When Jalen Wardale chose this summer to stop playing football, he felt as though the decision was best for him in that moment.
“I don’t know what I was going through, just personal stuff and for some reason I thought I didn’t want to play anymore,” he shared.
That was then. Now, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound senior defensive back is about to make his fifth consecutive start for Temple, which hosts Copperas Cove in the District 12-6A finale at 7:30 tonight at Wildcat Stadium where the Wildcats can wrap up a second straight unbeaten run to a league championship.
A little perspective can go a long way and the soft-spoken Wardale is certainly glad he changed his mind in time to experience his final season. He also feels forever indebted to the coaches and teammates who allowed him the second chance, which not many get and that came with only one chance to earn.
“I knew I had to work my way up. Nothing was going to be given to me just because I randomly decided to come back,” Wardale said Tuesday. “It was my decision. I knew what was going to come at me. It wasn’t going to be easy.”
A Temple native, Wardale spent his ninth-grade season with the freshman blue squad and missed his sophomore campaign while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he sustained during basketball season as a freshman. His junior year was split between the JV and varsity, and he exited Temple’s spring practices in May as a legitimate candidate for an increased role in the Wildcats secondary.
Wardale, though, picked up a job at a local Wal-Mart and his summer workout attendance became sporadic, then non-existent.
“I know he was going through a time where he was having to work, which was a new thing for him and he was having to do something that was an adjustment,” Temple defensive backs coach Michael Jones said. “He felt like he needed to work a lot and thought that was a priority and put football kind of on a backburner.”
It didn’t stay there for too long because there still was a spark. It just needed to be ignited.
Wardale, who kept in touch with Jones and a handful of teammates during his hiatus, was told he’d likely miss the sport. But that was something he needed to find out for himself. Two games into the season, Wardale wanted to jump back aboard.
“Football is where it’s at,” he said with a smile that suggested he knew it deep down all along.
Just being granted a minute with head coach Scott Stewart to bring up a possible return was difficult enough. The initial text exchange, Stewart said, was quite brief. Convincing the sixth-year head coach that Wardale was willing to re-commit to the program was even harder, by design.
“Nobody is ever fired for life, but you don’t get to just come back,” Stewart said. “My job is, ultimately, that culture in that locker room. When you make a decision, there are consequences, good, bad and ugly that come with every decision, and this is one of those.
“He came back and I just told him thanks but no thanks.”
Wardale said his favorite part about being a Temple Wildcat is the brotherhood among his football-playing peers. His brothers, without hesitation, had his back.
Each season, a group of players is selected to serve on the Wildcats’ leadership council, which carries out simple responsibilities such as picking video snippets to show during home games and more in-depth duties that have to do with team morale and accountability.
“Making sure everyone is on the same page,” said junior linebacker Taurean York, who’s part of the council that pitched the idea of considering Wardale’s re-instatement.
“Jalen is a good kid. He didn’t storm off the field. He didn’t disrespect the coaches or the team. He just felt like it wasn’t for him. I feel like he was frustrated and lost and didn’t have anybody to talk to about things like that,” York added. “Plus, we needed another corner.”
Stewart listened to the council’s suggestion, laid out the rigid stipulations — plenty of endurance conditioning — and the process began.
“I said you’re not playing until I trust you. You’re here right now in front of me because your teammates, the leadership council, decided they wanted to put their name on you, but you’re not touching the field until I’m satisfied. You’re going to earn it and you’re going to let everybody see you earn it. I promise you, he’s walking around knowing that he earned it.”
Stewart and Jones guided Wardale through what amounted to a three-week exam. Wardale didn’t flinch, motivated by thoughts of eventually suiting up and picking up where he left off, and driven by two words that are ingrained in the Wildcats’ way of conducting their everyday tasks — attitude and effort.
“I didn’t complain or anything. I just got it done and did what I had to do,” said Wardale, whose actions spoke loud and clear.
“We had to put him through the rigorous tests that football demands. Football is a very demanding game, mentally and physically and, so when we put him through those tests, he passed with flying colors. A tendency for young men when they are faced with challenges is to fold, to fold that hand and say you know what, it’s not for me. But he rose to the challenge. He really did,” Jones said. “It was not an easy journey to get back into this program and he did everything we asked him to do with a great attitude.”
Wardale, who has plans to attend college and study graphic design, made his debut in a reserve capacity Sept. 24 in the 12-6A opener at Bryan. He recovered a fumble the following week during Temple’s stirring comeback win over Harker Heights and made his first start six days later at Killeen Ellison.
“He’s a very coachable kid, but the major thing with Jalen is his relentless effort. He has a mentality that he’s going to fight for every inch. He’s not going to give up that inch. We need that and that’s been huge for him in staying on the field,” Jones said. “He gives everything he has to go make that play.”
Wardale currently has seven tackles and three pass breakups playing opposite fellow cornerback LeMichael Thompson for Temple’s increasingly stingy defense that’s allowed 17.3 points per game in league play.
“It was kind of an extensive deal,” Stewart concluded. “He’s done a great job and has had a great attitude.”
Attitude, effort and an appreciation for a special part of his life that almost wasn’t.
“These coaches are not going to give up on you,” Wardale said. “You are brothers with everybody here. It’s a family between the coaches, players, trainers. It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have to work, but I love it for sure.
“I’m very happy. I wanted to come back and do the best I can and play whatever part I can.”