The Big Horse

The spoils earned by Colt left tackle Will Wolford have let him realize his dream of owning top thoroughbreds
September 04, 1994

Early on the Sunday evening of March 28, 1993, with only 20 minutes until the boarding of his flight back to Buffalo, a euphoric Will Wolford squared up in front of a public telephone at Indianapolis International Airport to share with friends and family the sudden epochal turn of events in his life. The 6'5", 300-pound offensive left tackle had just signed a three-year, $7.65 million contract, which made him the highest-paid lineman in football and the world's richest Indianapolis Colt.

"I was so pumped," Wolford says. "The numbers were astronomical." Punching a few of his own, he reached his wife, Jude, who was eight months pregnant, at their home in Orchard Park, N.Y., then connected with his parents, Moe and Katie, who were visiting Will's sister, Maureen, in Huntsville, Ala. And finally, in a moment that signaled his intention to fulfill the most insistent of his dreams, Wolford called the Louisville home of Paul McGee, a young thoroughbred trainer with a stable of horses at one of Wolford's most favored old haunts, Churchill Downs.

"I have a new contract," Wolford announced to McGee. "We're going to buy some horses." Wolford had already been involved in racing as an owner for two years, and McGee was handling four blue-plate specials for him at the time—cheap to modest hard-knockers with obscure to middling pedigrees and limited futures. What Wolford had always wanted was to own a scion of the sport's aristocracy, a fancy looker with designer genes and bullet works—all attributes that hang, like ornaments, from an equine family tree. "I wanted the opportunity to have a horse with pedigree and that looked good," he says.

Now was his chance. The lineman, then 28, found himself in the ideal spot at the perfect time in National Football League history: in the first year of NFL free agency, with huge and hotly coveted skills and a recently expired three-year, $2.1 million contract with the Buffalo Bills. The deal that Wolford had just signed with the Colts would pay him nearly that much in up-front bonuses alone—$1.2 million to sign and another $850,000 just to show up. The Bills would go to work at once to kill the deal on a technicality, but a league arbitrator ultimately allowed the Colt contract to stand. The signing bonus left Wolford and McGee hatching plans to go shopping in July at that priciest of all thoroughbred markets, the Selected Yearling Sale at Keeneland.

"My goal was to play football long enough so I could own horses comfortably," Wolford says. "Treat them as an outlet, as a way to relax. It's not, 'Oh, gee, this horse has to win today because I got to pay bills.' I played five years in the league before I bought a horse. It's strictly done for fun."

Since Wolford was a boy growing up in Louisville, where Moe was a saloonkeeper-cum-horse-player, the Kentucky Derby has been his life's immovable feast. When Will was seven, on the family's way to Churchill Downs for the 1972 Derby, his parents dropped him off at a party of 20 other kids set amid a grim posse of baby-sitters. "We sat in front of the TV and watched Riva Ridge run around the track," he says. His ensuing Derby experiences extended through his four years at St. Xavier High and through four more at Vanderbilt University. The Kentucky Derby is a River City rite of spring, and for years Wolford partook of its rituals from the Catholic encampment in the infield at the far turn.

"If you went to a Catholic high school in Louisville and you went to the Derby, that's where you hung out," Wolford says. "It's a gigantic party. Everything and anything you want to do is in the infield at the Derby. You never see a horse when you're out there. Every once in a while there would be a wave, like at a football game, and everybody would scream, but you had a hard time seeing the horses. It got pretty wild. Drink beer and jungle juice—all kinds of juices mixed with grain alcohol. We used to hide it in the bottom of the coolers. In gallon jugs. Line the bottom of the coolers with beer, and line that with towels and ice. I always had a pint or two in my underpants."

Of his various physical accomplishments while attending St. Xavier, none is remembered more fondly than his last notable feat as a high school student. Wolford used to attend the infield bacchanal with a passel of athletic teammates—guys nicknamed Squirmy and Jaybird, Pygmy and Skinny—and at 9 a.m. on Derby Day of 1982, in the spring of their senior year, the boys found to their dismay that the lock was jammed on the trunk of the Mustang that held the day's ambrosia. The infield was beckoning. Chris Kurtz, one of Wolford's best friends, recalls that everyone looked to Will, then a buff 230 pounds, and began exhorting him: "You can do it, Will. You can do it!" Reaching under a corner of the trunk, he performed one prodigious squat thrust. It popped like a cap on a bottle. "He ripped the trunk right off," Kurtz says. "Amazing." To a chorus of cheers, of course.

Wolford's annual adventures on Derby Day belied the rigors and discipline of his daily life at home. Just as horses ran in the Wolford family, so to speak, so did football and basketball. Moe also graduated from St. Xavier and went on to start for four years on the line for the University of Louisville. At 6'3" and 252 pounds, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1956 and was attending their training camp that summer when the coach, Sid Gillman, caught him breaking curfew one night. "Get the hell out of here," Gillman told Moe. "I don't need any playboys."

Back home in Louisville he sold ads for the Yellow Pages, declined a call to try out for the Baltimore Colts and eventually became a nightclub owner in town. For years he ran a place called Big Moe's, and with his wife he reared and disciplined a family. In fact, along with his cousin and best friend, Ed Kupper, who played basketball for Louisville from 1944 to '47, Moe ran a kind of athletic boot camp for Will and his older brother, Moe Jr.

The Wolford house at times resembled a gym for prizefighters. Moe had the boys running three miles a day, drinking protein malts and jumping rope. "I had them jump rope every day," Moe says. "It develops reflexes and quickness." Will still recalls his father sitting on the back porch and presiding over the workouts. "I had them focus on things," Moe says. "I trained them like boxers. When they jumped rope, I made them count to concentrate. I'd count with them: 500, 600, 700, 800. Frontward and backward. They'd step on the rope, I'd make them start over."

For the laid-back Will, this routine began in the fourth grade and amounted to a mild form of torture. "I got grounded from parties for not jumping rope," he says. "I'd be heading out the door in eighth grade, and my father would say, 'Sorry. You didn't jump rope today. No parties.' My father was 360 pounds with a goatee, and you didn't say much to him. He was very tough and strict on my brother and me when it came to working out. And he always made sure we had time to do it. Always provided us with spending money so we didn't have to go out and get a job."

Will was nine when he reluctantly began playing football—"You're trying out for football tomorrow," Moe informed him one day—but even then the game had its remunerations. Moe paid the boys $1 for a solo tackle, 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ for an assist, $1 for recovering a fumble, $2 for causing a fumble and $5 for a touchdown.

When the boys weren't skipping rope or diving for dollars. Kupper was running them like racehorses, 90 minutes at a time, up and down a basketball court. Kupper was an enthusiastic handicapper, and Moe reports that when Kupper died, in 1978, he departed in a state as close to bliss as a horseplayer ever gets: "He was going to cash in at the $50 window at Churchill Downs when he died of a heart attack."

Will was then in eighth grade. "If he'd stayed alive, I might have ended up playing basketball, because he was a hell of a teacher," says Wolford. "Tough on the fundamentals."

From boyhood through high school, Wolford always preferred hoops to football. "My favorite sport without a doubt," he says. "I played basketball every single day when the weather was nice. I played football because I was good at it. My dad threw me into it." And by most accounts, including his own, he was better at shooting baskets than he was at anything else. "With his tools, I thought he'd be a pro basketball player," says Kurt. Indeed, he moved around like someone who had done a lot of skipping rope. His varsity basketball coach at St. Xavier, Alan Donhoff, recalls that Wolford, who played center, was extremely quick and agile for a lad so large—"Really quick feet,' says Donhoff—and possessed a feathery touch with the jumper. "From 12 to 15 feet, I had all the confidence in him in the world," Donhoff says.

Wolford was honorable-mention all-state in basketball, but he knew that only football could lead him to a major college. As a young man out of St. Xavier he dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. But the fates intervened. His junior year he broke his right leg, and he missed the rest of the season. At training camp his senior year he caught viral meningitis and suffered that season. His weight plunged from 240 to 210, and he was weak and short of breath. "I played the season, but terribly," he says. "I had no endurance." Seeing what few films there were of Wolford, Notre Dame turned away. So did Purdue.

"I can't blame them, because I looked like I was dogging it the whole time," he says. "If the play didn't come my way, I didn't have the energy to chase it down. They knew I'd been sick, but they didn't care. It's like the NFL. All they care about is what the films look like. I was recruited strictly on potential."

Vanderbilt was among the few schools that hung around. Wolford had been dating Mary Jude Craven, a student at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, since their sophomore year—they had been Derby Day revelers together—and they had hoped to attend college together. When Notre Dame disappeared, she picked Vanderbilt. "I went because Jude wanted to," he says.

In retrospect, says Moe, it was the best thing that could have happened to his son. They moved him from defense to the offensive line, where he played his first three years at left guard, his final year at right tackle. "Vanderbilt had a pro-type offense," Moe says. "They weren't going to beat anybody in the SEC, but they could move the ball. They passed 30, 35 times a game. Will learned pass protection. He developed quickness in front of oncoming linemen. He learned how to use his arms and hands."

By the end of his college career Wolford was All-SEC and third-team All-America and had played in the 1986 Senior Bowl. Scouts and agents were telling him that he might be a first-round draft pick.

On draft day of that year the San Francisco 49ers were preparing to make their first-round pick, the 20th overall; Will and Jude were watching the draft on TV when the telephone rang. It was the Bills calling for Wolford. "Would you be interested in playing for us?" asked a voice.

"I'd be interested in playing for anybody," Wolford replied.

"Sit tight," said the voice. Wolford thought, Damn, I'm not going in the first round. The Bills had already picked Brian Harmon with their first-round pick, and their next selection was high in the second round. Then Wolford watched as Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the NFL, announced: "The San Francisco 49ers have traded their 20th pick to the Buffalo Bills, and with the 20th pick the Bills select Will Wolford, offensive tackle from Vanderbilt."

"I went crazy," Wolford says. "I couldn't believe it." Jude looked over and teased, "Buffalo? Where's that?"

The Bills were coming off a 2-14 season, but they were building a new engine, one ultimately driven by the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett. While shielding Kelly's pocket and making room for Thomas's maneuvers, Wolford arose as one of the league's premier offensive tackles, and he was twice named to the Pro Bowl. Despite the bitter trials of three straight losses in the Super Bowl, the man had himself a time of it. "In Buffalo, when you're winning like that, boy, it's fantastic," he says. "We had a close-knit team. A lot of the same guys year in and year out. That's really how you build a winner. Keep everybody together."

And yet, of all those Pro Bowling Bills, Wolford was the first to leave. And at the first opportunity. "It wasn't personal," he says. "It was just business." When he stepped into the free-agent market, he was astonished at the numbers he was hearing. Seattle was talking more than $2 million a year, Green Bay $2.5 million. When the Colts offered $7.65 million for three years, Wolford raced off to Indianapolis, where March 28 turned out to be the longest day in his life.

In the Bills' Super Bow) loss to Dallas on Jan. 31, 1993, he had injured his left shoulder while trying to make a tackle after an interception. Now, at the very point of signing the Colt contract, doctors discovered a torn left rotator cuff. Wolford envisioned a nightmarish scenario: The Colts kill the deal, and he piddles back to Buffalo as damaged goods, helmet in hand. Instead, all the Colts demanded was a clause that added an option year should he miss 10 or more regular-season games in 1993.

Relieved, he signed and then dashed to the airport to make his calls. All that remained was to await the arbitrator's ruling on Buffalo's protest. The Bills had made Wolford one of its two "transition players" in 1993, meaning that if another team made him an offer, they could keep him if they matched it. The Bills agreed to match the money, but Indianapolis had inserted a clause into the contract guaranteeing that Wolford would be the highest-paid player on its offensive team. While this was easy for the Colts, there was no way that Buffalo could match that clause by paying Wolford what it paid Kelly and Thomas. The Bills argued that the two teams' disparate salary structures made the clause unfair. Arbitrator Arthur Stark disagreed, however, and on April 23 he ruled the contract valid.

So Wolford had his signing money. He was at training camp that summer, almost three months after undergoing rotator cuff surgery, when he got the bonus he really wanted. Wolford had become a student of pedigrees, and he had taken a particular shine to the fine stallion Deputy Minister, sire of the ill-fated champion Go for Wand. Wolford had also taken a liking to fillies, and one of the Keeneland yearlings that he fancied most was a good-looking daughter of Deputy Minister out of Cagey Exuberance, a multiple stakes-winner who earned $765,017 in her days at the races. McGee, Wolford's trainer, was in the bidding until it slopped. He called Wolford at once. "We bought that Deputy Minister filly," McGee told him. "$200,000."

So he had done it. The old infield habituè had bought himself a share of racing royalty. Neither he nor the filly, as it turned out, had much of a year. In December, Wolford nearly lost the horse to a virus, and he ended his NFL season in surgery again, to repair a tear in his right rotator cuff. Wolford spent months in arduous rehab, and this spring showed up at the Derby fit and relaxed and looking forward to the coming season. "I'll have my first healthy season in a while," he says. "The strength will be there. As far as lifting and working is concerned, it was in some ways better than any off-season I've ever had."

Wolford named the filly Graceful Minister—after her sire and his new daughter, Grace—and following her recuperation she was already breezing three eighths of a mile when she sashayed into McGee's camp at Churchill Downs in early July. "After what she went through, anything she does now will be a bonus," Wolford says. "I just hope she shows the class of her parents. The more I'm around horses, the more I enjoy them. They are beautiful to watch run. They are tough and determined and have all the qualities you want in an athlete. The winner is the fastest and strongest and toughest. That's the way it is in racing. In football. In life."

PHOTOMICHAEL O'NEILL PHOTORICK STEWARTOnce a part of the close-knit Bills, Wolford now blocks old pals like Smith. PHOTOJIM MILLER PHOTOGRAPHYAt St. Xavier, football came second to basketball; but in Vanderbilt's pro-style offense, Wolford (69) became an All-SEC tackle. PHOTOGLENN W. GREGORY[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL LUSTERIn his horses, like Marfas Twist, Wolford sees the qualities of a fine athlete.