By Rudy Jones, FurmanPaladins.com
Win or lose, Furman senior free safety Nathan Wade admits he may take a little more time than usual taking in the scene before he leaves the Paladin Stadium turf after today's season finale against The Citadel.
It could be the last time Wade gets to walk off the football field as a player, so he wants to be sure he remembers – and savors – the moment.
"I know I'm probably going to do that," Wade said recently. "I'm probably going to sit in the locker room for a while. I'll probably take the longest shower of my life, and probably just sit there and reminisce about the years I've had here.
"I do believe I'll take a while just to walk up and down the field, just feel my surroundings," Wade said. "I did the same thing in high school. You never know what your future's going to be like, so you've got to take everything in at the moment."
"The time has flown by," Wade said. "I remember coming in my freshman year everyone was telling me it was going to go by so fast. I didn't realize it at first, but these 4½ years have gone by faster than anything. It's hard to believe this is going to be my last game at Paladin Stadium."
If a pro career should not materialize, today could mark the end of his competitive football career. "I don't really like to think about it that much," Wade said. "I've been playing football since I was 4 years old."
Wade's senior season hasn't gone the way he'd liked. The Paladins are destined for a losing record and the program failed to make the NCAA Football Championship Series playoffs during his career.
But Wade said competitors find ways to keep themselves motivated even when things aren't going as desired.
"Throughout the season I set new goals each week – for my play and for the team," Wade said. "We have boards in the locker room that tells us how well we've done. I'd say one of the best game's we've put together defensively was against Wofford (a 20-17 loss Oct. 6). We fought hard. On the boards it shows we fought hard, but we just came up short.
"A goal after that week was just to finish – finish strong," Wade said. "Each week we come up with new goals because it's a week-to-week thing.
"There have been times we've played the way we know we can, then times when we don't," Wade said. "That's really a mental factor. We've just got to keep pushing each and every day. That's why you've got to set personal goals throughout the week. If you set personal goals you're going to fight to reach those goals and the better it will help out you and the team. A lot of times this season we haven't been able to do that."
Wade said he'd like for Furman's younger players to remember his senior class for leaving a legacy for competitiveness.
"The season hasn't gone the way we've wanted it, but the seniors on this team haven't stopped fighting. We're trying to set an example for this freshman class," Wade said. "A lot of them came in and played this year. The ones who've played this year will learn -- just as well as I did in my years here -- that you're going to go through adversity, but no matter what you always have to push through and you always have to fight.
Wade said this season can serve Furman as a springboard to better days in the future. He likens it to his junior year at Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy, when an injury-plagued tea went 4-6. "That was the first time in 10 years of not making the playoffs. My senior year we went 13-0 and won the state championship. That can be the same thing here; laying a foundation."
Montgomery Bell, an all-boys school, also produced former Furman quarterback great Ingle Martin. Other distinguished alumni include Major League pitcher R.A. Dickey, former U.S. Senator Bill Frist, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice and ex-NFL quarterback Bill Wade.
Injuries limited Wade to one full season on the high school varsity. A hip injury sidelined him for part of his sophomore season, then he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the second day he returned to practice. The second game in his junior season he suffered a tear to the ACL in his right knee, something similar to the misfortune suffered by University of South Carolina standout and Upstate resident Marcus Lattimore the past two seasons.
"I understand it's probably tougher than in high school, but I totally understand what he's going through," Wade said. "I was scared to watch (video of Lattimore's gruesome injury suffered last month) for a while."
But Wade persevered through the injuries, finishing by earning all-state honors as a senior. He played strong safety and wide receiver. He had 67 tackles, six interceptions and seven pass breakups that season, with two picks coming in the state championship game.
After the Big Red won the state title (later vacated because of rules infractions) recruiters began to contact him, Wade said.
"The day after the state championship game, one of my best friends, E.J. Vinsang and I met with (Furman assistant Tim) Coach Sorrells. He offered us both full scholarships. One factor that brought me here was the fact one of my best friends was also coming here," Wade said. "Whenever I talked to a college my mom always looked it up (online). When I came to take the visit she was excited to come on the campus. I was excited because it was a visit.
"We we came here and enjoyed the people and the campus."
Since Montgomery Bell Academy was an all-boys school, Furman's co-eds made an impression, too. "I saw Furman as a college version of high school – with co-eds," Wade said. "I was more familiar with Furman that most guys coming in because it was just like my high school. It was a good ways away from home so I could live on my own. I think it was good for me to get away.
"What stood out to me about Furman was the tradition – just like MBA; my best friend was here I knew someone already; and I got to be good friends with the players I was possibly coming in with," Wade said. "I've had a great relationship with those guys since I've been here."
Another recruiting contact was by Ted Cain, a former Furman player who was an assistant on ex-Paladin coach Bobby Johnson's staff at Vanderbilt.
"By then everyone pretty much had their players already and I was pretty much a backup plan," Wade said.
During his recruiting fling with Vanderbilt Wade had no contact with Bruce Fowler, a Commodores assistant who replaced Bobby Lamb as Furman's head coach after the 2010 season.
"So, when the coaches from Vandy came to Furman I still got to work with that coaching staff," Wade said.
Wade got a chance to work with the Fowler staff for two seasons because he was redshirted in 2008. That decision has benefited him, he said.
"When I came here, until I got my physical, no one here knew I'd torn my ACLs," Wade said. "They didn't find out until I stripped down and showed them my knees and they asked 'what are your scars from' and I said I'd had ACL surgery on both of them.
"Coach Sorrells was there and he was like 'I didn't even know he had bad knees or surgeries,'" Wade recalled.
"My freshman camp we had a scrimmage and I took a helmet to my knee and sprained my medial collateral ligament a little bit," Wade said. "I was out a week or so of camp and I didn't really get to learn the playbook as much or develop as team did.
"Plus, I was smaller than most and still had to grow," Wade said. "I think my young age and the fact I did sprain my MCL were the main reasons I got redshirted.
"Actually, I'm thankful for that," Wade said. "It gave me time to focus on my school work and grown as a football player.
"I kind of came in here wanting to get redshirted, because I wanted an extra year to grow physically, develop more intellect for the game and really so I could experience college for my first year because football is a year-round thing here. Redshirting wasn't as tough as it is probably for most guys, because I always feel like I'm one of the best players out there.
Wade said he's aware the first couple of seasons often are the determining factor in whether a player is able to succeed academically or athletically.
"It's going to be tough the first two years," Wade said. "You've just got to get used to it. Most freshmen and sophomores aren't used to it coming from high school. When it comes to injuries and school work, it's all mental. You get down on yourself sometimes because of injuries. You begin to mope around and that reflects in your play. You've kind of got to grow up fast to get through it.
"Fortunately for me -- even with me getting hurt that first year – the guys I came in with, we all stuck together," Wade said. "I enjoyed their company and they enjoyed mine. That's why friendships here are a big plus. You meet great guys to help you push through.
"Once you pass the first two years it's pretty much a breeze through," Wade said. "Most of the guys I've seen here who were injury prone their freshman year or sophomore year, or guys whose academics weren't always the best. I think they tend to fall behind.
"I know some guys in my (recruiting) class who left because of academics," Wade said. "Some guys in the class before left because of injuries and academics."
Wade played strong safety last year but has been at free safety this season. He's enjoyed both positions.
"A strong safety is kind of like a linebacker, kind of like a hybrid," Wade said. "Sometimes you're in the box. I grew up playing linebacker when I was little. I love being in the box, but when it comes to a pass you have to show athleticism, whether it's running down a receiver, breaking up a pass or making an interception.
"They put me in the box quite a bit," Wade said. "Strong safety was one of my best positions other than free safety because I love contact. I like to be in the mix, in the middle of things."
The Citadel has served as Furman's final regular-season opponent frequently during the 91-game series. But today's meeting of state rivals marks the first time since 1992 – when Wade was 2 years old – that the game is at the end of the schedule.
Rivalries have ebbed and flowed with membership changes in the Southern Conference, but even as an out-of-stater Wade knows the Furman-Citadel rivalry is special to fans and alumni of both schools.
"I've heard about it just about every day since I've been here," he said. "My true freshman year we beat them by a pretty good margin. My redshirt freshman year – the first year I started - we went down there and lost. That's when I really figured out the rivalry. I felt it then
"I understand in-state rivalries," Wade said. "I hear it all the time. Any Furman alum asked about how you do against The Citadel. The younger generation may ask about Appalachian State or Georgia Southern. But the tradition is strong. Everyone knows The Citadel is our biggest rival."
Wade, a 6-foot, 185-pound safety from Nashville, does expect football to be in his future, even if not immediately. "I've always felt like eventually I would become a coach. No matter where I am in life I'm always going to be connected with the game."
"I would like to be a high school coach, but I haven't really thought about it much right now," Wade said. "I have cousins, nieces and nephews who play sports, so I could connect with them. Probably by the time they hit high school I'd feel like 'OK, I'm ready to get in to it.'
"It was the same way with my dad (Troy, who played football at Austin Peay)," Wade said; "He coached me since I was 4-years old. He said the exact same thing: when he came out of college he really didn't care about (coaching) yet, but once I hit the age, he got right back into it. I kind of feel like I'd follow the same path."
When that happens, memories of his final game today could come flooding back.
Rudy Jones wrote about hundreds of Furman University sporting events during his almost 40-year-career with The Greenville News and Greenville Piedmont. His coverage of the Paladins' 1988 football national championship earned him a first place writing award from the South Carolina Press Association. The Travelers Rest native has a blog about college baseball in South Carolina:palmettostatebaseball.blogspot.com. Contact Rudy at email@example.com