By Bruce Wood
Sammy McCorkle well remembers meeting with 6-foot-1, 225-pound Dartmouth free safety Garrett Waggoner back when he was recruiting him out of Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla.
“He was an outside linebacker and he wasn’t as big as he is now, that’s for sure,” the Big Green’s secondary coach said with a chuckle after a recent practice. “We were sitting there and I said, ‘We want to look at you as a possible safety.’ He gave me this look like I was crazy.
“I said, ‘You are fast. You’re going to be big. There are some things that we can work on to get you better. You can do it.’ ”
Although the transition would require Waggoner to improve his change of direction and develop his ability to play the deep pass, McCorkle had an ace in the hole convincing him it was possible.
“I know you won’t believe it but when I was in high school I was an inside linebacker,” said McCorkle, who was listed at 5-9, 182 when he played safety for the Florida Gators. “I told Wags, ‘When I went to Florida I had to learn to be a safety just like you are going to have to. You have the ability. You are much bigger than I was. You are much faster than I was. So you’ve got an advantage there.’ ”
As it turned out, the transition was relatively seamless for Waggoner — the grandson of a Canadian Football League running back who played at Tulane and the son of a Florida Gator running back — who long dreamed of following in their footsteps, although on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“I started playing when I was 6- or 7-years-old in a flag league in Sarasota and was a quarterback,” said the Waggoner. “My first year in pads was when I was 9 or 10 and my dad was one of the assistant coaches. After the first day of tackling we came home and my mom said, ‘How did he do?’
“My dad said, ‘Well, we have a hitter.’ I guess I’ve had that defensive mindset ever since we started tackling. You are either the hammer or the nail and I prefer to be the hammer.”
A hammer is a pretty good description of Waggoner according to Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens, who admitted to worrying before the season that a free safety his size would face extra scrutiny from officials because of the added emphasis this year on targeted hits.
“He is a physical guy,” Teevens said. “He’s someone that is going to intimidate people. He’s a big ol’ guy who runs well and likes to hit.”
An academic all-state selection in Florida, Waggoner took recruiting visits to so-called “Little Ivies” — Amherst, Williams and Middlebury of the NESCAC, along with trips to Holy Cross, Cornell and Dartmouth.
“I was smaller, I had marginal strength and questionable speed,” said Waggoner. “It was the whole nine yards, but fortunately Dartmouth took a chance on me.”
If he didn’t necessarily have the ideal measurables as a high school player, the Sarasota Herald Tribune honorable-mention pick who lettered three times at Riverview and captained the Rams as a senior had the intangibles coaches love. Just ask defensive coordinator Don Dobes.
“He’s the quarterback of our back end,” said Dobes. “We call him the bus driver because he makes sure we have 11 guys playing as one. He’s really bought into that leadership thing besides being a captain. He really loves the X’s and O’s part.
“I hate to say 110 percent because I always believe there’s only 100, but he’s a 100 percent-plus football player. He’s a little bit of a throwback. He reminds me of guys that played in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Everything’s about football, and how do I get better.”
One other quality Dobes might have mentioned is loyalty. For as much as he wanted to play football at the highest level he could, Waggoner did not give into temptation when that opportunity presented itself.
“I got a call from Duke late in the recruiting process, the end of March my senior year in high school,” he said. “I had already committed to Dartmouth, even though it was just a verbal. Duke was enticing, offering some good stuff, but I stayed true to my commitment. Going to an Ivy League school is a special opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it.”
That the history major modified by economics has done.
As a freshman he got into all 10 games, earning the first of four starts at strong safety against Yale and finishing eighth on the team in tackles after making 30 stops over the final three games.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “I got to play alongside Pete Pidermann, the team captain who mentored me through the whole freshman fall. In my experience, that’s the hardest term at school. You’re leaving home. You are thrown right into a full-on football season and a full-on Ivy League academic course schedule. It’s a big jump, but I feel like I did fairly well.”
He did even better the next fall, starting all 10 games at free safety and receiving the team’s Doten Award as the sophomore who contributed the most to the team’s defensive success while leading the Big Green with 61 tackles.
Waggoner injured his knee in the scrimmage against Harvard before his junior year and after playing in pain at what he estimated was 75 percent at best, he listened to the medical professionals and made a tough call.
“It just wasn’t getting any better and was going to deteriorate if I continued playing on it,” he said. “So the decision was made to shut down the rest of the season and hopefully petition for a fifth year.”
Waggoner spent the rest of the season as a hybrid manager-student coach, helping where he could, moving equipment around on the field and soaking up everything he could in meetings and film sessions. Recognized by his teammates for his dedication and leadership as much as for his ability, he was elected a team captain in the spring of 2012 and then went on to earn a spot on the All-Ivy League First Team last fall.
Waggoner credits his injury for helping him become the player he is today.
“I was kind of a late bloomer and being able to come back for a fifth season allowed me to catch up,” he said. “In hindsight, I guess the injury could be seen as a blessing in disguise. I was really down in the dumps for a while, but then I realized being down about it wasn’t going to help. I had to have a positive attitude about my injury.”
Re-elected a captain by his teammates last spring, Waggoner spent the summer working out in Florida with a couple of trainers who have helped prepare more than 130 NFL draft picks ranging from Eddie George to Deion Sanders. While there’s been a growing push to have Dartmouth players spend their summers in Hanover working under the watchful eye of strength coach Dave Jenkerson, McCorkle wasn’t remotely concerned that Waggoner was lolling on the Gulf Coast beaches instead of hitting the gym.
“He does a very good job working hard on the football field, but it’s with the off-season stuff he does that he really separates himself from a lot of football players,” McCorkle said. “Wags is going to be the first guy up in the morning. He’s going to be the first one in the weight room and the last one to leave the weight room. He takes care of his body. He eats the right foods. He drinks the right stuff. Everything that he does physically is for one goal, and that is to be the best football player on the field.”
“I want to play football as long as I’m able,” Waggoner said. “After this season I will be training for either a combine or pro days and see where it goes from there.”
McCorkle thinks Waggoner will get the chance.
“He’s going to have good numbers and test well,” he said. “He’s a big guy and a student of the game who a lot of teams are going to look at as a guy who can cover some wide receivers as a possible outside linebacker.”
And if the NFL scouts wonder if he can play the position, Dartmouth’s associate head coach has a story he can tell them about when he did.
A veteran writer and observer of Dartmouth athletics, Bruce Wood launched a web site in 2005, www.biggreenalert.com, specializing in Big Green football news coverage.