The Next Big Thing
The Next Big Thing
"So I went in search of the Friday night lights, to find a town where they brightly blaze, that lay beyond the East Coast and the grip of the big cities, a place that people had to pull out an atlas to find and had seen better times. A real America."
Preface to Friday Night Lights
Smith Center, Hillsboro, Windom and Little River. These are such places. Small towns are full of traditions---county fairs, street dances, and class reunions. And, on Friday nights, there are football games. Products of small Kansas communities have experienced success at Kansas State. In the past decade Mark Simoneau of Smith Center, Ian Campbell of Cimarron, Jon McGraw and Jordy Nelson of Riley, all enjoyed storybook careers as Wildcats, and all come from communities of fewer than 2,000 people. The precedent has been set for small town kids to make it big as Wildcats, a trend that Braden Wilson, Wade Weibert and Trevor Viers, as well as the other players on the roster who hail from small rural Kansas communities, hope will continue.
For the Wildcat players who come from larger cities like Houston, Texas, adjusting to life in the Little Apple can be quite a challenge. For the players from smaller communities, the adjustment can be equally challenging. Manhattan, Kan., has a population of nearly 50,000 people. Compared to Smith Center, Kan., with a population of 1,200, where freshman fullback Braden Wilson is from, that's a striking difference.
"Smith Center is a really small town," Wilson said. "It's a nice place, a friendly place. It's also out in the middle of nowhere. Where I'm from, we have to drive an hour if we want to go to a McDonald's, and if we want to go to Wal-Mart, we have to drive an hour and a half."
The proximity to a Wal-Mart isn't the only difference between the small communities and Manhattan. Trevor Viers, a junior offensive lineman from Windom, Kan., graduated from Little River High School in a class of 17. With some freshman lecture classes with several hundred students, becoming accustomed to the academic side of life on campus was a little daunting.
"At first, it was (a challenge), because I wasn't used to that many people," Viers said. "At the same time, that's more people to help you and it's easy to get accustomed to that, so it wasn't hard to change."
Helping each player make his transition to the larger class sizes and a bigger football stage are lessons learned back home. Wade Weibert, a junior offensive lineman from Hillsboro, Kan., has seen many advantages to being raised in a smaller community.
"Coming from a small town, everyone was very blue collar. Everyone came from a middle class, blue collar family. In sports in high school, we all knew that we had to put in the work in the off-season. That's one thing I took to junior college. I never took anything for granted."
For Weibert, the hard working approach paid off when he helped lead Butler County Community College to the national championship in 2007. He has carried that work ethic with him to K-State.
"Even here, if you have a starting position, you have to work harder to keep it," he said. "You always have a chip on your shoulder if you're from a blue collar community. Everyday, when I go to workouts, I feel like I have to prove something, if not to someone else, then to myself. My parents, my grandparents raised me to believe that I had to work for everything."
Weibert isn't the only Wildcat to believe that his work ethic is a lesson learned from home. Viers agreed, noting that the extra work helped him get noticed by Division I schools.
"When you come from such a small town, it's a lot harder to get noticed," he said. "You really have to put in the effort. I had to make my own tapes so that I could get noticed by schools. You've really got to work hard because you don't have the advantages that other people have. You learn a lot by working hard. I was fortunate enough to make it."
Like Weibert, Viers's hard work helped him achieve success in high school as he won the Class 1A State Title in the shot put as a senior.
Success is another thing all three players have in common. None, however, have experienced as much success on the football field as Wilson. Playing for one of the winningest high school programs in Kansas history, Wilson helped the Redmen to four consecutive undefeated state championships. During his senior season, Smith Center made national headlines in the New York Times and on ESPN for a remarkable run of shutouts en route to a fourth straight title. Wilson said he feels the pressure to keep the winning tradition he started at Smith Center going as he begins his career for the Wildcats. On top of that, he must also try and follow in the footsteps of 2008 Ring of Honor inductee Mark Simoneau, a Smith Center graduate himself.
"It puts a lot of weight on your shoulders because everyone is expecting you to be good when you come from a place like that," Wilson said. "For me, I don't really want to let people down back home. It gives me more motivation to keep working hard and keep doing my best, doing as well as I can."
A desire to play for those left behind at home is another area of common ground among the three players. Like Wilson, Weibert feels the need to help his community maintain a positive reputation.
"You feel valued by your community, and you almost consider yourself an ambassador for that community," he said. "I always want to make Hillsboro look good. When I go out onto the field, whether it's on TV or not, people are going to see, 'Oh, that Wade Weibert, he's from Hillsboro.' I don't want to make any mistakes or get too emotional and get a personal foul called on me because a lot of times people start labeling an entire community based on one person. Especially in a small, hardworking town like the one I come from, you don't want to do that. You don't want to have a negative effect on the good reputation the town has tried to build."
As a result of the success each has enjoyed on the gridiron, there is an underlying burning desire to win and an absolute hatred of losing. After hearing each of them talk, a pattern begins to appear.
"I didn't lose a game in high school, and I just absolutely hate to lose," said Wilson.
"Once you've had a taste of winning, or once you know how to win, you never want to lose," said Viers.
"You put a lot of pressure on yourself to push yourself and push your teammates to that next level because you know what it feels like to be a winner," said Weibert.
Their drive to win, they hope, will also help them achieve another of their joint goals---rebuilding a tradition of winning for K-State football. With the return of legendary head coach Bill Snyder to the sidelines, they hope that history will continue to repeat itself. Each player grew up watching Coach Snyder and his teams compete in bowl games and make regular appearances at the top of national polls.
"It's an honor (to play for Coach Snyder)," Wilson said. "I've been a K-State fan my entire life, so just getting the chance to play for him, it's really an honor. His coming back, for me, it was the best that that could have happened to the program and I'm just glad that I have the chance to experience it."
While trying to help revive the K-State program is a common goal among them, they also have a desire not only to represent their communities, families, and Kansas State University, but also to make a statement for players from small towns across the state.
"I wanted to go Division I out of high school, just like every other player (across the state) probably wanted to, and coming from a small school, it's very hard for Division I's to want to risk that scholarship on a small town player who maybe doesn't play the big time competition," Weibert said. "Coming from a small town that's very supportive, I want to push myself to prove that small town players can play ball just as well as the big city kids."