite TV show: Sanford and Son
Current vehicle: 2002 Tahoe
Favorite vehicle: 1965 Chevy Impala
Toughest player I ever faced: Joey Porter in high school. In the NFL, Porter plays for Pittsburgh.
If I wasn't playing football: I'd be teaching in Bakersfield, Calif.
Hobbies: Video games, cartoons and Dominoes. "I'm the best Dominoes player on the Vikings."
Getting To Know: RB James Wofford
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