Utah State football: Alex Wheat pushing hard in 2nd second chance
Logan •Â For a man who offers his opinions openly and often, Alex Wheat Jr. keeps a few things close. Although his Utah State teammates have caught glimpses of the scar across his chest, most don't know why it is there.
When he was 6 and living in Michigan, he caught a cold. A doctor listened to his heart and heard an unsteady patter.
An ultrasound revealed a hole in Wheat's heart, and he was rushed to Detroit Children's Hospital, where he had emergency surgery to repair it.
"It wasn't 100 percent whether I would live or die but it was something they had to fix," he said. "Fortunately they got it fixed. I'm blessed, to say the least. It reminds me every day the opportunity I have out here to do what I love is great."
While many Utah State fans have anointed Wheat the football team's King of Twitter, he'll take the crown for second chances instead. Or even third chances, as the case may be.
Since joining the Aggies from Palomar College, Wheat's career has been one of diminishing expectations. He came in as a 6-foot-4 all-conference performer with good bloodlines NFL receiver Ted Ginn Jr. is his uncle but so far, his career amounts to one 9-yard catch in nine games of action.
As the Aggies launch into the Spring Game on Saturday, Wheat will be one of those players with his career essentially on the line. As a rising senior, he's still second-string, and could find himself buried in the depth chart when Utah State adds junior college receivers this summer.
But since the spring began, Wheat has come down with the catches the Aggies once imagined him making: tough sideline grabs over cornerbacks, receptions up the middle between linebackers, one-handed scoops that few others could get. The coaching staff is hopeful the progress continues and that Wheat can master the one skill that's truly eluded him in Logan: keeping his thoughts to himself.
"We didn't get what we wanted in the first two years, but he's starting to be a little more consistent," receivers coach Jovon Bouknight said. "He's a big body, a big target. If we can utilize him in certain roles, that would be great. The kid is growing up, and I'm very pleased with what I've seen from his maturity."
Wheat's problems can be summed up in his relationship with social media. He freely admits that he was too wrapped up in what others wrote and said about him. He would spend hours on Twitter, bantering back and forth.
When he wasn't performing in practice and on the field, coaches started getting concerned how he budgeted his time.
"He took a lot of heat, and everybody gave him a hard time," former teammate D.J. Tialavea said. "Coaches had to tell him to calm down. Now he's done a good job calming down, keeping his thoughts to himself. I'm in his corner."
It was Tialavea and Joey DeMartino who helped pull Wheat out of his own head a bit. The trio worked tirelessly over last summer, perfecting routes, working with a passing machine and studying.
Tialavea and DeMartino are now shooting for the NFL this fall, while Wheat is still clawing to get on the field at Utah State. Spring has offered him a forum to start battling back.
He's learned to do it by catches, not tweets.
"I feel like I owe this program a lot, because they've always had my back through a lot of stuff," he said. "I guess it's just finally starting to click, and I guess it's about time I started contributing to this program. I want to be successful."
Those who do manage to dig beneath his online persona find a gentle interior. Ned Adams, a Utah State alum living in Orem, asked Wheat if he'd be interested in meeting his son, Spencer Adams. The 7-year-old has hydrocephalus, a condition that builds up excess spinal fluid in the brain which has already required several surgeries.
Wheat didn't just meet with the kid he autographed a football and took pictures with him. Meeting Wheat after games became a regular event for the Adamses. Even when they don't come to the game, Wheat asks after his biggest fan. And Spencer Adams feels the same way.
"We'll be watching a game, and it'll be halftime, and Spencer will ask, 'When can we go talk to Alex?'" Ned Adams said. "He's a good guy, and he's great with kids. It's the kind of personality you want for guys at Utah State."
So there: Even if the world is against him, Wheat knows he has at least one fan behind him.
For the first time, he's discovering that's enough.
Blue-White spring game
P Saturday, 2 p.m.
• At Romney Stadium
• The game will begin with two 10-minute quarters with a running clock. After halftime, there will be two 15-minute quarters with a regular clock.