What can get a 6-foot, 290-pound lineman running faster than ever before?
Seeing his 4-2, 155-pound friend and teammate reach a goal, which just so happened to be reaching the goal line.
Joel Wardle, a Fairview senior who was born with a dwarfism condition called achondroplasia, scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the Eagles’ 53-12 win at Powell County on Friday night. It was one night after his 18th birthday.
“The moment was inspirational,” said fellow senior and close friend Cody Sammons. “He just kept pushing and pushing all season, and never gave up.”
Sammons, the aforementioned lineman, watched intently from the sidelines. All of the team’s backups were in the game.
After Wardle dove past a defender into the end zone, capping a three-carry, seven-yard effort, Sammons sprinted to give him a hug.
“I didn’t care to get a penalty or anything,” Sammons said. “I was so excited for him.”
Wardle has been a sports lover since the age of 3. He’s played baseball all of his life, never having taken a year off. Football, though, has entailed a different journey. He began playing Junior Football League, but it didn’t last long.
This past winter, Sammons and senior Devon Turner, among others, persistently persuaded Wardle to return to a game he loved.
“They kept encouraging me to play, so I decided to start lifting weights with them in December,” Wardle said.
Ten months (and 10 wins) later, Wardle said this about that decision: “It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my sports career.”
With “tremendous” support, as he called it, from the community since coming to Fairview from Ashland before his freshman year, he’s excelled in the classroom (3.9 grade point average). Wardle aspires to go to the University of Kentucky and become a physical therapist.
Described as funny and laid back, Wardle also can show a serious side. Some of that was displayed as he began garnering plenty of attention in the weight room this past winter.
According to Sammons, Wardle is the hardest worker on the team. His numbers show it: 285-pound bench press and 455-pound squat.
“He does everything we ask him to do,” said Fairview coach Nathan McPeek. “I respect Joel, not only for what he’s been through, but the kind of man he’s become.”
Perhaps Wardle’s most unique talent is turning his disorder into an advantage.
“The disability that I have helped me push harder to keep up with other kids,” Wardle said. “I just want to be the best I can and I know there’s always room for improvement. There’s no limit to how good I can be.”
Along with running back, Wardle has also played defensive tackle. He’s gotten rushing attempts in three games — against Greenup County, Paintsville and now Powell County.
Wardle won’t forget the chain of events that led up to achieving his main personal goal on Friday.
Running backs coach Garry McPeek informed Wardle late in the game that coaches were going to allow him to get in, and they were wanting him to get a score.
That score came after two prior runs, one of a short loss and another nice gain.
“There was about 40 seconds left on the clock, and I previously ran a seven-yard run to get me there,” Wardle recalled of helping his team reach the 1-yard line. “I told the guys in the huddle to block one more time and I’ll get this one in.
“They did their job, but there was one man that didn’t get blocked. He was coming right at me so I had to dive in.”
According to Wardle, offensive linemen Josh Russell and Aaron Fitchpatrick made key blocks for him, as did quarterback Kyle Stormes.
Then, it was time to soak up the celebration.
“I just saw everyone come up to me,” Wardle said. “It felt so good knowing that I accomplished my goal finally.”
Said Sammons: “That was one of the best moments of my career. It ranks up right up there with beating Raceland this season.”
While Wardle has relished the highlight, he knows it’s time to move on and try to help his team reach the ultimate goal, that of a state title. The Eagles (10-0) begin their playoff road at home against Phelps on Thursday night at 7.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.