For an inexperienced skier, a double black diamond is a frozen death trap.
With steepnesses often in excess of 45 degrees and potentially bone-shattering hazards like sheer cliffs and rock bands, this class of ski run is one of the most perilous tests in sport. The extreme terrain often renders them nearly impossible to groom, allowing Mother Nature to mold them to her will. When you're barreling down a demanding double black diamond, the room for indecisiveness is nil.
Long before he was a four-time all-conference safety at the University of Wyoming, Andrew Wingard was actively seeking out these gauntlets. Growing up in the heart of Colorado, Wingard was surrounded by some of the best (or most terrifying, depending on how you look at things) skiing on the planet.
"Skiing was probably the closest thing I loved to football," Wingard said. "I was a really good skier—I could put on my skis right now and ski down any terrain probably in the world to be honest with you. It really helped me with balance in my legs. My coach at Wyoming even thought that me being a downhill skier and getting down in that skiing position, having the thighs flexed, helped me tackling with my ability to move and shift my weight. If I were to stop playing football right now, I think skiing would be something I would do probably for a job."
Odds are he won't have to stop anytime soon. Wingard is considered one of the top safety prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft, and his ability to fly downhill, elude blockers and abuse ballcarriers can make the gridiron look tilted in his favor. "Dewey," as he's known to just about everyone, racked up an astonishing 454 career tackles at Wyoming—tied for most by any player in Mountain West Conference history. "He's the best in-box tackler I've ever been around. He does it so naturally—his feet, his hands, he puts himself in great positions," says Jake Dickert, defensive coordinator at Wyoming.
While Wingard's now one of the most feared hitters in this draft class, five years ago, he was a rail-thin high school running back desperate for an FBS offer. Growing up, Wingard played just about anything he could get his hands on—basketball, track, lacrosse, soccer, you name it. His foray into tackle football had to be pushed back a year after a dirt bike accident left him with a broken arm in third grade. Wingard's parents, Dan and Missy, were fully supportive of him doing anything and everything he enjoyed as long as he put his heart into it.
"(My dad), he told me if you start something, you better finish it, and you always give 100 percent effort," Wingard says. "He was always pushing me to be better. He wasn't one of those dads who would yell at me after games if I played bad or anything like that, but he was always pushing me to be the best that I could."
As a freshman at Ralston Valley High (Arvada, Colorado), Wingard played on the freshman football team. He remembers vowing to himself that the next year, he'd skip JV and make it straight to varsity. He did, racking up over 1,000 all-purpose yards as a sophomore. Falls were for football, winters basketball, and spring track—Wingard followed this formula throughout high school, and it molded him into an athletic dynamo. Basketball sharpened his agility, while track built turf-singeing speed. He finished fifth in the state in both the 110m and 300m hurdles his senior year.
While his hyperactive nature helped make him an electric athlete who was extremely competitive, it also contributed to him being built like a bean pole. "Growing up, I was a skinny kid. Not much muscle on me. I could always run fast, but wasn't the biggest...I was 140, 150 as a sophomore, got to 160 maybe as a junior," Wingard recalls. "(Senior year), I was 170 pounds, soaking wet…Not many people are going to offer a 170-pound running back."
His slim build did little to stifle his effectiveness at the high school level. As a junior, Wingard galloped for 1,009 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He won fastest man competitions at camps hosted by both Nebraska and Washington, but college coaches just couldn't envision that sparse frame as a D1 running back.
As Wingard began mapping out a camp circuit for the summer prior to his senior season, his dad encouraged him to begin showing off his skills as a defensive back. He'd played a little safety toward the end of his junior season and had done well, and 20 pounds of muscle weren't going to suddenly arrive overnight.
"I looked him straight in the eye, and I said, 'Look at your mom. Look at the rest of my family. There's no big people here. If I were you, I'd learn to run backwards,'" Dan told the Casper Star-Tribune of that fateful moment. Since most camps have two sessions a day, they decided Dewey could do mornings at running back and afternoons at defensive back. But as camps came and went without offers, Wingard grew discouraged.
"There was a time that summer where I was like 'Man, I don't think I'm going to make it.' And that's a really depressing time. This is the dream I want, all I worked for, and I'm not going to be able to do it. There was a low moment there," Wingard recalled. "I could have folded and said no one's offering me, I think I'm gonna quit. But I sat down and said I love this game, I'm going to do whatever it takes to get myself to play at the next level so I can continue playing this game that I love."
When he showed up for a two-day camp at Wyoming, head coach Craig Bohl remembers a kid so skinny that, "if you looked at him sideways, you could hardly see him." But the kid could play. At the close of the camp, Bohl met with Wingard and offered him a scholarship as a defensive back. It's a move that would later make the Wyoming staff look like soothsayers.
In his final high school season, Wingard was a one-man wrecking crew on both sides of the ball. He stormed through defenses to the tune of 1,653 rushing yards and 37 total touchdowns. On defense, he made 96 tackles and swiped three interceptions. He was named Colorado's 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year. After an under-the-radar player submits such a strong senior campaign, they'll usually score several offers throughout December and January ahead of National Signing Day. But not Dewey. 247Sports had him ranked as the 197th-best safety in his class, and he left Ralston with exactly two offers—one from Wyoming, and one from North Dakota, an FCS team.
When Wingard arrived in Laramie, the Cowboys coaching staff soon realized they could not keep him off the field. He was even faster than they expected, and highly instinctual. He absorbed the playbook in warp speed, allowing him to largely bypass the indecisiveness experienced by most freshmen. Seeing where a play would finish was usually as simple as following Wingard's wild yellow mane. By the second game of his freshman season, he was starting at strong safety. He went on to lead the Mountain West in solo tackles (83) and finished second in total tackles (122). The kid no one wanted was now a Freshman All-American selection. But weight was still a major concern, as Wingard played with such reckless abandon that putting on more "body armor" was a must.
"I ended my freshman year at Wyoming at about 185 pounds," Wingard says. "Our strength coach wanted me to come back at 200 pounds. I was like, 'That's 15 pounds in a month. That's crazy.' That Christmas break, I was lifting and eating and playing video games, and that was it. That's when it finally started to work for me. Because in high school, in the winter, I didn't get much of an offseason because I was going straight to basketball. I did't get that time to eat and lift and bulk up. I was eating packs of hard-boiled eggs and doing as much upper body and squats as I could, and it eventually paid off."
A bulked up Wingard followed up his stellar freshman season with a dominant sophomore campaign, lassoing 131 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. He was a First Team All-Mountain West selection and a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. But his gaudy numbers were partially tainted by the reality that the Cowboys' defense as a whole was underwhelming. Wingard's freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively, Wyoming's defense ranked 102nd and 101st in the nation in points allowed per game. But they were returning eight starters the next year, and in the preceding off-season, they had the benefit of practicing against a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a monumental throwing arm.
Wingard describes practices opposite Josh Allen, who's now the starting quarterback for the NFL's Buffalo Bills, as "intense." Allen's thrown passes clocked as fast as 74 mph, and as far as 90 yards. For Wingard, who one Wyoming assistant coach told The Athletic is the "best practice player (he's) ever seen," it was the ultimate test.
"The spots you think can't be hit, are now spots you have to cover. If you think you're backpedaling fast, you gotta backpedal that much faster. Because he can literally throw it everywhere on the field. I think it helped all of us DBs at Wyoming, because we were seeing, in my opinion, the biggest arm in football every week in practice," Wingard says. "When we'd get into the games, everything would slow down...We're slowing down our backpedals, we're ready to break and go make picks."
The numbers proved it during Wingard's junior season. He poached a career-high five interceptions to go along with 114 total tackles (including eight for losses), while Wyoming's defensive unit allowed the 9th-fewest points per game in America. While Wingard likely would've been drafted had he made the jump after his junior season, he wanted to finish what he started at Wyoming. By his senior season, he was 210 pounds of muscle, having gained 40 pounds in four years. He also took his practice intensity to new heights, approaching each rep with a laser focus.
"Because you're a premier player, you're setting the tempo every day. That was my biggest challenge to him. If you have a down day, the third-string guy thinks it's OK to not push it as hard as he can. He accepted that responsibility and really set the bar," Dickert says. "He's the biggest competitor I've ever been around…(There were) times last spring I would tell him take it easy on your reps today, and he's like, 'No way. I want to be out there.'"
That attitude helped Wingard get elected as a team captain his senior year. He says he leads like he plays—with fire. "You see a lot of guys who will lead by example (but) not say much. I'm kinda the opposite of that," Wingard says. "I'm getting guys hyped up before games, I'm yelling in the locker room. My goal is to get people to try to run through a brick wall."
Wingard was again a First-Team All-Mountain West selection his senior year, becoming one of just a handful of players in Wyoming history to earn all-conference honors in four consecutive years. While his tackle numbers dropped off a bit due to schematic changes, as he took on larger and more diverse coverage responsibilities, Dickert said Wingard played his best football in 2018. Wingard leaves Laramie proud of the turnaround he helped engineer—after going 2-10 his freshman season, the Cowboys were 22-17 the rest of his career.
Wingard adores the culture Bohl has created at Wyoming. The roster is filled with kids deemed unworthy by Pac-12 and Big 12 teams—too small, too slow, not good enough competition. It's a locker room filled with chips on shoulders and devoid of diva attitudes. There's not much room for pretentiousness in Laramie.
"Coach Bohl is one of the best, not only coaches, but men I've ever played for," Wingard says. "You go to that locker room, 99.9 percent of the guys are blue-collar, bring their lunch box and go to work (type guys). Guys responding to coaches, guys not talking back to coaches. There's a will, and everyone follows it. For any young guy looking for a place to play, even as a walk-on, (Wyoming is) a great place to play. Everyone is treated fairly and there's a mission."
When asked for his secret to a sure tackle, Wingard says that as he slaloms toward the line of scrimmage and closes in on the ballcarrier, he focuses on their thighs. While a player can throw head and shoulder fakes, the thighs rarely lie. "When I'm coming up to make a tackle, I focus on the running back's thighs," Wingard says. "If you want to have the best, (most) sure tackle, same foot, same shoulder, contact on that tight, wrap and squeeze and bring him down."
Although Wingard's tackle totals will catch the eye of college scouts, he prides himself on his ability to impact a game in a variety of ways. Whether it be as a deep safety centerfielder or flying down the field on special teams, he's going to do it and want to be the best at it. At the 2019 NFL Combine, Wingard proved his athleticism, finishing among the top 10 at his position in the 3-Cone Drill (7.08), 20-Yard Shuttle (4.20), and Vertical Jump (36.5"). Paired with a 4.56 40-Yard Dash, it was a rock solid performance.
Now, like he did on that summer camp circuit all those years ago, he's just itching for his chance. "I think he's going to be a real special guy given the right system and the right opportunity…He's going to bust his ass," Dickert says. "Give him an opportunity, and watch him play."
Photo Credit: Aaron Ontiveroz/Getty Images, Joe Scarnici/Getty Images