Photo by Frank Couch.
Spain Park senior running back Larry Wooden is one of the area's most heavily recruited players. He currently holds more than 10 Division I offers.
Standing along the home sidelines at Jaguar Stadium on an early September morning, Spain Park High School running back Larry Wooden Jr. was asked to describe his identity as a player.
For a moment, he paused.
Seldom are athletes in Wooden’s position prodded to formulate their own self-image. It’s something that is often contrived for them by external voices in the school, community and media.
But after four seconds of hesitation, the running back delivered an answer that spoke volumes.
“I’m just a player,” he said. “I just come out and play as hard as I can.”
It’s a proclamation that unfolds under the Friday night lights.
Wooden, a highly recruited senior, is one of the chief offensive weapons on Spain Park’s 2016 roster. A versatile threat out of the backfield, he possesses the strength and vision of a running back and the hands of a wide receiver. To defenses, he presents a bit of a conundrum.
“He has everything you want in a running back. He’s physical, he can block, he’s fast, he’s got great vision and his hands are unbelievable,” Jags head coach Shawn Raney said. “Those types of kids are very rare, and we’re very fortunate to have him.”
Wooden’s ascent to the top of the talent pyramid at Spain Park — and all of metro Birmingham, for that matter — wasn’t automatic. His climb, which first started at age 7, has been characterized by perpetual physical transformation, persistent drive and, most recently, exemplary leadership.
Finding his place
Although Wooden has been enrolled in Hoover City Schools since his fifth-grade year at Riverchase Elementary, he is not a native Alabamian. He was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and lived there until he was 9.
Wooden said the academic reputation of the Hoover school system coupled with the marriage of his father, Larry Wooden Sr., to his stepmother triggered the move following his fourth-grade year.
The geographic shift signified the first major location change that shaped Wooden’s life path. The second transpired on a more magnified scale.
When Wooden first started to play football, he didn’t line up five yards behind the center like he does now. At age 7, he was the center.
“I was kind of chubby,” Wooden said with a chuckle.
But his lineman status didn’t last long. During his tenure at Berry Middle, he transitioned to wide receiver at the recommendation of his coach.
Wooden stayed on the flank throughout his middle school career and developed the receiving skills that are now a defining aspect of his game. He didn’t convert to running back until he entered Spain Park as a 5-foot-9, 135-pound freshman.
Wooden said it was this second position change that helped him realize his potential in the sport, especially after he received a vote of confidence from the Jags’ coaching staff as a sophomore.
“That’s when it all started,” Wooden said, “like I could be something.”
Entering the 2014 season, Wooden presumed he would occupy the fourth slot on Spain Park’s depth chart at running back. But when it was released, the coaches listed Wooden second — behind then-junior starter Wade Streeter and ahead of two seniors.
Raney said that Wooden’s performance in practices, as verified by end-zone view video recordings, propelled him to the backup role.
“I’m making him see cuts that an ordinary kid does not see, so if we’ve got a front-side running play and something opens up on the back side, an ordinary back would just bull his head and go where the play’s supposed to be,” Raney said. “But a great back, when the play’s not there, he has enough vision where he can see and make the cuts that ordinary backs don’t make.”
In addition to Wooden’s vision, Raney identified his running back’s innate athleticism as the second distinguishing quality that manifested itself on the practice film. After Wooden would select his running lane, Raney noted, he flashed the speed and acceleration necessary to slip through openings.
“It was pretty obvious to me, even at an early age, how good he was going to be,” Raney said.
The turning point
In what Wooden now calls a “turning point” sophomore season, he accounted for 381 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, according to totals from MaxPreps.com.
But more than anything, he was given a chance.
“They trusted me,” Wooden of the coaching staff. “I wasn’t too good in middle school, and then I had a good freshman year, but I didn’t think that was going to be enough to play behind Wade, because he was like the man.”
As a junior, Wooden’s numbers more than tripled. Given an almost equal amount of playing time as Streeter in 2015, Wooden rolled up 895 yards rushing, tallied 344 yards receiving and scored nine touchdowns.
The breakout campaign, which ended with an appearance in the Class 7A state final, put Wooden on the map.
College recruiters took notice.
In the past 10 months, Wooden has received 11 offers from schools varying in both size and proximity. Currently, he holds in-state offers from UAB, Troy and Samford and out-of-state offers from eight other schools, headlined by the University of Minnesota.
While Wooden said he hasn’t thought too much about which names comprise the top of his list, he said the presence of recruiting interest has fueled him since the process began.
“After I got my first offer, I was in the weight room like every morning, trying to get bigger and bigger,” said Wooden, who now stands 6 feet tall and weighs 195 pounds.
Wooden estimated he spent six to seven hours a day this summer engaged in some form of preseason training. Whether it was playing catch with a teammate, working out with his father — whom he calls the most influential person in his life — or honing his speed and agility through sessions at Godspeed Elite Sports Academy in Hoover, Wooden was all football all the time.
“Some games, I know I wasn’t prepared, and I don’t like that feeling,” Wooden said of his junior season. “I like games where I can have fun and do what I know I can do. That’s motivation for me.”
Through five games this season, Wooden totaled 641 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns. He said his offseason conditioning has increased his durability and, compared to last year, has left his body feeling fresher after games.
“He’s gotten better over the years — gotten bigger, gotten faster, gotten stronger,” said Houston Hollis, a Spain Park senior linebacker who has played with Wooden since middle school.
His dedication, however, isn’t motivated solely by the desire to polish his recruiting appeal.
With the loss of a guiding voice in the now-graduated Streeter, Raney said that he has seen the soft-spoken Wooden step into an elevated leadership role.
Even though he lets his actions do most of the talking, Wooden said the example he wants to set is one of humility and daily determination both on the field and in the classroom.
“For me to stand out there and watch the way he practices, it makes you proud as a coach to know that you’ve got 90 other guys watching him,” Raney said. “I’m just really proud of the kid and everything about him.”