Jamal Womble didn’t know if he ever would get a second chance.
Football was his life growing up. Womble said it’s the only thing he knew. As a high school senior in Arizona, he was considered the nation’s 13th-best running back prospect. He chose to attend North Carolina. He wanted to compete in the ACC.
But things didn’t go according to plan.
After redshirting his freshman year, Womble was ready for his first college season. Midway through, he fractured his right wrist on the opening kickoff against Georgia Southern. Soon his grades slipped. By the end of 2009, Womble was academically ineligible.
“When I first heard the news, the first thing I thought was football is over for me,” Womble said. “When I tell you, ‘I live and die for this game,’ I live and die for this game. Outside of my family and God, there is nothing more important than football for me.”
Fortunately for Womble, he’ll get his second chance.
A three-star running back prospect, Womble was one of 22 players to sign a national letter of intent Wednesday to play football at Northern Illinois. He might be the most talented player in the class. But Womble said Thursday he hasn’t forgotten how hard it was to arrive at this point.
After becoming academically ineligible, Womble had the choice to transfer to a Division II school or attend junior college. He also could sit a year and stay in Chapel Hill, but that would’ve been the third straight season Womble couldn’t play. He said sitting never was an option.
So Womble decided on Hutchinson Community College in a town of 17,000 people in Newton, Kan. He immediately went from being one of his team’s youngest players – “the little brother,” as he called it – to a veteran. Womble said the cultural difference made him mature, basically overnight. Hutchinson coach Rion Rhoades said he could tell the difference.
“He’s got a new focus,” Rhoades said. “Jamal had to do it. Everybody around him gave him the right advice. He’s been able to get it knocked out. I’ve seen him get it done; that’s the change I’ve seen.
“He did what he needed to do here at Hutch to get back on his feet.”
Splitting carries with another back, Womble rushed for 712 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games last season. He averaged a touchdown for every 15 carries. And he compiled an impressive highlight reel during his one season.
Womble’s recruiter, NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz, first saw him make a highlight-reel run against Independence in the third game of last season.
Womble finished the game with 159 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. He still looked like a BCS running back. His size – 5-foot-11, 235 pounds – made him a headache for opposing linebackers and safeties to tackle. He had tremendous speed and vision, enabling him to change sides of the field when openings were there.
“I didn’t think there was a chance we could sign him,” Matukewicz said. “I thought for sure he was gone.”
North Carolina originally protected Womble’s commitment when he went to Hutchinson, but the two sides decided it was best to separate.
Womble and Matukewicz immediately developed a bond. Matukewicz related to Womble. He too had gone to a junior college. Never once did he question whether Womble had genuinely learned his lesson. Womble verbally committed to NIU.
“The converts are the best kind. They really are,” Matukewicz said. “When you screw something up, if you learn from it, you’ll never make the same mistake again. You’re even more committed. I think that’s how he’s using this situation.”
Things finally were going smoothly again. Womble felt comfortable with his decision to play at NIU, where he could have the chance to follow the legacy of Michael Turner, Garrett Wolfe and Chad Spann. He was content.
Then Jerry Kill left the Huskies for Minnesota.
Womble never was close to Kill. His player-recruiter relationship was firmly entrenched with Matukewicz. But Womble knew a new head coach came with a new staff and – sometimes – a different way of doing things.
“I just told him all the things you fell in love with are still here,” Matukewicz said. “This has been a rich history of tailbacks. Being in the cold weather, even in the MAC, we’re going to run the ball. So the same things we talked about before were still the same.”
That might have been the case. Womble loved the university, and it wasn’t going anywhere. He loved Matukewicz, and he was staying on new coach Dave Doeren’s staff.
But Womble has dreams. As long as he can remember, his goal always has been to play in the NFL. He knew his next step after Hutchinson was his final chance to make his dream a reality. He couldn’t afford to waste a second chance.
Womble re-opened his recruitment, just to make sure he was choosing the right place. It wasn’t until he talked with Doeren and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner – and was assured running the football would remain the focus of the Huskies’ offense – that he finally settled on NIU.
“I talked to coach Doeren the first day he took the job,” Womble said. “I liked his attitude. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.”
It still is unknown what Womble will do in the two seasons he has remaining. The games will ultimately define his NIU legacy. And similar to Hutchinson, NIU could have a crowded backfield this fall.
But when Womble does get his first carry, he’ll have received his second chance along with it. And that’s a lesson Womble believes is worth sharing.
“When adversity strikes, you have to go through it,” Womble said. “When I was taking punches, I wasn’t going to lay down. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to pick yourself up.
“When adversity happens, you can’t let that affect the rest of your life.”