The Golden Gopher football team has seen many changes over the past year. One of these changes which may have seemed insignificant to most people was junior wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright’s jersey number change from 82 to 1. For Wheelwright, however, wearing the number one represents both a privilege that he has earned through his hard work and also a symbol of responsibility.
“[Wearing number one] has always been something that I wanted. When I came to Minnesota, the coaching staff said that I would have to earn that number. I learned a lot from [former Gopher receiver] Ron Johnson; he also had to earn his number three before he got to wear it. I had to earn it and prove that I could wear it and I have to keep proving that I deserve it,” Wheelwright said.
Wheelwright was recruited out of Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, Ohio. The 6’5” 215-pound receiver is a prime example of the Gophers’ recruiting hotbed in the Buckeye state. Among the contingent of Gophers hailing from the Columbus area when Wheelwright was being recruited was senior cornerback Trumaine Banks.
“Trumaine and I grew up in the same neighborhood,” Wheelwright said. “Every time he would come home, he would put the idea of coming to Minnesota in my ear. When I came here on my visit, I saw the family environment that Trumaine had talked about, and that is what made the difference for me.”
The chance to play with many of his childhood friends and high school rivals at Minnesota is something that Wheelwright relishes.
“Playing with guys like Trumaine and Justin Valentine is really relaxing because it makes me feel like I’m close to home. It’s one of the best parts about being at Minnesota,” Wheelwright said.
Known for his break-away speed and leaping ability, Wheelwright has developed a reputation as one of the premier big-play receivers in the Big Ten. In his three-year career, the junior has 15 touchdown receptions, tying him for third all-time at Minnesota and eight of them have been plays of over 40 yards.
As an All-Big Ten honorable mention honoree during his freshman season in 2004, Wheelwright burst onto the scene by scoring touchdowns on each of his first three collegiate catches. Wheelwright finished his first year leading the team with seven touchdown receptions. In 2005, Wheelwright tied for the team lead with five touchdown receptions and also led the Gophers in receiving yards, tallying 654.
Wheelwright is not concerned with individual statistics and accolades, however. The quest to participate as a team in post-season bowl games is what drives the wideout to work hard and develop chemistry with his teammates.
“When you get down to it, going to bowl games is what I’ll remember about college football. That is what we work for all season, and it’s what is important to me” Wheelwright said.
The Gophers have had to overcome several obstacles in their quest to reach a fifth consecutive bowl game. With their backs against the wall, Wheelwright and his teammates won games against Indiana and Michigan State the last two weekends to give themselves a chance to claim a bowl berth with a win today over rival Iowa.
Wheelwright has made the most of these last two pressure-packed games. In the two critical contests, Wheelwright scored three touchdowns, and amassed 153 receiving yards. The clutch play of Wheelwright was highlighted by two long touchdowns and a season-high 116 yards receiving on Homecoming against Indiana and a remarkable catch-and-run touchdown against the Spartans in East Lansing last weekend that secured a victory for the visiting Gophers.
“Our goal of playing in a bowl game has been our motivation the past couple of weeks playing Indiana and again against Michigan State last week. Now we focus on Iowa,” Wheelwright said of today’s contest. “This is a motivation game, because we want to end our season at a bowl game. We have worked hard with that goal in mind over the off-season and during two-a-days and we hope that all that will pay off.”
Regardless of how this season ends, Wheelwright still has high hopes for the football program for his senior year next season.
“My goal since I have been here has always been to win a Big Ten championship and go to a BCS bowl. We want to do something that no Minnesota team has done in a long time. I know that many of my teammates have that in common with me,” Wheelwright said.
Wheelwright also says that completing his communications degree is one of his highest priorities and he hopes to some day own his own business. If he continues with the same approach and pride in his academic career that he has on the gridiron, he is sure to come through in the clutch.
story by Doug Vose, athletic communications student assistant