Senior receiver Austin Wolfe balances football with ROTC
Among the many snaps the MSU football team plays every Saturday, a special few stood out in the waning, forgettable moments of a blowout victory against Rutgers University. Senior wide receiver Austin Wolfe took the gridiron for the second time that day, slotting out wide for head coach Mark Dantonio’s team.
That Saturday afternoon, the first time Wolfe took the field was with his father, Christopher Wolfe. The elder Wolfe served in the U.S. Army for 29 years and was honored during a break. The moment came just one day after Veterans Day.
“For me and him to be out there, it was definitely surreal,” Wolfe said. “I was with him in front of 70,000 people. It’s a lot bigger than just him and I — it was for all the veterans out there. But to represent all of them was a special moment and it was rewarding.”
Similar to his father, the younger Wolfe, Austin, is a part of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, ROTC, program at MSU called the Spartan Battalion. He credited his father as being one of the major influences in that aspect of his life.
“My dad was in the military for 30 years,” Wolfe said. “So I kind of grew up in it. It was something that I was inspired to do from a young age.”
On the road
Earlier in his life, Wolfe moved around with his family before eventually settling in East Lansing. Originally born in Fort Riley, Kan., Wolfe said he relocated to many places during his adolescence.
Wolfe picked up the pigskin somewhere along the way while in Germany in the seventh grade, late compared to some of his peers.
“(Playing football) was mostly through a neighborhood activity,” Wolfe said. “Kids started playing, and I guess my parents thought I had some athletic ability so they got me started up. It was actually on a military base. I was in Germany, so the competition was a little bit different than here in the states.”
Wolfe was able to come to MSU because he was offered a scholarship through the ROTC program. While technically a walk-on athlete in the eyes of football, it’s a different story off the field.
“I applied for a scholarship here and luckily got it,” Wolfe said. “I went to high school in Virginia and I came a little ways away, but I knew I wanted to go to a great, prestigious program. The only way I was going to come here was through a scholarship.”
Life on the gridiron
While Wolfe originally came to MSU to be in the ROTC program, he’s been a part of the football program all four years — except for the first week of his freshman year.
Wolfe is listed as a redshirt-junior in terms of his football eligibility, but because of his ROTC scholarship, he’ll be graduating this upcoming spring. The 2016 season will be his final year donning the green and white, his family name accompanying the No. 26 across his back.
Though he’s seen sparse playing time throughout his career, Wolfe’s main contribution to the team has been through the scout team. There, while mimicking the Spartans’ next opponent, he’s found a niche for himself, able to be a friendly voice to the younger players on the team.
“I’ve been through it with in-season, winter conditioning, summer workouts, all that,” Wolfe said. “It gives me an opportunity to teach and mentor some of the younger guys, give them a good idea about how things run and what they need to do to succeed.”
Through the years during practice, head football coach Mark Dantonio has stressed to get 3 percent better every day. After spending the past four years with Wolfe, wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel said he’s seen a lot more than a 3 percent improvement from his wideout.
“Austin has probably gotten 15-20 percent better,” Samuel said. “The kid works really hard at his craft. He takes it very seriously. He’s always asking questions. He’s never beyond being coached.”
Through all of the reps in the weight room for football, Wolfe has had to balance his commitment with ROTC. Between the duo, the senior has had to push his body through a variety of physical tasks.
Under the watchful eye of Tommy Hoke, the associate head strength and conditioning coach, Hoke said he noticed the unnatural physicality of Wolfe.
“I can’t remember any time we’ve really physically got him tired,” Hoke said. “We work them out pretty hard. I’m trying to recall anytime where he’s been exhausted to the point of having to take a knee or bend over. I can’t recall anytime that he’s been like that.”
Starting in the 2013 season with the Rose Bowl to last year with a College Football Playoff appearance, Wolfe has seen it all at MSU. One special moment for the senior, though, came in a regular season matchup against MSU’s main rival, the University of Michigan.
“I would definitely say one of the best times, other than just being with the guys all the time, is the 2013 game against Michigan at home,” Wolfe said. “Just that atmosphere, it’s almost incomparable to almost anything else I’ve ever experienced. Definitely one of my best moments.”
As the football season creeps closer to its finish line, Wolfe will head back to his normal schedule for ROTC. In the fall, Wolfe’s routine gets a little shakeup in order to balance the two big commitments.
While Wolfe does lose some time with his ROTC companions, one of his superiors, Capt. Matthew Kabat, said he’s never had a problem fitting right back in with his peers.
“The camaraderie is unfortunate during the fall, he does miss a few of the events that helps build and develop,” Kabat said. “On the other side of it, over the years, it seems that he’s really developed those friendships and that good co-working mentality and team building. He really has no problem fitting back in when he does come back.”
On one of Wolfe’s busiest days juggling football and Spartan Battalion, he said his days start as early as 5 a.m. Through the hard work of a normal day, Kabat said beyond it all, the one thing he enjoyed the most about Wolfe was his attitude.
“What I really appreciate the most about him is his sense of humor,” Kabat said. “This kid is busy. This kid is probably tired, just on a day-to-day basis, the grind. ... But every day you see him come in, he’s got a smile on his face.”
Wolfe is sneaking up on completing his fourth year with the Spartan Battalion as he nears graduation. Through all the hardships and memories, he said that some of the best moments in the program came in the early hours of the morning, before anyone’s awake on campus.
“Every now and then we have our early morning 4 a.m. ruck marches,” Wolfe said. “It’s like three to six miles around campus when it’s pitch black. When we’re out there in the morning, it can be tough. But the camaraderie, everyone’s high-energy in the morning. It’s a great feeling, something good to be a part of.”
With just a few months separating Wolfe and the real world after college, Wolfe said regardless of the future, there were aspects of ROTC that he will take with him wherever he goes.
“It’s been definitely worthwhile,” Wolfe said. “As far as whether I make a career out of the military or not, I’ve learned lifelong lessons that will guide me throughout wherever my path takes me. It’s like I tell people, it’s a big leadership program, anyone that comes out of there learns a lot about themselves and working with others.”
Wolfe is set to graduate this upcoming spring, but as for where he’ll be and what he’ll be doing afterwards he said it is yet to be determined. Fortunately, Wolfe is contracted with the ROTC, so he’ll be commissioned as a second lieutenant wherever he ends up.
“Because he is going active duty, I think he can take a lot of the things that we work on and develop on here very directly into his next line of work,” Kabat said. “Even external, though, if you’re looking at something along the lines of the football team. Even some semblance of that leadership quality. We’re also building and developing leaders of character.”
On the football field, through everything Wolfe has done there, Samuel said he’s seen the impact Spartan Battalion has had on his senior.
“I think a thing that’s helped him with football is ROTC, and probably vice versa,” Samuel said. “They all work to give him perspective. To get the most out of your abilities, to get the most out of your opportunities, you have to give 100 percent effort.”
While Wolfe’s college career had him busy nearly every waking moment, he said regardless of it all, the experience he’s collected has been a rewarding one.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Wolfe said. “It’s the small things that really make a difference when you’re running out of the tunnel on Saturdays, when you’re just hanging with ROTC guys out in the field. All those moments they create the memories down the road. Just being those specific points of time make it all worth it.”