Gilman QB's long road hits a final turn at South Bend

Signing with Notre Dame, he cites bond with coach

February 05, 2003|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Ambrose Wooden, the quarterback from Gilman School who has been recruited as one of the nation's top football players, will attend Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. He planned to sign and send his letter of intent at 7 a.m. today.

"I really relate to Coach [Tyrone] Willingham," Wooden said yesterday. "Of the four head coaches who came to my house, he's the one I sat next to, the one I bonded with.

"It's a good connection."

Wooden, The Sun's Offensive Player of the Year, led Gilman to a 10-0 season and No. 1 state ranking. A versatile athlete, he rushed for 46 career touchdowns and passed for 30. His 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash earned Wooden a reputation as the fastest high school player in Maryland. In four years, he gained 7,261 total yards, a state record. He also played defensive back in big games.

Notre Dame offered him a shot at wide receiver - a position Wooden has never played - or, possibly, at cornerback.

"The coaches told Ambrose it was his choice," said his mother, Robin Petty. "Willingham said he'd have the opportunity to start next year - and he seems like a man of his word."

More than two dozen colleges offered athletic scholarships to Wooden, 18, the subject of an occasional series in The Sun about the recruiting process. That chase culminated today, on National Letter of Intent initial signing day.

A teammate, Victor Abiamiri, also said yesterday that he planned to sign a letter of intent today to attend Notre Dame. He is rated the country's eighth-best player, overall, by one nationally respected recruiting Web site.

The coveted 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end had been sought by Maryland, where his brothers play. But an assistant coach allegedly committed a recruiting violation by giving him money. So, Abiamiri will go to South Bend.

"It's been years since Notre Dame has had a dominant pass rusher, but that is apparently about to change," said Bruce Feldman on ESPN.com, calling Abiamiri "the most impressive defender" at the recent U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Abiamiri was a two-time All-Metro player and The Sun's 2002 Defensive Player of the Year. Last season he had 12 sacks, 17 tackles for lost yardage, 52 tackles and one interception.

Abiamiri's attorney would not allow the player to comment, but a Gilman coach gave the player's statement, noting Notre Dame's "great tradition." On whether Abiamiri, 17, might be redshirted, or asked to sit out his freshman year, the coach said he has been told that it depends on how well he plays.

Early in recruitment, the two teammates had broached the possibility of attending the same college. "It's great that Victor is coming with me," Wooden said.

Wooden said he based his choice as much on academics as athletics. An "A" student, he plans to major in business: "A Notre Dame degree can take you anywhere, and the alumni connections are out there."

For seven months, he and his family considered the come-ons of colleges from coast to coast; in December, they narrowed the choices to a final four. Wooden visited Notre Dame, Stanford, Maryland and Boston College. This month, each of the four head football coaches visited him at his East Baltimore home.

One by one, Wooden pared the list. BC fell first, followed two weeks ago by Maryland. College Park, he said, was "close to home, but I wanted to branch out a bit. And I wasn't as comfortable with the coaches there." And runner-up Stanford was "just too far away."

Wooden's speed and savvy should fit Notre Dame well, Irish followers said.

"He [Wooden] sounds like the ideal replacement for Arnaz Battle," said Lou Somogyi, associate editor of Blue and Gold Illustrated, a national publication on Irish football. Battle, a former quarterback turned wide receiver, led Notre Dame with 58 receptions last fall as a senior.

No one had caught so many passes for the Irish since 1970, when Tom Gatewood had 77, a school record. Gatewood, an All-American, had starred at Baltimore City College.

"I wish him luck [at receiver]," Gatewood, 52, said yesterday from New York, where he owns a television production company. "Obviously [having played quarterback],Wooden has good hands and feet, and understands how pass patterns work. With that speed, he should have no trouble adapting."

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