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The Big Horse
William Nack
September 05, 1994
The spoils earned by Colt left tackle Will Wolford have let him realize his dream of owning top thoroughbreds
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September 05, 1994

The Big Horse

The spoils earned by Colt left tackle Will Wolford have let him realize his dream of owning top thoroughbreds

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The Wolford house at times resembled a gym for prizefighters. Moe had the boys running three miles a day, drinking protein malts and jumping rope. "I had them jump rope every day," Moe says. "It develops reflexes and quickness." Will still recalls his father sitting on the back porch and presiding over the workouts. "I had them focus on things," Moe says. "I trained them like boxers. When they jumped rope, I made them count to concentrate. I'd count with them: 500, 600, 700, 800. Frontward and backward. They'd step on the rope, I'd make them start over."

For the laid-back Will, this routine began in the fourth grade and amounted to a mild form of torture. "I got grounded from parties for not jumping rope," he says. "I'd be heading out the door in eighth grade, and my father would say, 'Sorry. You didn't jump rope today. No parties.' My father was 360 pounds with a goatee, and you didn't say much to him. He was very tough and strict on my brother and me when it came to working out. And he always made sure we had time to do it. Always provided us with spending money so we didn't have to go out and get a job."

Will was nine when he reluctantly began playing football—"You're trying out for football tomorrow," Moe informed him one day—but even then the game had its remunerations. Moe paid the boys $1 for a solo tackle, 50¢ for an assist, $1 for recovering a fumble, $2 for causing a fumble and $5 for a touchdown.

When the boys weren't skipping rope or diving for dollars. Kupper was running them like racehorses, 90 minutes at a time, up and down a basketball court. Kupper was an enthusiastic handicapper, and Moe reports that when Kupper died, in 1978, he departed in a state as close to bliss as a horseplayer ever gets: "He was going to cash in at the $50 window at Churchill Downs when he died of a heart attack."

Will was then in eighth grade. "If he'd stayed alive, I might have ended up playing basketball, because he was a hell of a teacher," says Wolford. "Tough on the fundamentals."

From boyhood through high school, Wolford always preferred hoops to football. "My favorite sport without a doubt," he says. "I played basketball every single day when the weather was nice. I played football because I was good at it. My dad threw me into it." And by most accounts, including his own, he was better at shooting baskets than he was at anything else. "With his tools, I thought he'd be a pro basketball player," says Kurt. Indeed, he moved around like someone who had done a lot of skipping rope. His varsity basketball coach at St. Xavier, Alan Donhoff, recalls that Wolford, who played center, was extremely quick and agile for a lad so large—"Really quick feet,' says Donhoff—and possessed a feathery touch with the jumper. "From 12 to 15 feet, I had all the confidence in him in the world," Donhoff says.

Wolford was honorable-mention all-state in basketball, but he knew that only football could lead him to a major college. As a young man out of St. Xavier he dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. But the fates intervened. His junior year he broke his right leg, and he missed the rest of the season. At training camp his senior year he caught viral meningitis and suffered that season. His weight plunged from 240 to 210, and he was weak and short of breath. "I played the season, but terribly," he says. "I had no endurance." Seeing what few films there were of Wolford, Notre Dame turned away. So did Purdue.

"I can't blame them, because I looked like I was dogging it the whole time," he says. "If the play didn't come my way, I didn't have the energy to chase it down. They knew I'd been sick, but they didn't care. It's like the NFL. All they care about is what the films look like. I was recruited strictly on potential."

Vanderbilt was among the few schools that hung around. Wolford had been dating Mary Jude Craven, a student at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, since their sophomore year—they had been Derby Day revelers together—and they had hoped to attend college together. When Notre Dame disappeared, she picked Vanderbilt. "I went because Jude wanted to," he says.

In retrospect, says Moe, it was the best thing that could have happened to his son. They moved him from defense to the offensive line, where he played his first three years at left guard, his final year at right tackle. "Vanderbilt had a pro-type offense," Moe says. "They weren't going to beat anybody in the SEC, but they could move the ball. They passed 30, 35 times a game. Will learned pass protection. He developed quickness in front of oncoming linemen. He learned how to use his arms and hands."

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