Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation stories as Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse travel the country to meet the incoming class of freshmen. Here’s a look at 4-star defensive lineman John Waggoner.
CLIVE, Iowa — Grab a seat.
Describing 4-star defensive end John Waggoner isn’t a quick process. Keith Mercer, Waggoner’s trainer, laughed before diving into a 45-minute explanation of why his student is different.
Intelligence. Work ethic. Unusual athleticism. A non-stop motor. A drive to succeed. An understanding of the big picture. The ability to quickly pick up concepts.
“There is no such thing as a limit for John,” said Mercer, a former Nebraska safety in the 1990s.
Mercer kept going because he needed to show that Waggoner isn’t average. The best way to get others to understand how Waggoner became a three-time Iowa high school football state champion, two-time all-state honoree and arguably the crown jewel in Iowa’s 2018 recruiting class is through the stories about him.
• • •
Sam Ingoli met John Waggoner in middle school through AAU basketball and didn’t believe what he saw.
Waggoner was always in the right spot, making the right play. There wasn’t anything an opponent or coach could do to disrupt him.
“It’s actually kind of frustrating,” Ingoli said. “He doesn’t have a weakness.”
The two became fast friends, and Ingoli learned Waggoner always had been the standout athlete. Coaches proclaimed Waggoner a surefire Division I soccer goalie in sixth grade.
Because of an unstable home life, Ingoli moved in with the Waggoner family the summer before eighth grade, with the family eventually adopting him.
Ingoli watched Waggoner up close, sitting in awe of how Waggoner succeeded at everything he tried.
When they were sophomores, Ingoli finally figured out the key to Waggoner’s accomplishments.
After a grueling Dowling Catholic varsity football practice, Waggoner disappeared for a few hours. Ingoli tracked him down at the local YMCA, lifting weights.
“That was the year he separated himself from everyone else,” Ingoli said. “You didn’t see him at home until 7 o’clock. He never stopped working.”
• • •
Waggoner will sleep anywhere.
Sofa. Desk. Kitchen table.
It’s a running family joke.
“We have pictures of him passing out all around the house,” his mother, Julie Waggoner, said. “Ever since he was little and fell asleep in the high chair. He just goes, goes and goes. Then he crashes.”
If he needed to do school work, he woke up at 4 a.m. If he finished it the night before, Waggoner woke up an hour later, ensuring he made his 5:30 a.m. workouts with Mercer.
For Waggoner’s parents, the most amazing part was their son did it by himself. He was the first at the gym, with his homework done. Waggoner didn’t need any coaxing.
“We never worried about him,” his father, Brian Waggoner, said. “He was always driven, whether in school or academics. He worked himself to exhaustion.”
By John Waggoner’s freshman year, football was his top priority. He spent most of his waking hours figuring out ways to maximize his potential and earn a college scholarship. The only real question was where his parents, Ingoli or one of his four other siblings discovered him sleeping next.
“It takes a special mindset to do what he did,” Julie Waggoner said. “Some of our older kids could have played soccer in college and had all of it paid for or most of it all paid for, but by the time they got to college it was, ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’ Where he was always [was]: ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
• • •
Four things stood out when Mercer first laid eyes on Waggoner about four years ago.
Waggoner smiled, worked hard and went non-stop. Mercer noticed room to grow into what became a 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame.
“You knew he was going to do something really good,” Mercer said.
But Mercer didn’t know how good until he started training Waggoner. No matter the drill, Waggoner’s quickness and explosiveness stood out.
“It was always the same way,” Mercer said. “He did things others didn’t, and it was because of his agility and great hip movement. Everything with a defensive end starts there.”
Waggoner’s athleticism was why Ohio State, LSU, Penn State and Oklahoma came circling for his services during his junior year.
Yet, for Mercer, Waggoner’s physical skills took a back seat to his work capacity. It was impossible to wear out Waggoner. Mercer can’t count the number of workouts designed to break his athletes, yet Waggoner always finished, ready for more.
“His mental stability is higher than most people because there are times where I push him to that point where most people fold, but he keeps going,” Mercer said, “He keeps going, and then he asks the right questions.”
In a hand-fighting drill, Waggoner inquired about hand placement and where to strike. He always wanted to know how an agility drill translated to the field, helping him get the most out of every workout.
“People underestimate his intelligence,” Mercer said, “which is fun for me because we get to do so many different things. He can quickly learn what you teach him and then put it into his game in short order.”
Mercer doesn’t know another defensive end who developed six pass rush moves before college. Or found a trainee he compared to his Nebraska teammate, and former All-American, Trev Alberts.
“I’ve seen guys that usually have one or two things that kind of triggers you thinking he’s special,” Mercer said. “But when you have a guy who sees the big picture like John, he’s different. He is the total package.”
• • •
Waggoner entered his senior season with one goal: Take home another Class 4A state title. Dowling Catholic had won four in a row, with Waggoner playing a key role in the most recent two.
He wanted to extend the Maroons’ streak to five.
“Senior year is a special year because sophomore, junior year when I won, it was cool, but senior year, you don’t want to be the class that ends it,” Waggoner said. “You want to keep the streak and tradition going on.”
Waggoner wanted no distractions. He shut down his recruitment in August, picked it back up in November, and before the early signing period in December, chose Iowa, one of his first offers, because he liked the program’s culture and how it fit with his personality.
The desire to claim another state championship consumed him so much that he volunteered to take on double teams. He was fine with being the center of attention — opponents focused on containing him each week — and at times serving as a decoy if it freed up teammates to make plays.
He sacrificed a potential double-digit sack season, recording only 21.5 tackles and 5.5 sacks, because it was best for the defense.
“I really don’t get into stat stuff,” Waggoner said. “It’s nice to have, but teams were game planning for me. A lot of the time it was best to do my responsibility.”
His job included film study and identifying weaknesses in opponents. It came in handy during the postseason. He noticed the offensive tackle for Urbandale, a first-round playoff opponent, tended to overset, making him susceptible to a fake. He worked with his coaches to devise a game plan.
Waggoner started the game using a bull rush to serve as a decoy. After a few series, he faked the bull rush and used a quick inside pass rush move to get around the offensive tackle. He spent most of the contest in the Urbandale backfield as Dowling Catholic won easily, 45-3.
The scene repeated itself for the next three weeks with film study being the first step to a dominant defensive performance and, ultimately, another state title. Dowling Catholic outscored its four playoff opponents 137-41.
“I am going to do whatever it takes to win,” Waggoner said. “It doesn’t matter what because nothing beats the feeling of a championship.”
• • •
Goosebumps formed on Mercer’s arms as he drove home his most important point about Waggoner.
Mercer knows special. He lived it at Nebraska in the 1990s, playing in two national title games. He witnessed it again with Waggoner.
Mercer is convinced Waggoner is as prepared for college football as a recruit can be and can do anything asked of him.
This is why he’s certain Waggoner’s best stories are coming over the next four or five years.
“You see a lot of athletes possess exceptional skills, but they don’t use it and then when they do use it, they use it in the wrong way and they don’t realize it’s gone,” Mercer said. “His best ball is ahead of him, hands down. It’s going to be fun to watch.”