May 2, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- If you're around Wake Forest football for long, you're pretty sure to run into Jon Abbate and his bloody nose.
Abbate, a Wake linebacker, pretty much sports constant blood on the bridge of his nose, mainly from smashing into things. Usually, it's his own helmet smashing down on the nose, but if you know Abbate, you probably wouldn't be surprised if he also just went around smashing into other stuff on campus.
Abbate was pulled early from the spring scrimmage, as coaches obviously didn't need to know what he can do. He has led the team in tackles for two straight seasons.
But later in the afternoon, the staff looked up to find the familiar No. 40 making a tackle. Pierre Easley had come out to catch his breath, and Abbate had jumped right in. The staff went nuts, jumping on Easley to get back into the game and to get Abbate out. No one was sure whether they were more afraid that Abbate would hurt himself or someone else.
It's that kind of fight that may make this Wake defense the best in Jim Grobe's tenure. It's deep, talented and has a fire to it. Other aggressive, confident players include end Matt Robinson, linebacker Aaron Curry and cornerback Alphonso Smith.
Grobe knows he needs the defense this fall. After years of having his offense try to carry the defense, it could be the other way around.
"That needs to be the strength of our team," Grobe said. "If we're going to be a really good football team, we've got to be strong defensively. We've had defenses that have competed really hard in the five years I've been here, but for us to win our share, we've got to be a better football team on third down. We've got to be a better football team closing people out at the end of games. I think we can be that.
"We're more talented than we've been. We're deeper than we've ever been, and we've got an attitude that I really like. We've got a pretty tough mentality on defense right now."
If all goes well, Grobe sees his offense trying to create the same attitude behind a running game that he hopes will be even tougher, despite the loss of Chris Barclay, the school's all-time rushing leader. Grobe said Micah Andrews and De'Angelo Bryant bring a tough inside style.
"They're more punishing when they run the football," Grobe said. "That may actually help us as an offense. Both De'Angelo and Micah might keep our offense on the field a little longer. We may be more of a possession offense, and we may actually be a better red zone football team than we have been."
PAUL-WAKE TIES WORTH WATCHING
In the long run, it will be interesting to see what the impact of Chris Paul will be in Wake Forest history. Paul's association has been a bit of a roller-coaster so far, but he has the potential to be the most influential Wake athlete since Arnold Palmer.
Paul jumped into the public eye as a local hero. He was a cherubic basketball star at nearby West Forsyth High School who said and did the right things. His 61-point tribute to his murdered grandfather spread his fame way beyond Winston-Salem. He came to the hometown school and excelled immediately. The popularity and winning percentage of the Deacons soared.
Many believed that he would be like former Wake star Tim Duncan, one of the last great college players to stay in school for four years. Even Paul's own comments made it seem that way.
But then his career and perception at Wake tumbled. He punched Julius Hodge of N.C. State in the groin at the end of his sophomore year, leading to a suspension that contributed to a first-round ACC Tournament loss. After that season, he declared for the NBA, shattering the hearts of many.
Some fans attacked him, saying he had gone back on previous comments, that he essentially had tricked Skip Prosser and hadn't left the coach enough time to find a replacement, that he hadn't really won anything at Wake, so what was so great about him?
Paul went off to New Orleans and proved he was ready for the NBA. He's a shoo-in for rookie of the year and deserved consideration as an all-star. He'll likely be an Olympian in the future, and he was named to People's 100 Most Beautiful list.
Others have gone on to stardom from Wake and haven't really looked back. The school doesn't have much of a tie to Duncan, Rodney Rogers or Randolph Childress. The three don't really even help Wake on the side by playing up where they came from, let alone coming back and doing anything with the school directly.
But Paul, despite some of the nastiness of his exit, likely will be a hometown hero for years to come. He bought a house in Winston-Salem, near his parents. Before he even signed his contract, he wanted to give back to not just the community, but also the school.
Tom George, the senior marketing officer for Paul's management company, Octagon, said he hasn't seen anything like it from another athlete.
"The first time we sat down with him," George said, "the first thing out of his mouth was that he wanted to come up with ways to take care of Winston-Salem, West Forsyth and Wake Forest."
So far, Paul has refurbished the Rupert Bell Recreation Center, which is near where his grandfather's service station was located. He hopes to have an annual event there. He's started the CP3 Foundation, and its first item of business was to create the Nathaniel Jones Scholarship Fund, which will give a local high school graduate a full scholarship to Wake Forest. Paul has said he wants the foundation to focus on children who don't have the resources and support to succeed.
So how does Wake come into this? Well, Prosser was at the recreation center event, so relations certainly are not frosty between the two. Paul can be a great tool for the basketball program if he wants to be. Calls from an NBA all-star never hurt the recruiting process.
In addition, Paul's creating more and more elements to his "great story." Each of them can be a great publicity pop for the school. What if he comes back to graduate from Wake, which he's mentioned? What if he continues to be an NBA standout on the court? How many media outlets will be all over telling the Paul "story" if he continues?
Palmer became beloved by the country, but almost as important, by the press. Paul has a similar personality, and if Wake can keep itself in his good graces, it should be a big win for the school in the long run.