Updated at 3:07 p.m., Saturday, June 2, 2007
Wadsworth hopes to make comeback with Jets
By Dennis Waszak Jr.
Yet there he was on the New York Jets' sideline, helmet in hand, awaiting his next set of plays. After 13 knee operations, Wadsworth is healthy enough to compete for an outside linebacker position with the Jets.
"I love football," Wadsworth, 32, said after a voluntary team workout. "Why do people think it's crazy to do this? I know in life you can be a businessman or whatever you want to do after football. You can do it until you die. But in football, you can't do it until you die."
Wadsworth, you may remember, was a Florida State star and the No. 3 overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals in the 1998 draft. Hampered by knee problems, he appeared in just 36 games for the Cardinals in three seasons.
In 2001, Arizona opted to not pick up the last three years of his six-year, $42.1 million contract and released him. The odds seemed stacked against him when medical professionals said he'd never play again.
"Every doctor said it," Wadsworth said. "I mean, every doctor."
During his brief pro career, he racked up 119 tackles, eight sacks, three fumble recoveries and one interception off Dan Marino. He'd love to add to those numbers.
"Even though I officially retired and I never could play again because of my injuries, I never put it out of my mind," Wadsworth said. "My agent and everybody knew I'd never put it out of my mind. The only way it'll ever get out of my mind is if I was 40 ... or maybe 37 or 38."
That gives Wadsworth, whose knees "are coming along," at least five seasons to make it all the way back. But he's competing against at least 32 players on the Jets' preseason roster who weren't even in college when Wadsworth played his last down in the NFL.
If he makes the team and plays, Wadsworth would be a heavy favorite to follow Chad Pennington as the league's comeback player of the year.
"It's not about proving wrong," he said. "You've got to believe in miracles. It's about being blessed and making the impossible happen."
Wadsworth is familiar with overcoming obstacles. Told he couldn't play at a Division I school, he walked on to the Florida State team. Told he'd never see any playing time, Wadsworth became a starter after his first year with the Seminoles. Informed he couldn't play nose tackle at the next level, he moved to defensive end and was a first-round draft pick.
"In life, you can't take no for an answer," he said. "Call me stubborn or not, but that's the way I live my life."
Wadsworth appears in terrific shape, and one would never guess he hasn't played football in years. During retirement, he bought six car dealerships -- BMWs, Porsches and Volkswagens -- with two shops in Gainesville, Fla., three in Ocala and one in Destin.
"When we talked to him, it was almost a case of trying to talk him out of coming back," Jets coach Eric Mangini said. "The guy has a very successful business. He's done very well in terms of setting up the next phase of his life.
"This is something that he was determined to try. In interviewing him and getting to know him, he was so impressive that as much as we tried to scare him off and get him to reconsider, he was too determined."
NFL seasons came and went without Wadsworth, but his passion for the sport never wavered.
"The itch has never left. It's just like a cast, an itch in your cast that you can't scratch," he said. "That's what I have. I couldn't scratch it because I was hurt.
"There's a lot of rust to get off. It feels good to be with the guys, the coaches, be in the locker room, the camaraderie the whole thing."
Wadsworth was a defensive end in his first stint in the NFL, but he's setting up at outside linebacker for the Jets. The position change has given him a different perspective.
"I've never stood up before," he said of the crouch used on the defensive line. "In college, I probably stood up 1 percent of the time on zone blitzes. Here, I'm standing up ... 80 percent of the time. That's a big difference, seeing the field."
Crouching or standing, Wadsworth is glad to be playing again.
"I take it one day at a time," he said. "It's a lot of stuff to absorb. It's like drinking out of a fire hydrant since I've been here, and I'm learning to open my mouth bigger."