Patience Rewarded for Studious Safety

Wil Wahee returns a fumble against Georgia Tech on Saturday. He also had a fumble return for a touchdown against Syracuse.
November 05, 2015

Wilfred Wahee arrived at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2012, not long after graduating from Norfolk Christian High School. Among the first people he talked with at UVA was Natalie Fitzgerald, the school’s director of academic affairs for football.

“I asked him what his top academic goal was,” Fitzgerald recalled, “and with no hesitation he said, ‘I want to graduate with the highest individual GPA that the football team’s ever had.’”

Three years later, is Wahee on track to achieve that lofty goal?

“Probably not,” he said earlier this week, smiling. “I had one rough semester. But I’m still where I want to be.”

A sociology major, Wahee carries a 3.2 grade-point average and will finish work on his bachelor’s degree in December. Then he plans to enroll in a one-year master’s program in the Curry School of Education.

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Fitzgerald is happy to assist Wahee when needed, but he’s a highly motivated student who doesn’t require much help. “I never have to do anything with him,” she said.

Wahee is similarly low-maintenance when it comes to football, his teammates and coaches say.

“Great kid,” defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said.

“He never misses a class, he’s never late to any meetings,” senior cornerback Maurice Canady said. “Always the first one in the locker room and the last one to leave. He’s a great character guy.”

“Wil is very conscientious about what he does academically, socially, just everything,” head coach Mike London said.

A 5-10, 200-pound redshirt junior from Norfolk, Wahee has started five games this season for Virginia (3-5 overall, 2-2 ACC), which plays at Miami (5-3, 2-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday. The depth chart lists Wahee as the backup to classmate Kelvin Rainey at strong safety, but UVA typically deploys five defensive backs when opponents have the ball. And so Wahee, who wears jersey No. 28, usually is on the field as a hybrid cornerback/safety.

“He brings a lot of energy,” sophomore safety Quin Blanding said. “He flies around to the ball.”

London called Wahee “a student of the game” who has “put himself in a position – because he knows what he’s doing out there – to play, and thus far Wil has done a nice job for us.”

Wahee has made 28 tackles this season. He’s also recovered two fumbles, the first of which he returned 32 yards for a touchdown against Syracuse on Oct. 17. He returned the second one 14 yards to the Georgia Tech 19-yard line on Saturday.

“That’s been the theme this year,” Wahee said. “I’ve been lucky.”

Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser forced the fumble during the Yellow Jackets’ first possession Saturday, “and as soon as I looked down on the ground, the ball was there, so I just picked it up,” Wahee said.

The end zone beckoned as he ran, and for an instant Wahee thought he might return this fumble for a TD, too, “but I just got tripped up at the end,” he said, shaking his head.

His takeaway notwithstanding, Wahee wasn’t pleased with his performance against the Yellow Jackets. He struggled in coverage on a couple of passes, and he was on the front line of the return team that failed to recover an onside kick.

In the end, though, the Wahoos prevailed 27-21 at Scott Stadium, and “it was good to have the win,” Wahee said.

His patience has been tested at UVA. After sitting out the 2012 season, Wahee played well the next spring and was expected to carve out a role on special teams as a redshirt freshman. But he tore his left ACL in training camp that summer and missed the entire 2013 season.

Wahee did not make his college debut until Aug. 30, 2014 – more than 2 1/2 years after his final game at Norfolk Christian.

“Last year it was really crazy,” he said. “It was really emotional last year, just waiting since my senior year of high school to play.

“This year I’m way more calm. We worked hard this offseason, so it’s just a natural progression for your role to increase. Since I’m finally back in the groove of things, it’s all normal now.”

Wahee appeared in all 12 games last season and tied Kiser for the team lead with nine tackles on special teams. In the final game, against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Wahee was in for a season-high 27 plays on defense, made five tackles and forced a fumble. But he also was a principal in a fourth-quarter play he’d like to have back.

With Virginia leading 20-17 and less than three minutes remaining, Tech tight end Bucky Hodges beat Wahee on a deep route and hauled in a pass from quarterback Michael Brewer for a 50-yard completion. Moments later, the Hokies scored the go-ahead touchdown, and they came away with their 11th straight victory in the series.

“That was super tough,” Wahee said. “It’s something I still, honestly, think about all the time. It’s something that you want to prevent from happening again, letting the team down a little bit.

“Something that I always take pride in is conditioning, and I found myself at that moment being more tired than usual. It’s just something I’ve been trying to work on every day just to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Wahee was one of four recruits from Norfolk Christian to enroll at Virginia in 2012, along with Courtnye Wynn, Mario Nixon and Kwontie Moore.

Wynn was dismissed from the team in 2013, and Nixon, who’s still a student at UVA, had to give up football for medical reasons. But Nixon was on the home sideline during the Syracuse and Georgia Tech games, and “seeing him there gives me a little more energy,” Wahee said.

Moore, who never redshirted, has, like Wahee, become a regular on the Virginia defense this season. He’s started six games on the line, recorded 18 tackles, including three for loss, and recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned 15 yards for a touchdown against Pitt.

“That’s my guy,” Wahee said of Moore. “We’ve come so far together.”

During his time at UVA, Moore has “grown so much as a person,” Wahee said. “He’s a lot more calm, a lot more coachable. He’s happy and he’s working hard, so it’s good to see everything going well for him.”

Wahee’s teammates feel the same way about his success.]

“It was unfortunate he had an injury to his knee,” Canady said, “but he kept pushing like nothing ever happened. And no matter what type of adversity comes his way, he’s always able to bounce back.”

During the 2012 season, Wahee dressed for eight games. Seven were at Scott Stadium. The other one was at Carter-Finley Stadium, where Wahee watched as Virginia shocked North Carolina State, 33-6, on Nov. 3, 2012.

Since that victory, the ‘Hoos have dropped 13 consecutive road games. They’ll try again Saturday to end that streak.

“It’s just bizarre,” Wahee said. “For me personally, I just feel like every game is the same, so it doesn’t matter where [it’s played]. I can’t really understand anything different about road and home.”

Wahee, whose parents are natives of Liberia, has four brothers and an older sister. Three of his brothers are younger than he is, including George, a freshman wide receiver who’s redshirting at Norfolk State, and, J.T., a senior who excels in football and basketball at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk.

Education has always been emphasized in his family, and Wil Wahee thrives in the classroom. He’s planning to pursue a master’s in higher education next year.

And when his football career ends?

“It’s always been my dream to teach little kids, like kindergarteners,” Wahee said. “It’s just always been a passion of mine, teaching my brothers stuff. It’s always something that’s come easy to me.”

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