Wimberly anxious to get out and contribute at Nevada | NevadaAppeal.com

Wimberly anxious to get out and contribute at Nevada

JOE SANTORO

RENO – Brandon Wimberly knows he nearly became a quickly forgotten statistic last summer near downtown Reno.

The Nevada Wolf Pack wide receiver, in the split second it takes to pull a trigger, nearly went from being a rising star in college football to just another young male from the Los Angeles area involved in a shooting incident.

“Yeah, that was going through my mind,” said Wimberly, now 23-years-old. “So many of my friends have gotten shot. I know a lot of people who have gotten hit. I didn’t think it was going to happen to me. Not in Reno. It kind of blew my mind.”

It nearly ended his life, let alone his college football career.

“In L.A. people get shot everyday,” said Wimberly, who was born in Inglewood, Calif., and went to high school in nearby Gardena, Calif. “Like I said, I’ve known a lot of people who have gotten shot. It’s no big deal. It seems like it happens all the time. A friend I knew in high school just got shot a couple months ago and died. If this was L.A. we wouldn’t even be talking about this right now.”

But it didn’t happen anywhere near Los Angeles. It happened in Reno. And Wimberly sat down with the northern Nevada media earlier this week and talked about the past year of his life.

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“I know,” Wimberly said, shaking his head and smiling. “I couldn’t believe it happened in Reno.”

Wimberly, according to the University of Nevada media services department, is not allowed to speak of the events in the late night hours of July 17 and early morning hours of June 18, 2011 that led to the shooting because of an on-going police investigation.

But, according to media and police reports over the past year, a fight broke out between some Wolf Pack football players and another group outside of the Freight House District, a popular night spot near Reno Aces Ballpark. The other group got into their car, Wimberly approached the car and, after another physical confrontation, a gun shot came out of the car and the bullet hit Wimberly in the abdomen, injuring his intestines and colon.

“When it happened I really didn’t feel anything,” Wimberly said. “After that I don’t really remember anything that happened until six days later when I woke up.”

There was one thing, though, that he remembers after he regained consciousness nearly a week later.

“I remember someone telling me, ‘Your landlord called and he said your rent is due,'” Wimberly smiled. “I just said what day is this? I remember getting shot on Friday (it was actually early Saturday morning on June 18, 2011) but that’s all I remember.'”

The initial reports after the shooting were not full of hope and promise. The Pack seemingly had lost the 2009 Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year for the 2012 season and likely beyond. And, oh yeah, Wimberly was lucky to still be alive.

“Another centimeter and the doctor said he might not have made it to the hospital,” Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said just after the incident. “It doesn’t look like he’ll ever play again.”

Wimberly never doubted he’d not only survive the shooting but also return to the football field.

“I never thought I’d never play again,” he said. “Never even crossed my mind one time. I just thought, ‘OK, I got shot. I’ll just get healthy and get back out there.'”

That’s exactly what has happened. It’s the stuff of fairy tales until you stop and think it was all set in motion by what could have been a nightmare.

“I have no regrets about what happened,” Wimberly said. “I think some people changed the way they looked at me. But I have no regrets.”

Wimberly actually returned to the Wolf Pack last March and April for spring football practices and looked like, well, the old Brandon Wimberly. He was once the Wolf Pack’s best wide receiver last spring, making all the tough catches and playing passion and purpose and having fun talking trash with his teammates.

“Practices without me there last year were kind of quiet,” he said. “That’s not the way it was when I was out there. We were always having fun out there, talking trash to each other. It wasn’t quiet.”

Wimberly now has a foot-long scar on his abdomen.

“You want to see it?” he said. “I kind of think it’s cool, actually.”

The bottom line, though, in the last 20 months or so, since the Pack’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl victory over Boston College in January 2011, Wimberly has caught more bullets (one) than passes (zero) in a game.

That will likely change Sept. 1 when the Pack opens the 2012 season at California.

“It really wasn’t that hard at all, getting back,” Wimberly said. “Once I got my stamina back, I was fine. You know, I wasn’t going to let someone outdo me. I always knew I was going to come back.”

The most difficult part of the last 14 months, he said, was the nine months between the gunshot and the first day of spring football.

Well, there was one other thing.

“The worst part was not being able to sleep on my stomach,” Wimberly said with a smile.

Ault told everyone that would listen last summer that Wimberly was going to be the team’s biggest cheerleader during the 2011 season, that he was going to be very visible around the team at practices and during games, serving as a reminder of how much the players should value each and every moment they get to spend as a member of the Wolf Pack football program.

That didn’t happen exactly like Ault said it would.

“To be honest, it was hard for me to be out there,” Wimberly said. “I’m not going to lie. I couldn’t go out there and watch what was taken away from me.”

But he didn’t go into hiding either.

“I was around,” he said. “I went to meetings. I was at all the home games. I talked to the players all the time.”

He wasn’t ready last season to be merely a source of inspiration. He knew he had plenty of football left.

“What happened took a whole year from me,” he said. “I definitely value life a little more than I did. I always knew that at some point football was going to come to an end. It ends for everyone. But I had no idea it was going to end that soon.”

Ault and his teammates really didn’t want Wimberly to turn into a cheerleader or team mascot last year. They always cared more about Wimberly, their friend, than Wimberly, the wide receiver.

“We just want him to get healthy,” Ault said last summer. “That’s the important thing.”

Wimberly was sincerely touched by all of the support he received from the Wolf Pack family and the community.

“My teammates were great,” he said. “So many of them came to see me that we had to turn some away at times because it was so much. But that’s the way we are. We’re like a family here. They would have shown that same type of support to any one of us. It wasn’t because it was me.”

Pack fans have also reached out to him the past year.

“Every time I’d see somebody, they would ask me, ‘How are you? How are you feeling?,'” Wimberly said. “After a while I got tired of always answering the same question but I appreciated the support. Everybody was great to me. I knew people cared about me.

“What happened also brought my family closer together. My relationship with my family is better because of it. So it wasn’t all bad. There was some good to come of it.”

Wimberly’s teammates are just thrilled he’s going to be back at practice every day and helping them on game day. But, most of all, they are just happy to have him around as a prominent member of the team once again. And they are happy to see Wimberly doing what he loves to do once again.

“The biggest thing about ‘Wim’ is his leadership,” Ault said. “He’s a guy who isn’t afraid to pay a price. Everyone can learn from him.”

“We just wanted to see him healthy again,” senior offensive lineman Chris Barker said. “That’s the important thing. Knowing that he’s going to come back and play, that is just icing on the cake.”

“The big thing is just the fact that he’s been through it all before,” quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “He has a lot of experience and I know I can turn to him in time of need. When he speaks, everybody listens because we know he’s been through it before.”

What kind of receiver are the Wolf Pack getting with Wimberly this season?

Well, he’s about 10 pounds heavier (220) than he was two years ago. Other than that, he looks like the same guy Pack fans saw in 2008 and 2009.

“I think the year off helped get my legs fresh,” Wimberly said. “I feel a lot better than I did.”

All of the football-related questions were answered last spring. Wimberly took tough hits and bounced right back up and, of course, he dished out a few hits, too.

“I knew everything was going to be OK when I took Duke up top,” smiled Wimberly, referring to Pack safety Duke Williams. “As soon as I stepped on the field and took a hit I was all right. At first I was a little out of rhythm but who wouldn’t be after missing a whole season?”

Wimberly has caught 94 passes for 1,215 yards and six touchdowns in his career. And every single catch, every single yard and every single touchdown was thrown by former Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

What kind of receiver is the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder? Well, as a freshman in 2009 he was the best receiver on the team, grabbing a team-best 53 passes for 733 yards and six scores. But in 2010 he became a possession receiver, finishing second on the team with 41 catches for just 482 yards and no touchdowns.

It was in 2010 that Wimberly became one of just three players during the Pack’s dozen seasons (2000-11) in the WAC to catch at least 20 passes in a season without catching a single touchdown. The other two to get shut out of the end zone with 20 or more catches are Mike Crawford (42 catches in 2000) and Dan Bythwood (21 in 2001).

Wimberly’s last touchdown catch was in the Hawaii Bowl late in a 45-10 loss to SMU in 2009. That’s how long it’s been since he’s been in the end zone.

So there is some unfinished business.

“I can’t wait to get back out there in a game,” said Wimberly, who has already graduated with a degree in communications. “It’s going to be special but it will also probably just feel like just another game once the game starts. But I’m excited this year. The Pistol (offense) is going to be crazy this year. It makes you want to come to practice everyday.

“You know people are always asking me, ‘How are you going to be when you come back?'” Wimberly said. “I just tell them, ‘Wait and see.’ I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder. People have always told me I was too small to play, not fast enough, not strong enough. So I’ve always had things to motivate me. This is just another thing.'”

You can be sure, though that this won’t be just another season for Wimberly. It’s the season, after all, that he has spent the past 14 months dreaming about. Wimberly plans on motivating his teammates this season much more than he could simply standing on the sidelines in 2011.

“I knew I couldn’t ever give up on my team,” he said, “because they never gave up on me.”