This past Sunday afternoon, John Wolford sat on the Los Angeles Rams bench for his 11th regular season NFL game. Just a five-hour plane ride away, Brandon Allen, the quarterback Wolford beat out for a Practice Squad spot two years ago, put on orange and black stripes to start for the Bengals. In Denver, a very 2020 turn of events led to Kendall Hinton, the former Wake quarterback-turned-receiver whose job Wolford ultimately took, getting the start for the Broncos. Wolford watched Goff turn the ball over three times, but there are no whispers of a quarterback change in L.A.
He’ll wait his turn.
At a very young age, I learned that Wake was supposed to lose. The teams many of my classmates around me cared about, most frequently UNC and Duke, were expected to be winners. Wake’s role was to be their adorable younger sibling—some times a point of local pride but never a serious threat. This was likely magnified by being introduced to Wake basketball in the post-Duncan era (Robert O’Kelly was the first Wake Forest athlete I ever knew), but the course of history since has only validated those early feelings that I was pulling for "one of the other teams."
The Chris Paul years and the 2006 Orange Bowl were more surprising than they were promising of a brighter future—random blips in the radar, seasons that could have been easily forgotten by fans of some other ACC schools but which live on enshrined in Wake fans memories. We trek on, getting excited when we feel we can afford to, but mostly savoring the ephemeral moments when things feel more gold than black.
Which brings me back to John Wolford. Wolford was a 4-year starter at Wake, but he became my favorite Wake Forest quarterback of all-time during his junior year, which was mediocre by basically every statistical standard you could conjure up. Wake’s offense was 118th in the nation, good enough to muster just 3 ACC wins and an eventual Military Bowl victory over Temple. Wolford’s passer rating was just 108.6. ESPN’S Total QBR rated him as the 12th best quarterback in the ACC that year.
But there was something about watching Wolford navigate what seemed like an ever-collapsing pocket to make plays for an underwhelming but on-the-rise Demon Deacons team that captivated me. He didn’t seem to have an NFL arm, but he could make some perfect throws. He made some terrible decisions, but he played with such creativity. He didn’t have size, but he could take the biggest hits, and had to, time and time again. Wolford was a wildcard—capable of creating a big play out of nothing, but also likely to throw up an interception with a lineman right in his face. I remember talking to my brother and comparing him favorably to Doug Flutie, a comparison that Rams coach Sean McVay would later repeat.
In 2017, Wolford proceeded to put up nearly inarguably the greatest single-season passing numbers in school history. He broke the school record for passing yards (3,192) and passer rating (158.3). The latter number also led the entire conference, something especially difficult to do when you’re not playing for a powerhouse school with All-American depth at every position. Wake’s offense jumped to 21st in the country. They won 8 games in an injury-riddled season, with last minute finishes to FSU and Duke that could have gone either way.
The vast difference in offensive production from both Wake Forest and Wolford himself does perhaps put a magnifying glass over the playbook scandal in 2016, when it was revealed that several teams were given extensive game plans that allowed teams to, as Sports Illustrated reported, "position players in anticipation of Wake Forest’s plays with an abnormal degree of accuracy." It’s incredibly likely that some of Wolford’s struggles over his first few years were in part due to leaked gameplans and plays, although to what degree we can only guess. Intuition would suggest that the leaks can’t fully explain a 40 point difference in passer rating.
Nevertheless, Wolford entered the draft with just one productive college season. It seems likely that the leaks could have done enough to at least damage Wolford’s draft stock, jeopardizing his NFL career. Wolford got a very limited opportunity with the New York Jets after going undrafted, and was ultimately cut unceremoniously and left in professional football limbo.
If it hadn’t been for the creation of the Alliance of American Football, that may have been the last we saw of Wolford on a football field. But in Spring of 2019, Wolford landed on the Arizona Hotshots roster. He was supposed to be a backup, but ended up being a serious MVP contender (an award which was never decided as a result of the AAF’s financial collapse).
To best understand how impressive Wolford was in the AAF, find a highlight video on YouTube. Time and time again, he showed he could make NFL throws while pressured or on the run. He weaved through defenses for long scrambles and he showed a surprising amount of zip on the ball, too.
The Los Angeles Rams gave him a look a few months later, signing him to the expanded preseason roster. What happened next is best described, I think, by Sosa Kremenjas, who wrote an article for Turf Show Times in August 2019 that I hope we will one day be able to look back at as an artifact of football history:
Back in April when the Los Angeles Rams signed a no-named quarterback from the AAF, I didn’t pay a second of attention to it. I figured, well, it’s time for every team to fill out their rosters to 90 players, filling them with a lot of guys that’ll never make the team or league, and that’s about all.
But then two weeks of the preseason came and went, and now, I’m well aware who John Wolford is.
Wolford was great in the 2019 preseason, but in classic John Wolford/Wake Forest fashion, there was a major obstacle—the Rams only had two quarterback spots, and they’d already signed Blake Bortles. The closest thing to media attention that Wolford would get as the Rams practice squad QB that year was when Sean McVay revealed that they were using Wolford to warm up for their matchup against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
One season later, Wolford came into 2020 with an NFL roster spot. Coaches have praised his play in practice and expressed confidence in him as a backup despite his lack of experience. The first public Doug Flutie comparison came just months ago. But with Goff’s contract (and talent), it’s unlikely that we’ll see Wolford in substantial NFL action this year.
That won’t stop me from following every Rams game, just in case.
After all, what is more representative of Wake Forest sports than an undersized quarterback pushing through four years on a team that gave plays to opposing teams, stumbling into an upstart Spring football league, building a resume of preseason highlights, grinding his way through the practice squad, and just waiting for that one opportunity? Who could captivate a fan base so often forced to fuel themselves on imagination more than the ultimate "what if?" sitting on the Rams bench?
John Wolford is the ultimate Demon Deacon—a symbol of both hope and unlikelihood, and a whole lot better than everyone thinks he is.