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It started with a dream: Sackett Wood Jr.’s Virginia football journey

The former three-sport athlete from Lynchburg, Va. took a winding path that eventually led to the bright lights of Scott Stadium

<p>Sophomore tight end Sackett Wood Jr., third from left, endured a grueling tryout process in the fall of 2020 to join the Virginia football team.</p>

Sophomore tight end Sackett Wood Jr., third from left, endured a grueling tryout process in the fall of 2020 to join the Virginia football team.

Fourth-year and sophomore tight end Sackett Wood Jr. followed an unorthodox path to becoming a football player at Virginia. A recipient of a scholarship in the fall in part due to his hard work in training camp, Wood defied the odds and transitioned from being a full-time student to a student-athlete and member of the Virginia football team. Rarely do walk-ons join a high-level program in their third year of school, and even fewer are put on scholarship the following year. The 6’3, 250-pound tight end surely has a story to tell after a wild journey in Charlottesville.

Having attended E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Va, Wood starred on the football field as a quarterback, wide receiver and outside linebacker, earning all-region honors his senior year. He also made his mark on the lacrosse field and basketball court, having excelled in the former after a 20 goal, 20 assist campaign en route to E.C. Glass’s state championship title in 2018. Opportunities to pursue a Division I FBS football career, however, seemed out of the question. 

Wood experienced the recruiting process late in his high school career and did not receive any attention from Division I FBS programs.

“My best offer was from Davidson, and I was interested in some other smaller schools but ultimately decided not to because I knew it was a full time commitment,” Wood said. 

With some uncertainty surrounding an athletic career in college, Wood enrolled at Virginia in the fall of 2018 as a student. Yet even with a year under his belt, he looked towards the long-shot possibility of joining the football program as a walk on. Starting in the fall of second year, Wood started to reach out to the Virginia staff, high school coaches and former players who could give him some insight into the process. However, an uphill battle was being waged. The football offices informed Wood that the team would not be taking any walk-ons whatsoever, and by May of 2019 things were starting to look very bleak. 

A silver lining manifested in a family friend of Wood’s, who managed to contact Blanda Wolfe — Virginia’s Director of High School Relations — and send some film over once more.

“Three weeks before the team got back in the summer [following second year], Coach Wolfe reached out to me and asked if I was still interested in walking on,” Wood said. 

In a near last-ditch effort, Wood now had the opportunity to solidify a walk-on position before the fall of 2020. Entering his third year at Virginia, the aspiring student athlete decided it was time to prepare for the grueling road ahead. The former star high school athlete threw himself into conditioning before the season to make sure he gave this golden opportunity his best shot. 

“I started working out a lot once I decided I was going to give it a shot, sometimes twice a day, and ran a lot because I had heard about the intense conditioning program and didn't want to show up out of shape if I got a chance,” Wood said.

Wood had put on an astounding 25 pounds in the offseason after weighing in at 195 before July training began. The routine of being a normal college student shifted drastically, as he now spent much of his summer running routes, working out and acclimatizing to the rigors of Division I football. After dedicating himself to the process, Wood rose to the challenge and joined the Virginia program as a walk-on in the summer of 2020.  

The differences between college lifestyles became instantly clear as the season grew nearer. Wood — who would typically get up between 9 and 11 a.m. in his first two years — now found himself waking up at 5 a.m. for early morning workouts. The new norm for bedtime became 9 p.m. after long and exhausting days. However, Wood had to undertake a new mindset in order to cope with the loss of time and energy. 

“If you don't have the right mindset, your chances of lasting are low,” Wood said. “Coming in as a walk-on, I sort of already knew I needed to have that grind mindset and was able to flip that switch once I decided to try to walk on.”

This perspective allowed Wood to push through the mental hurdles as he adjusted to practices and a wholly separate environment from his first two years. At times, he doubted his ability to carry on, especially when considering the grueling workouts Virginia football puts their athletes through before the season. 

“Early on I had doubts, the workouts were extremely hard when I arrived, but Coach [Bronco Mendenhall] emphasizes that they are meant to make you question whether you can finish them,” Wood said. “You’re not going to see much growth if you're not constantly pushing yourself to your limits. So I just kept that in my head.”

Another major change appeared in a positional issue, as Wood decided to try out for tight end instead of one of his high school positions — wide receiver. The role of a wide receiver — often defined by twitchiness, change of direction and speed — didn’t exactly suit Wood’s skillset given his large frame. Instead, he would have to put on some more weight and commit to the art of blocking, a key attribute of tight ends in all levels of football. The transition, however, wasn’t as smooth as expected.

“I had never been in a three point stance in my life,” Wood said. “I had either played quarterback, running back or wide receiver, so there were points where I was extremely frustrated with my progress at the position throughout the first season, especially with blocking.” 

As he had done before, Wood surmounted the obstacles in his way and molded himself into a tight end despite his lack of familiarity with the position. The versatile athlete added one more tool to his already impressive toolbox, yet he wasn’t done yet. In 2020, Sackett Wood Jr. saw his first action in a collegiate game against Abilene Christian, having come so far in such a short amount of time. Essentially a “true freshman,” the walk-on earned his number — 44 — and reveled in the opportunity to play at a university that he had always held close to his heart. 

“It was my dream as a little kid to play football for U.Va.,” Wood said. “For Halloween, when I was 6 or 7, I dressed up as a U.Va. football player. There was definitely a sense of pride in representing something that I grew up loving so much.”

Wood had realized that dream in the most dramatic fashion. Moreover, the investment he had poured into the Virginia program would be paid off in another, more impressive way. This fall, Mendenhall put Wood — the same kid who had spent his first two years as just another Virginia student — on scholarship for the remainder of his senior season. Football had never escaped Wood’s mind even if the Cavaliers didn’t come calling after high school. Even if the goal seemed far-fetched, Virginia’s recent scholarship winner never backed down from a challenge — almost embodying Rudy Ruettiger’s journey to Notre Dame football after years of normal college life. Sackett Wood Jr. — who still has some football to play himself — has already left an impregnable mark on the Virginia football program. His path will hopefully inspire others to pursue their dreams and to never lose sight of the goal ahead.

“First and second year on the hill with all of your friends was always a good time, but there was always that feeling, ‘I wish I was out there ... I know I could be out there,’” Wood said. “So to actually be out there means everything, but there is still a lot of room for improvement for me.”

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