MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Drew Wolitarsky will leave Minnesota without a Big Ten championship or a high-profile bowl victory, with losses by the Gophers in the majority of their trophy games against longstanding rivals.
That's not where the story of Wolitarsky's career ends, though. The Gophers seniors, for all the letdowns they've had over the last four years, have 30 wins with two games to go starting on Saturday at Wisconsin. The last class with that many victories was 2006. The Gophers have reached eight wins, including five in the Big Ten, which remain notable benchmarks for this program even in a season with a softer schedule.
Then there's the off-the-field part, the lessons learned that will linger long after the last route is run and the final ball is caught.
"It's a life-changing experience. It really is. The main thing it taught me is I have the ability to go out into something extremely new, whether I'm nervous or anxious to do it, and excel in it," said Wolitarsky , who's third in the conference with 57 receptions and eighth with 711 yards. "If anything, it's given me the confidence to do it again. Go somewhere new, try something new and be able to acclimate to it and succeed."
Wolitarsky left Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, California, as the state's all-time leading receiver with 281 catches and 5,148 yards. He wasn't a five-star recruit, though, so with Arizona, Army and San Jose State also under consideration he took a chance on the Big Ten with the Gophers. The passing game hasn't always clicked, but the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Wolitarsky is on track to finish in the top five in Minnesota history for single-season receptions and in the top 10 all-time for career yards. He's already ninth in career catches.
Was this the production he envisioned?
"I did, and then that first camp hit me and all my futuristic thinking went out the window," Wolitarsky said. "I definitely gained the ability to stay in the moment, and that's something I had to learn. Just being present, letting things come to you and not trying to force things. Because every kid wants to do well, have big games, go to the NFL, but if you can't keep your focus at the present moment, a lot of things can go wrong and you lose touch with who you are and what you're doing."
The challenge of maintaining that mindset is made easier by his non-football pastime of writing. An English major who was sparked to pursue the skill by Mitch Albom and inspired by other authors like Stephen King, Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, Wolitarsky has published several science-fiction pieces and had a six-part short story published in a student-run campus magazine . During this season, he has delved more into poetry and shorter essays.
Despite the discipline and uniformity of the sport, Wolitarsky has found plenty of art form in football too.
"Try to get into the defensive back's head. What's he thinking I'm going to run, and then how can I deceive him based on what he's seen me do before," Wolitarsky said. "So you can use your creativity, and that's what I try to do in my routes. It's fun that way."
Whether he can make it in the NFL or not, Wolitarsky will have plenty of options for his post-football life. Mentoring is one passion, having worked for a Twin Cities non-profit organization that supports youth in the arts .
"I'm very adaptive, and I can do a lot of things," he said. "I'm very creative, so whatever I do would have to be something where I could use my creative ability and not sit at a desk all day and stare at a screen."
He's more than a one-dimensional player on the field, too.
"He's blocked well, too. I mean, he really has, and he's had a complete year," coach Tracy Claeys said.
Wolitarsky and quarterback Mitch Leidner have also been the primary source of the positive energy that has helped carry a tight-knit class through the ups and downs of their career.
"Always carries himself with class, and you can't say enough good things about him and what he's done for this program," Leidner said.
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