He tucked away the football and headed up the field, short legs churning. Seventy yards later John Wiechman was in the end zone, soaking up the cheers.

In the grandstand, Kevin Cooper looked at his son, Cameron. It had been five years since the Bonny Eagle football coach and his former water boy last watched Wiechman carry the ball. Everything seemed different but nothing had changed.

“We saw a typical John Wiechman run,” said Cooper. “He hurdled a defensive back and ran over the free safety. How many times have we seen that before?”

Too many to keep count.

When Wiechman returned to the Southern Connecticut State University sideline, Coach Rich Cavanaugh told him he was taking the ball out of his hands. It was the fourth quarter and Wiechman’s second touchdown of the game had upped the score to 52-21 against St. Anselm. Wiechman’s college career ended on Nov. 13.

“Maybe 30 or 40 of our players from the last 15 years have played in college,” said Cooper. “Only two fulfilled their college eligibility.”

The first was Steve DiBiase, who played all four years at Plymouth State. The second is John Wiechman. That’s the list.

It’s time to put Wiechman’s college career in perspective. Go back 60 years and make your own list of, say, the top 10 Maine high school running backs who had productive college careers. Not many names come to mind.

Certainly Willie Greenlaw, the legendary Portland High halfback from the 1950s who starred at Nebraska. Jim Soule, the Morse High and Bowdoin College wonder of the 1970s who earned a training camp invitation from the Dallas Cowboys.

Add Kirk Mathieu (Lawrence High, Maine Maritime) from the 1980s. Jim Bowers (Oxford Hills, Maine Maritime) over the past four years. I’ve missed a few, but Wiechman has a place on this list.

He didn’t grow physically after he arrived on the Southern Connecticut campus in New Haven. He was still half an inch short of a full 5-foot-8. Still about five pounds under 200.

“I was intimidated at my first preseason,” said Wiechman. “I couldn’t believe how different it was from high school. Everyone was huge.”

And quick. And strong. And students of the game. Wiechman would be tested in ways he never imagined. But he stuck. He dressed for every game for four seasons.

He was a redshirt his freshman year. Among the leading tacklers on special teams the next year. In his sophomore season he was thrust into the starring role in the backfield when tailback Jarom Freeman was injured.

Wiechman responded with highlight footage game after game, gaining 1,047 yards in 2008 and scoring 13 touchdowns. He was named the Northeast 10 Conference offensive player of the year.

The next season he filled in as the blocking fullback after another teammate was injured. The glory went to others. The respect of his teammates and coaches went to Wiechman.

This year, he took turns carrying the ball with Rashaad Slowley. Slowley, who was anything but, finished the season with 885 yards. Wiechman gained 778.

He wasn’t bulletproof. Cavanaugh did see him in the training room getting Band-Aids and whirlpool baths for his nicks and aches and bruises. And then saw him ready for drills on the practice field.

“He played with minor injuries that would have slowed a lesser man,” said Cavanaugh. “He was one of the most complete players I’ve ever coached in my career. He can run, he can catch a pass, he can block. He can tackle. If we asked him to kick, I’m sure he would have done that, too.”

Cavanaugh has coached winning teams in 18 of his 26 seasons at Southern Connecticut. A streak of four straight trips to the NCAA Division II playoffs ended in 2009. An overall record of 6-4, 6-2 in the conference, didn’t get them an invitation to this year’s playoffs.

Which stung Wiechman, of course. The 2005 Fitzpatrick Trophy winner can live with not winning. Barely.

He is due to graduate with a degree in marketing and computer science. He’s made the conference honor roll. He has a future in the real world. But he’s not done playing football.

Danny Woodhead of the Patriots is an inspiration. So is Maurice Jones-Drew, the running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both are little men, like Wiechman. Woodhead came out of a Division II school, too.

The Consensus Draft Services website, which put Jared Turcotte of Maine on its All-Underappreciated second team, has noticed Wiechman.

“He is a football player, pure and simple,” reads the analysis. “Spins off tacklers, pinballs (defensive backs and even linebackers). Probably no one will draft him (but) he will be a tough cut for the NFL.”

“I’d love to take it to the next level,” said Wiechman between bites of a sandwich in downtown Portland. “I’d play in the (Canadian Football League), the (United Football League). I’d play Arena Football. I’d consider flag football.”

He paused, smiling. There is no pro flag football league. At least not one that he knows. He owes his family and his friends who have supported him the past 10 years to try, he said.

“John has become the man and the football player we expected,” said Cavanaugh. “He developed into a fine student. He’s the person I’ll remember for a long time.”

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]