Ben Wheeler and a friend were taking turns sinking their respective right feet into a football one unseasonably warm day last spring when it happened.
“We were at the bantam football fields and he asked me to kick a football,” said the Center Grove senior, who up to that point had focused his energies on being a defender for the school’s soccer program. “My first field goal was 25 yards, but we kept backing up and I ended up making one from 55 or 57 yards.”
One thing led to another, and before Wheeler knew it, he was talking up the man working lunch duty in the school’s cafeteria. Never mind that Wheeler had never played a down of organized football in his life. He was face-to-face with Trojans head coach Eric Moore, lobbying for nothing more than a chance.
Moore gave him one, and Wheeler ran with it. Sprinted, actually.
As sixth-ranked Center Grove (12-1) prepares for tonight’s Class 5A semistate showdown against No. 1 and undefeated Lawrence Central (13-0), it would be wrong not to notice Wheeler’s contributions these past 13 weeks.
He’s been virtually automatic on point-after conversions (57 of 60), split the uprights on two of his three field-goal attempts and has punted 34 times for an average of 34.1 yards. Throw in his outstanding track record on airmailing kickoffs deep into the end zone, and it’s easy to see why his coach is so effusive in his praise.
“Ben is just such a breath of fresh air. So energetic. So positive,” Moore said. “It’s been a pure delight. He’s the best diamond in the rough we’ve had here in five or six years.”
Moore continues to be impressed by the height Wheeler puts on the football on kickoffs. He’s also mastered the art of placement as the season has progressed, an ability to drop it into the arms of the opponent’s return man at the 1-yard line. Both allow the Trojans’ other 10 special-teamers ample opportunities to race down field and tackle the player inside his own 20.
As much as anything, Moore is impressed with Wheeler’s ability to master the craft’s various nuances: kicking while wearing equipment, performing with defenders bearing down, and so on.
“The most difficult part is first learning how to put on the shoulder pads and all the stuff, because I had never played football before, even back to the bantam league,” Wheeler said. “I just got burned out on soccer.
“I had played it my entire life, so I found a new interest.”
Wheeler, who maintains a 3.4 grade-point average, plans to pursue a career in orthopedic medicine. He interns three to five hours a week at Johnson Memorial Hospital. Football, too, could be part of his college plans.
Moore insists Wheeler has only scratched the surface or his potential as a kicker. And it didn’t take the coach long to realize his program had crossed paths with someone special.
Center Grove kicked off its Week 1 game against Perry Meridian back in August, with Wheeler blasting the kick deep into the end zone.
“Before that game I was extremely nervous,” Wheeler said. “Once I went out there and starting warming up and saw all my friends on the field and in the stands, it kind of all went away.”