John Wolford takes the road less traveled

From quarterbacking the Demon Deacons to working in finance, Wolford’s road to the NFL was long and winding

Essex Thayer, Sports Editor

Leading into the final week of the regular season, the Los Angeles Rams were stumbling along the line that clearly defines a season’s story. On one side of the line sat the postseason and all the glory that comes with it. The other side would involve an all too early cleaning out of lockers and watching other teams play on the television while lamenting missed opportunities. In such a critical time, teams are forced to lean on their star players to lead them to victory. For the Rams, that player would be Jared Goff, their first-round-pick, star quarterback who holds one of the richest contracts in football. Yet, Goff was not preparing to play in a must-win Week 17; he was undergoing surgery for a broken thumb sustained the prior week.

In the biggest game of the season, the Los Angeles Rams were forced to turn to a player who had never thrown a pass in an NFL game, John Wolford. Wolford spent the 2019 season as a member of the Rams practice squad, tasked with mimicking opposing quarterbacks in practice to prepare the first-team defense. He did well enough in that position to be elevated to the active roster in 2020, becoming the second-string quarterback behind Goff.

Wolford’s road to starting under center took far more turns than most traditional starters. In his early days, Wolford was the main man at quarterback, beginning at Bishop Kenny High in Jacksonville, Fla. As a 14-year old freshman, he won the starting position on the varsity team. To the Los Angeles Times, Wolford’s high school coach, Mark Thorson, explained, “He was a very mature kid and had a lot of ability and [a lot] of skills. To walk in as a freshman and handle the huddle and all the things that are expected of you, I knew at that point he was pretty special.” In his high school career, Wolford went on to break several records previously held by a Florida legend, Tim Tebow.

Following high school, Wolford was initially committed to play football at East Carolina University, until newly hired Head Coach Dave Clawson and Offensive Coordinator Warren Ruggiero visited his home after his senior season in 2013. Following the visit, he flipped his commitment to Wake Forest.

At Wake Forest, Wolford started as a freshman, leading the Demon Deacons to a 3-9 record. For a program with a new staff and devoid of much talent, it proved to be a step in the right direction. In his junior season, Wolford led Wake Forest to their first bowl win since 2008, beginning what is now a five-year streak of bowl appearances.

In his senior year, Kendall Hinton pushed Wolford in a tough battle for starting quarterback. Propelled by his defeat of Hinton for the position, Wolford caught fire. In a ten-point victory against future Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville, Wolford passed for 461 yards and accounted for six total touchdowns. In the following two games, he threw three touchdowns each against Notre Dame and Syracuse. Wolford completed his college career by tossing 400 yards and four touchdowns in an upset against Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl.

Thirteen quarterbacks were selected in the following NFL Draft in 2018. Wolford was not one of them. He did get an opportunity to compete with an NFL team after the draft, playing with the New York Jets in training camp. Wolford appeared in one preseason game and was then released. Following his release, it appeared that an NFL career was not in the cards for Wolford, who, per his still active LinkedIn page, joined Teall Capital as a Private Equity Analyst.

Six months later, football came calling once again for Wolford, who joined the newly formed Alliance of American Football. In the draft, Wolford was once again overlooked, taken as the eleventh overall quarterback. He was the second quarterback chosen by his own team, the Arizona Hotshots, after Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight was taken in the first round. Wolford beat out the first-round pick for the Hotshots’ starting spot and threw fourteen touchdowns in the shortened eight-game season. His performance led Wolford to Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams.

While Wolford projected immense confidence in the lead-up to his first NFL start, the game began inauspiciously for the quarterback, as his first pass from under center went directly to Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks. Commentator Boomer Esiason was quick to come to his defense, remarking that Brett Farve’s first career pass was also an interception. The throw was misguided at best, but Wolford maintained his composure. The broadcast cameras caught him saying “We’re good,” to his lineman on the bench following the throw. Wolford backed up his promise with a solid performance following the interception by not throwing another. He also passed for 231 yards while rushing for 56, leading the Rams to victory and the playoffs.

Though Jared Goff was active for the Rams’ playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Wolford started under center once again. By the middle of the first quarter, Goff, twelve days following thumb surgery, was in the game. Wolford was knocked out of the game by a vicious Jamal Adams hit, which was initially flagged but then picked up. Fox’s officiating specialist, Mike Perriera, thought Adams should have been penalized on the play because Wolford was “defenseless.” Wolford was taken to the hospital with a neck injury but was later able to return to celebrate with his teammates following their win. The next week, in the Rams’ loss to the Green Bay Packers to end their season, he was inactive due to the neck injury.

Despite an early exit from the spotlight for Wolford, there is hope that the quarterback can solidify himself as a potential starter in the future. Wolford is under contract with the Rams for the 2021 season. Although the Rams are in the middle of a $134 million contract with Goff, Head Coach Sean McVay recently told reporters, “We’re moving forward, we’re looking forward, and I can’t answer any of those questions [about the quarterbacks] until I take a step back and evaluate everything that is in the best interest of the Rams.”

Regardless of the Goff situation, Wolford turned heads this season. From being undrafted to working in finance to playing in an unsuccessful football league, Wolford reached the big time and proved he’s here to stay. John, I think it’s about time to delete that LinkedIn account.