- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEKALB, Ill. -- Garrett Wolfe claims he just wandered off, but Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak doesn't buy it.
NIU had pit-stopped at the College Football Hall of Fame on its way to Toledo for the big one (read: the one it never wins). A flight from Chicago to Toledo takes all of 53 minutes, but the MAC is a bus league, as Novak often notes, and the campus-to-campus ride takes more than five hours.
So the Huskies exited Interstate 80 in South Bend, Ind., a sensible halfway point, and toured the Hall of Fame. The team watched a 14-minute introductory movie. When it ended, Wolfe looked for a place to sit down.
He couldn't find one. So the junior RB, who intentionally breaks away from defenders on the field, unintentionally broke away from his teammates at the Hall.
"The next thing I know," Wolfe said, "I'm in the Heisman Trophy room."
Novak eventually went looking for Wolfe. And, like an opposing linebacker, Novak struggled to spot him.
"I walked upstairs," Novak said. "There's not much up there. They've got pictures of all the Heisman Trophy winners. He was up there all by himself, just looking out the window, reflecting, just being quiet.
"I could tell he was ready to play great football."
Wolfe hadn't played any football for the previous three games, shelved with a sprained left knee. But this was Toledo, a team that owned NIU (11 consecutive wins) and had haunted Wolfe for an entirely different reason.
A day after the Hall of Fame tour, Wolfe and NIU broke through. Wolfe rushed for 177 yards -- eclipsing 1,000 for the season -- and the Huskies stunned the host Rockets 35-17.
A week later the Huskies won their first-ever MAC West Division title. They aim for a league championship and a bowl bid Thursday against Akron (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Wolfe said NIU's losing streak against Toledo had little effect on him. He had his own losing streak to worry about.
Last year he missed the Toledo game with an eye injury sustained in a fight that began at a DeKalb bar & grill. Wolfe sustained bleeding inside his right eyeball and was advised by doctors not to play against Toledo.
NIU hadn't lost since Wolfe became its feature back in Week 4 against Bowling Green. A sold-out crowd filled Huskie Stadium and ESPN2 cameras peered in from a packed press box, but Wolfe wasn't there and NIU lost 31-17 to Toledo.
"He thought he let the team down," Novak said.
What really irked the ultra-polite Wolfe was how the incident was portrayed in the media. Terms like "bar fight," "football players" and "underage" led to snap-judgments. In truth, Wolfe wasn't drinking and tried to break up the fight.
He got "sucker-punched" according to Novak.
"I feel like I owe my teammates," Wolfe said after returning to practice, a protective visor covering his face.
It took a season, but he reimbursed them, bad knee and all.
"When he got injured, everybody's like, 'Aw, man, another repeat of Garrett going down,'" Huskies WR Sam Hurd said. "But he made a promise to us. He came in the locker room and said, 'Man, I'm coming back.' He did everything in his power. I never saw anybody rehab the way he did."
Hurd normally works out alone at 7 a.m., but Wolfe started beating him to the weight room.
"He's got a lot of heart," Hurd said. "That's one thing you can't take out of him."
Labeled "under the radar" in the 2004 media guide, Wolfe did not carry the ball in his first two seasons. He arrived at NIU as the No. 9 running back and redshirted as a freshman.
The next season Wolfe fell one credit hour short of being academically eligible and sat out again. He finally got a chance last September when starting RB A.J. Harris was injured, and he rushed for 202 yards and three TDs as NIU beat the Falcons in front of a national TV audience.
At practice after the Bowling Green game, Wolfe talked about how easy it was to be forgotten after only one game.
He went on to eclipse 100 rushing yards in his final seven regular-season games. Wolfe finished the season third nationally in scoring (11.45 ppg) and fifth in rushing (150.5 ypg).
With 2,966 rushing yards in 19 games played, Wolfe is the nation's active leader in rushing average (156.1 ypg). Not bad for a 5-foot-7 scat back who carries the football funny (cradled high in his chest), runs a middling 4.55 in the 40-yard dash and has to reach up to open his top-shelf locker at Huskie Stadium.
"He don't say much in the huddle," Hurd said. "But you see that beneath the dark visor, he's smiling. He's ready to go. Sometimes when I get a chance to sit on the sideline and take a play off, it's amazing to see him go out there.
"When he gets in that open field, man, I just call it a touchdown."
Added first-team All-MAC guard Ben Lueck: "With him back, there, it changes our whole thinking. We figure he's the man; he's our guy."
Last season Wolfe had eight touchdown runs of 20 yards or longer and four of 50 yards or longer. He opened 2005 with a 76-yard scoring run at Michigan Stadium and fittingly clinched the Toledo win with a 64-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Wolfe is NIU's seventh consecutive 1,000-yard rusher, a streak shared only by Minnesota.
"I've been very fortunate to have some great statistics," Wolfe said, "but me getting to 1,000 yards this year was something that was real important. I wanted to continue on that tradition."
In 2003 NIU ran a Heisman campaign for now San Diego Chargers RB Michael Turner and distributed Turner "The Burner" hot sauce bottles to media members. With Wolfe likely to finish among the nation's top-five rushers for the second straight season -- he will reenter the rankings after Thursday's game -- he could be next year's mid-major contender.
Wolfe run, anyone?
Novak isn't the biggest fan of Heisman campaigns, but Wolfe wouldn't be hard to market.
"He's gotten so grown up," Novak said. "We had an alumni function a week ago. We had 400 big-time givers there, and we asked him to go. He got up and spoke, and I just stood back.
"The kid was so eloquent. Everybody loves him. He's just a hard guy not to like."
Too bad no one snapped a picture of Wolfe in the Heisman room in South Bend.
"That's everyone's ultimate goal, to win a Heisman Trophy," he said. "It'd be great for me to accomplish that, but at this moment all I'm thinking about is the MAC championship."
Wolfe's priorities are in order. NIU has only lost one MAC game with him on the field -- to Akron on Sept. 24.
"With Garrett back there, he'll be like, 'Let's go,'" Hurd said. "When he says it, everybody else says it. We're ready. Strap up and let's go play."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
3dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna