Northern Illinois recruit Jamal Womble dreamed of playing in the NFL like everyone else who carried a Nerf football growing up.
When he got older and those around him became more realistic about their career paths, Womble didn’t budge. He still wanted to be a NFL player, maybe even more than before.
Womble’s life revolved around reaching that goal, and it seemed closer than ever when he arrived to North Carolina as a highly-touted running back recruit. He woke up thinking about football. He pushed himself because of football. He showed up on time to practice and team meetings because of football. He attended classes and made sure his grades were satisfactory because of football.
Then, football was taken away.
On Oct. 10, 2009, Womble fractured his right wrist on the opening kickoff against Georgia Southern, requiring season-ending surgery the following week.
Womble’s world was shaken. He had never endured a major injury his entire playing career, and it was too much for him to handle. In his eyes, his NFL dream had been derailed. Without football to motivate him, he missed team meetings, didn’t study and stopped attending classes. His life unraveled.
“I felt like everyone was against me,” Womble said.
Soon Womble was academically ineligible, and North Carolina was giving him the ultimatum of sitting out a season to get his books in order, transferring to a Division II program or enrolling in a junior college for a year before going on to another Division I school to play. He opted to transfer to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Hutchinson provide him a second chance, but Womble didn’t embrace it immediately. Reality had yet to set in. Once a blue-chip recruit who had nearly 40 offers to choose from out of high school in Arizona and then a true freshman running back in the ACC, he was now playing at a community college.
“I think for fans, it’s important to put yourself in Jamal’s shoes,” said Hutchinson co-defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who was a defensive assistant at Northern Illinois for three seasons. “Your world changes overnight. It’s really a difficult challenge. It’s not like going from North Carolina to Northern Illinois. It was a real big adjustment. When you’re at the pinnacle of college sport to a small town in Kansas, it’s not easy.
“One thing about a junior college player, if they make it through, you know they’re tough.”
Womble ultimately saw the light at Hutchinson. He got his wrist right and then got his mind right. He began seeing what occurred at North Carolina more clearly. He regretted how everything went down, but he started to believe his trials were necessary for him to become to mature.
“Oh my God, that’s probably the best thing to happen in my life,” Womble said. “I’m definitely a better person for it.”
Womble hit reset on his career. He returned to football with a purpose. Sharing carries with another running back and two dual-threat quarterbacks, Womble rushed for 741 yards and eight touchdowns on 126 carries. He had back to back games of 100-plus yards early in the season and helped Hutchinson to a 10-2 record, a bowl win and No. 5 final ranking.
With Womble’s return to stardom, Division I college coaches also returned. Hawaii, Memphis, Minnesota, UNLV and even USC showed interest. Northern Illinois became involved when Staley dialed his good friend, Huskies assistant coach Tom Matukewicz, and told him about Womble.
Womble didn’t know much about Northern Illinois, but the more he discovered about the Huskies, the more he liked about them. He learned about Northern Illinois’ tradition of running backs from Michael Turner to Garrett Wolfe to the team’s latest star, Chad Spann. With Spann’s graduation, it also meant an opportunity to play right away. Northern Illinois’ bowl success also enticed him.
In late December, Womble committed to Northern Illinois. Former coach Jerry Kill was the one to initially offer Womble, but he had a strong relationship with Matukewicz and liked everything he heard from new coach Dave Doeren.
“I think I’m in the best situation for me, truly,” Womble said.
Staley believes Womble will remind people of Turner.
“He is really, really tough to tackle,” Staley said. “He’s about 5-10 ½, 235 pounds. He’s a tough guy to bring down because he’s so strong from the waist down. He has elite vision. He can see cuts before they happen and really makes guy miss on top of running guys over. He’s got a good enough gear to run away from people. He’s probably not going to break it 80 yards, but he can get you 40-50.
“He turned down BCS offers. He wanted to go somewhere he could make an impact and be something special. He’s a rising star. I think the best thing about Jamal going up there is he’s going to be a great fit, and I think the fans are going to love him, the coaches are going to love him, and the media is going to love to him.”
As for that NFL dream, it’s alive again.
“It’s like my third chance,” said Womble, who is already enrolled at Northern Illinois. “This is my last shot to really get to a bowl game and play in the NFL. That’s all I’ve wanted since I was 4 years old.”