A dogged champion

KU's Wissel still cleans up after football

Reigning Big 12 cross country champion Colby Wissel goes for a stroll with Molly (on leash) and Forest on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus. Wissel and the pooches go for a daily jog unless it's too hot, and the jog becomes a walk. Forest sometimes pants his way to a ride.

A sound argument easily could be made Colby Wissel, peering over his shoulder seven times during the stretch run, authored the single most exciting moment of any Kansas University athlete during the 2006-07 school year when he kicked his way to the Big 12 men’s cross country title on a cold, damp morning at Rim Rock Farm last fall.

Surely, this elevated his status on campus, right? He must be driving one of those fully loaded SUVs favored by big-time college athletes across the country, correct? By now, he must have an entourage that could pack Liberty Hall, no?

Well, not exactly.

Wissel, back for his senior year, still works the same job he worked a year ago in order to make ends meet. He still spends two hours a night doing the football players’ laundry, gathering up the sweaty garments from the floor of the locker room and equipment room and returning them to the lockers after cleaning them.

“Some of the guys give me a hard time about it,” Wissel said. “A cross country runner has done that job for years. It kind of gets passed down. It’s not the most glamorous job, but it pays for rent, so it’s not a bad part-time job.”

Wissel counts many football players among his friends.

“Sometimes one of the football players will ask if I want to hang out, and I’ll tell him: ‘I would, but I have to clean your jockstrap,'” Wissel said.

This is not a story about an athlete too slight, too frail to play football, so he turned to cross country and discovered he had talent. It was Wissel who had to break the news to the football coach that he wouldn’t be picking up a helmet and pads, not the other way around.

Wissel cut football out of his life. Telling the football coach at Elm Creek High in Nebraska about an impending transfer to Kearney High to run cross country and track represented a tricky challenge for the young athlete. Wissel, who had started at defensive back as a freshman and was the JV quarterback, was penciled in as the starting varsity quarterback for his sophomore season, but that was just the beginning of what made it a touchy topic. The coach was his father, Stan Wissel, now in his 29th season as the small Nebraska school’s football coach.

The teenager broke the news to his parents the morning he was to leave for a football camp in Lincoln.

Reigning Big 12 cross country champion Colby Wissel goes for a stroll with Molly (on leash) and Forest on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus. Wissel and the pooches go for a daily jog unless it's too hot, and the jog becomes a walk. Forest sometimes pants his way to a ride.

“We were shocked,” Stan Wissel said by phone Friday, hours before his team would take the field in its season opener, against Grant High. “It came pretty much out of the blue. He had played quarterback for us during the summer in our seven-on-seven stuff. He had also run track with some of the guys from the other school, and they had been working on him, unbeknownst to Sheila and me.”

Wissel went to the football camp because the money already had been spent.

“My dad hoped if I went there and was around a lot of other high school athletes it might change my mind,” Wissel said. “When I got there, a kid said, ‘Hey, aren’t you that good runner?’ I did try. I gave it a fair shot at the camp.”

In the process, his father remembered, “Colby had a lot of fun with (former Nebraska quarterback and assistant coach, now the head coach at University of Buffalo) Turner Gill.”

Still, Colby’s mind was made up. He was a runner, not a football player.

The coach was without a quarterback, but the father still had his son.

“It worked out for the best,” Stan said.

His son holds the Nebraska state records in the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter runs and won nine individual state titles for Kearney High, perennial state champion. He twice was named state Track Athlete of the Year.

Kansas University's Colby Wissel runs with his dogs, Forest, front, and Molly on the Haskell campus. Wissel is the antithesis of embattled former NFL quarterback/confessed dogfighter Michael Vick.

“We could have used him, though,” said his dad, the football coach. “It hurt us. He was going to be a pretty darn good small-school quarterback for us. He had the ability to run the option pretty good, and he had probably an above-average arm.”

Colby Wissel played quarterback and was at his best running the football. Same for Michael Vick.

End of similarities.

Wissel is about as close to the anti-Michael Vick as exists in today’s sports world. A double major (accounting and history), the humble Wissel spends much of his free time playing with and caring for his dogs.

Molly, 7, is an Irish Setter. Forest, four months, is a Gordon Setter. Wissel takes his dogs for daily jogs, unless it’s too hot, in which case they are daily walks. Often, he drives them to the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University, where the dogs punctuate their walk with a swim in a pond. When Forest pants loudly, he no longer has to walk. Wissel picks him up and carries him, while holding onto Molly’s leash.

Meanwhile, multiple witnesses testified that Vick was involved in executing by drowning or hanging at least a half dozen dogs that did not fight well in testing sessions as part of a dogfighting ring.

“When you first hear of dogfighting you think, oh, man, who would do that? But once you start reading into it more, reading what Michael Vick did, start seeing pictures online, that’s when it really hits you,” Wissel said. “What kind of person could do that? I don’t care what type of dog you have, pit bull, rottweiler, whatever. It’s not natural for a dog to fight to the death. That’s not what they would do if they were out on their own. Then for someone to exploit that just for the sake of doing it. : Michael Vick didn’t need gambling money. He wasn’t doing it for money. For someone to do that for pure sport, it’s pretty disheartening, really.”

Vick won’t be playing football this fall, and Wissel won’t miss watching him.

“I never really was a Michael Vick fan,” Wissel said. “I always thought he was kind of overrated as a quarterback. He’s a super athlete. No one can deny that.”

So is Wissel, even though he performs on a much smaller stage in a less popular sport.

A 2006 All-American and Academic All-Big 12 selection, Wissel stars in a sport that does most of its competing on the road. KU’s lone home meet, the Bob Timmons Invitational, is a week from today, several hours before the football team kicks off the season against Central Michigan.

“I ran at Rim Rock even in high school, so it’s kind of hard to believe I’ll be competing for a team for the last time at Rim Rock,” Wissel said. “It’s not a real big meet, but at the same time we take a lot of pride in that course. It’s always fun to get out there and run.”

Wissel no longer runs from defensive ends or into tight ends, but he does seem to be forever on the run, be it with his dogs, his books, or football players’ dirty laundry.