Joseph Goodman: Jared Wheeler’s surprise start for Canes forces dad to improvise

Of all the Saturdays, of course Jim Wheeler’s eldest son would finally start his first game for the Canes this Saturday.

Of course Jared Wheeler, after waiting for more than four years, would be a first-teamer for the first time on the same Saturday his father already had made plans to be at another stadium more than 1,000 miles away.

“Doesn’t it always happen that way?” Dad Wheeler said.

No, not really. In fact, maybe it has never happened this way in the history of college football.

Why would a father miss his son’s first start, especially a son who is a redshirt senior and might never start again? Because, let’s be honest here, who wants to watch Miami flatten Savannah State when you have a perfectly good excuse — as in, another football-playing son — to skip it for a better game?

Months ago, when Jim Wheeler was planning how to watch two sons at two universities separated by four states, he saw Miami-Savannah State and Maryland-West Virginia on his competing schedules and made the call to attend the Terrapins’ neutral-site game against West Virginia. Jake Wheeler, a junior, is a backup left tackle for Maryland, which plays West Virginia at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.

Jared Wheeler, the redshirt senior at Miami, was a backup until Thursday when it was announced that Miami’s starting center, Shane McDermott, would miss Saturday’s game because of an injury. The Canes play at 7 p.m., so, “we’ve got it all worked out,” Jim Wheeler said. “We’re going to watch Miami on ESPN3.”

So, the Wheelers will be watching one son live and in person in Baltimore while also watching another son on a smartphone.

No, in case you were wondering, this week’s column wasn’t intended to be an advertisement for ESPN or smartphones. It is, however, an endorsement for college football, which has come under serious yet warranted criticism in recent weeks.

It’s easy to be cynical about college football and all of its warts — and we can all agree that this column has led the cynical parade for about three years — but sometimes it’s important to point out that the sport isn’t one big cesspool. This is one of those times.

The Wheeler sons — both career backups for their teams — represent the backbone of intercollegiate athletics. The backbone is strong.

In spite of the river of money fueling the sport and despite the corruption and crookedness that is inevitable when fans of a game played by amateurs don’t care if their universities win clean or win dirty, the structure of college football at its core is morally right.

The spine is straight and true and still works.

Jared Wheelerwill graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering worth about $200,000. Remind me again, conference commissioners, why football players need stipends?

But this is just one example, you say? How could you be so naïve?

No, college football is full of these types of stories. Jared Wheeler is special, no question, but he is not unique. All college teams are filled with players you’ve never heard of, who barely play and who will graduate with degrees they otherwise could not have obtained if not for college football.

The case of Jared Wheeler reminds me of something Ohio State coach Urban Meyer used to tell his players when he was at Florida. Meyer is a heck of a recruiter and he sweet talks the moms and grandmothers better than anyone. But when he gets the recruits on campus, he levels with them. College football is a business and a machine, he tells them. If you don’t take advantage of college football, it will take advantage of you.

There was a coaching change in the middle of Wheeler’s career at Miami. Guess what? No one ever tried to run him off and use his scholarship for a player with more potential. Know why? Wheeler worked hard, he made decent grades, he did what his coaches asked of him and he stayed out of trouble. Do those things, and coaches will honor your scholarship. Screw up, though, and guys like Wheeler get chewed up and spit out. And, let’s be clear, Al Golden will run a player off just as fast as any other coach at a major university.

Wheeler has bounced around between three positions in his career and played mostly special teams. Has he ever complained? Have you already forgotten the part about the $200,000 degree in mechanical engineering?

Yes, the NCAA, TV contracts and bowl-game payouts have made a mess of things, but college football is still primarily in the business of turning boys into functional members of society, and in many cases, our future leaders. Take, for example, Wheeler son No. 2. Jake Wheeler might never start a game for Maryland. Does that really matter when he graduates with a degree in criminal justice with a chance to work at the FBI?

“I tell my boys to just work hard and be ready, be ready when they call your name,” Jim Wheeler said. “I’m really proud of my boys because they really work hard.”

And that’s the point of college, right? If nothing else, isn’t it a four-year lesson in how to work hard?

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