Behind the scenes of Akrum Wadley’s perfect ending to college career

NEW YORK CITY — Sharonda Phelps stood outside Yankee Stadium holding court, waiting for her son and the Iowa football team to arrive.

Eventually, the conversation turned to Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley, her pride and joy. It’s 2:45 p.m., and in 2½ hours he’ll play his final college game a short drive from his Newark, N.J., home.

As Phelps broke down the contest, she also passed on a scouting report on Wadley. See, there is one thing he craves right now to complete his college career. The Pinstripe Bowl is his last chance at it.

Wadley is hell-bent on securing a postseason win.

“The team needs it,” Phelps  said. “Akrum needs it. It bothers him that Iowa hasn’t won a bowl yet.”

• • •

Each time the Hawkeyes make a bowl game, the players receive a ring.

His redshirt season in 2013, Iowa lost the Outback Bowl to LSU.

The next year, his freshman campaign, was the 45-28 debacle against Tennessee in the Taxslayer Bowl.

As a sophomore, the 2016 Rose Bowl turned thorny in a one-sided 45-16 defeat to Stanford.

Last year, it was more of the same as Florida beat the Hawkeyes 30-3 in the 2017 Outback Bowl.

Each time Iowa presented him with a ring, Wadley passed it on to his mother or father, John Wadley. Those were games he didn’t want to remember.

“If we win this game it will be my ring,” Wadley said. “I’m not against receiving rings.”

No, bowl games weren’t friendly to Wadley or the Hawkeyes.

On Wednesday, the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College didn’t start off much better, even though the Hawkeyes intercepted the Golden Eagles’ first pass.

Wadley’s first carry went for no gain. After two incomplete passes, the Hawkeyes settled for a field goal.

The rest of the first quarter wasn’t much better. He touched the football four times on the first eight plays, but only gained 14 yards as the Hawkeyes generated only 1 first down.

Boston College built a 7-3 lead and it started to feel a lot like bowls of previous years. It was the last thing the 20-plus people sitting in Section 232b, rows 8-10 wanted to see.

Wadley’s family, aunts, uncles and cousins didn’t flock from New Jersey for another Outback Bowl. Like Wadley, they wanted to see him win, and to see him finish his college career in style.

Grumbles started. Iowa needed to move the ball and the line had to block. The passing game needed to take flight. Most important, the Hawkeyes needed to give Wadley the ball in space.

“It’s where he does his best work,” several family members repeated.

Two hours earlier, his family said the same phrase while gathered outside Gate 2, waiting to watch Wadley walk into Yankee Stadium.

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Akrum Wadley’s mom Sharonda Phelps (center) stands with his aunts, waiting for his arrival at the Pinstripe Bowl. (Photo by Bobby La Gesse/Land of 10)

Before the police escort arrived, John Wadley boasted about how his son would run all over Boston College. Phelps worried about not knowing much about the Golden Eagles. Other family members discussed the NFL or laughed over inside family jokes.

The commotion stopped when the Iowa buses arrived. Everyone ran to the steel barricade, Phelps wiggled her way to the front, shouting “Akrum, Akrum,” trying to locate her son in the mass of humanity.

In seconds, the buses were empty. Team managers told her Wadley exited a different bus, a few feet away, and teammates blocked him from seeing his family.

The game was yet to kick off and this already felt a lot like those Outback Bowls.

• • •

As the first quarter ended, Wadley fielded a Boston College kickoff. He took off from the Iowa 12-yard line.

He accidentally ran into a teammate at the 29-yard line. Turns out, it was the best thing he could do. The collision sent Wadley flying to his left. The coverage team wasn’t there. He sidestepped one defender and entered that open space his family craved.

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Jamil Phelps wore a shirt of his cousin Akrum Wadley eating out of a bowl with the Boston College logo at the Pinstripe Bowl. (Photo by Bobby La Gesse/Land of 10).

His personal cheering section roared with delight. The celebration spread like his return did, from right to left. Family members high-fived as Wadley ran to the Boston College 16-yard line.

Near the end of the play, the noise forced Phelps to look up from seat 8 in row 9. She noticed Wadley, returning his first kick since September, as he headed back to the Iowa sideline.

“I didn’t know that was him,” Phelps said. “I need to see a replay.”

The entire family did. This was the kind of play they came to see, especially his aunt Linda. She is essentially his second mom. She helped raise him and took him to her work at the local rec center when he was a little boy.

There was no guarantee Linda would see a return like this at any other bowl destination. She doesn’t fly, so getting her to some games is nearly impossible.

“I don’t even do elevators,” Linda said.

But she does do New York and she jumped up and down as Wadley returned his kick. The yellow and black pompoms she placed in the neck of her black sweater and pants of her pockets bounced around, making her look like Wadley’s personal cheerleader.

“It’s big-time,” said Wadley when Iowa found out its Pinstripe Bowl destination. “I wanted her at this game.”

With the game a short 25-minute drive from Newark, it ensured that everyone Wadley wanted to see him perform was there. His old high school Weequahic brought a bus full of football players. Scattered throughout the crowd were friends and acquaintances.

A large portion of Akrum Wadley’s family showed up in homemade outfits, including this jacket with Wadley on the back. (Photo by Bobby La Gesse/Land of 10)

No one mattered more to him than his daughter, Ava Wadley. He was playing for Ava, who lives in New Jersey with her mom Kahasia Hartfield.

“I am just happy that I get to finally see her before and after the game,” Wadley said in early December. “I haven’t been able to see her a lot as the season goes. Just being able to reunite with her is big for me.”

Hartfield kept Ava in the car, and out of the elements on a 23 degree night, as long as possible. When Ava took her seat, only her eyes peeked out of her hat, with a blanket pulled up over her mouth. Phelps saw a picture of that and showed it to any nearby family member, a grandmother as proud of her granddaughter as her son.

With Ava staring intently at the field, Wadley wanted her to see more than just a kickoff return.

• • •

At halftime, Boston College led 17-10. The game wasn’t as close as the score indicated, with the Golden Eagles outgaining the Hawkeyes 281-56.

Wadley took a cup of Powerade and sat down during intermission. He gained 116 kickoff return yards, but Boston College held him to 22 rushing yards. It wasn’t the impact he wanted to make.

He didn’t give himself a pep talk. He didn’t need to. Wadley remembered what he told himself before the game.

“It’s time to set the tone,” Wadley said. “We got to set the tone.”

It didn’t take him long to do it in the second half. The offensive line opened a crease and Wadley strolled into the end zone for a 5-yard score, tying it at 17 with 7 minutes, 11 seconds left in the third quarter.

His mother, draped with a black blanket with Wadley’s name and number on it, jumped out of her seat.

Wadley’s family treated the event like a family reunion. Instead of holding it at a local park, it took place in Yankee Stadium. Family members came and went, with several arriving at various times throughout the game. One cousin arrived late in the first half because his GPS took him to the wrong place.

The family moved around constantly, sitting down only when Iowa was on defense. Everyone danced and sang to “Uptown Funk,” passing around whatever they could — or brought in — to stay warm.

“This is like combining Christmas and New Year’s,” one of Wadley’s cousins said.

His cousins definitely shared drinks after Wadley’s touchdown. Phelps raised a huge picture of Wadley’s head attached to a stick well after television went to timeout following the score.

His cousin Jamil Phelps brought two of them. He looked through pictures and came up with the idea this week. When he arrived with them in the second quarter, Wadley’s family doubled over in laughter, as if Phelps told a joke straight from a Dave Chappelle set.

“That’s my little cousin,” Phelps said. “Love him to death.”

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Jamil Phelps arrived to the Pinstripe Bowl holding two pictures of Akrum Wadley’s face attached to a stick. (Photo by Bobby La Gesse/Land of 10)

Wadley’s face on a stick was just the start. Phelps wore a black hoodie displaying a photo of Wadley eating out of a bowl with the Boston College logo.

“Had to,” Phelps said. “He’s going to run all over them.”

Wadley did, compiling 283 all-purpose yards. It was a Hawkeyes bowl record.

Even with Wadley’s big second half, an Iowa win was far from secure. With the score tied at 20, defensive end Anthony Nelson’s strip sack forced a turnover, and Iowa gained possession at midfield.

The Hawkeyes turned to Wadley on the next play. Wadley uncorked a vintage run at the ideal time. He broke two tackles, busting off a 27-yard run, putting Iowa 18 yards from the end zone.

“You know in a gap scheme, one of them (defenders) was going to mess up and hit the wrong gap,” Wadley said, “and it was well-blocked, well-executed, and I slipped right behind the tight end and it was off to the races.”

Two plays later, fullback Drake Kulick scored the game-winning 1-yard touchdown run.

“Whatever it took,” Wadley said. “Whatever the team needed, I was willing to do.”

• • •

When the game ended, the Hawkeyes ran toward the 50-yard line. They celebrated their 27-20 victory by hugging those around them and posing for pictures. Escorts whisked Wadley and several teammates to a makeshift podium. Minutes later, a New York Yankees representative announced to the entire stadium that Wadley was the MVP.

The trophy sure beat a ring.

“Go Hawks,” Wadley screamed into the microphone after grabbing his trophy.

His cousins, standing near the left field foul pole, started an MVP chant. It bounced off every wall in Yankee Stadium.

“Those guys are crazy,” Wadley said. “They were probably lit.”

Still, he smiled as they said it. Taking in his grand moment.

“It was priceless, man,” Wadley said. “You wish you could live in moments like that forever.”

He’ll get the chance to relive it with Ava in the future. He realizes his 2-year-old is probably too young to remember the day, but the pictures will bring back all the memories when Wadley hit his own walk-off at Yankee Stadium, and all the folks he cares about were there.

“There is no such thing as a perfect game,” Wadley said, “but this is close to being a perfect game.”

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