‘I don’t know how I did it’: Antwane Wells Jr.’s path from military academy to USC

·9 min read

Antwane Wells Jr.’s afro bounces as he traipses across the Jerri and Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility ahead of South Carolina’s in-house media day in early August.

His current Dr. J-esque cut has taken on a handful of different styles in recent years. There was the shorter afro he rocked at the start of his second season at James Madison last fall. Wells transitioned to a three-strand braid later in the year, before letting his hair grow out to its current length.

That entire evolution, though, started as a taper courtesy of Virginia State running back Jalen Bailey, Wells’ roommate at Fork Union Military Academy in 2019, thanks to a smuggled pair of clippers and a dorm room barbershop operation.

“He actually knew how to cut hair — I didn’t,” Bailey said through a laugh. “But I don’t think he knew how to cut his own hair. That’s hard. So I just did it. It was terrible. But who were we trying to impress? It was just guys (at Fork Union). We weren’t trying to look good for anybody. We just had to get it done.”

Fork Union sprawls across its 1,000-acre campus in rural Virginia. Its pristine white buildings evoke visual similarities to the U.S. Naval Academy, just three hours up the road.

There’s little to do outside the walls of this remote outpost of military education started in the 19th century by a prominent local Baptist minister. The town of Fork Union doesn’t even register as a town at all — it’s technically classified as an unincorporated community.

But it’s here where Wells’ future aspirations on the gridiron began to take shape.

The postgraduate football program drew him to the prestigious military academy after a few college programs showed interest during his standout high school career on the west side of Richmond, but no one followed through with a scholarship offer.

Day 1 on campus at Fork Union meant Wells had to turn in his cell phone. His one immediate connection to the world outside his barracks was gone in an instant.

Wells was stuck. And his hopes of playing college football hinged on the next six months.

“Thinking back on it, I don’t know how I did it,” Wells told The State. “I really don’t know how I did it.”

Antwane Wells during team media day on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022 in the University of South Carolina Jerri and Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility.
Antwane Wells during team media day on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022 in the University of South Carolina Jerri and Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility.

A day in the life of a Fork Union cadet

Wells’ days at Fork Union started around 5:30 a.m., accompanied by whistles blaring across the barracks floors and coaches banging on doors to ensure cadets were awake.

Peaceful, right?

Then came the daily 10-minute scramble to brush his teeth and make the bed with tight enough corners to quite literally bounce a quarter off the sheets. Somewhere in between, cadets dressed in their uniforms, ensuring those, too, were in pristine condition.

“It’s like, ‘Damn I’m really in full military uniform doing all this s— and all I really want to do is play football,’ ” said Matt Hudson, a Harvard linebacker and Wells’ former Fork Union teammate.

A quick march from the barracks to the dining hall included a stop to salute the star-spangled banner, before scarfing down breakfast.

Classes were spread across the early and latter portions of the day. The rest of the schedule included daily church services, lunch and workouts.

Days ended with more military drilling, practice, dinner, a smidge of free time, saluting the flag once more and roughly two hours of study hall. Lights out came at 9:55 p.m. as “Taps” trilled across the grounds five minutes later.

“I love God — I’m a Christian,” Wells said, starting to laugh. “But going to church every day is just crazy.”

Adjusting to the orderly, disciplined nature of military school life took time. Wells concedes through a chuckle he got in a fight his first week as a cadet.

His prize? Spending two hours lugging roughly 20-pound ammunition crates in a square pattern in an open field.

“You’ve got to think about it — that was in the heat,” Norfolk State quarterback Kyler Davis, who played with Wells at Fork Union, told The State. “He was in full uniform and boots in the heat. I’m like, ‘Yeah that’s crazy.’ ”

Wells assured himself he’d never go through that again.

South Carolina receiver Antwane Wells works through drills at practice during his time at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. Wells transferred to USC in January after two years at James Madison.
South Carolina receiver Antwane Wells works through drills at practice during his time at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. Wells transferred to USC in January after two years at James Madison.

Growing on the football field, overcoming injury

Fork Union’s prolific football history dates back to the 1940s. There’s even a tab on the school’s athletics page that touts its rich gridiron tradition.

More than 100 Fork Union graduates have gone onto the NFL as players or coaches in the last 80 years. Fourteen former Blue Devils evolved into first-round draft picks.

Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George played at Fork Union. As did legendary Miami (Fla.) quarterback Vinny Testaverde, New Orleans Saints All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas, Super Bowl XLII hero Plaxico Burress and national championship signal-caller Cardale Jones.

Wells’ first few games against a schedule comprised of low-level colleges and other postgraduate military academies inspired confidence he might one day add his name to that distinguished ledger.

“There’s no cell phones, no game systems, none of that stuff,” Fork Union postgraduate football head coach Frank Arritt told The State. “(Wells) understood that. He locked in, did what he was supposed to do to get it done.”

Wells flashed by dipping and dancing his way through the Coppin State University defense for a 47-yard touchdown on a tunnel screen the third week of the season.

He added a highlight reel, toe-tapping catch along the sidelines against Myrtle Beach Prep with two defenders draped over him the following week.

That only lasted so long.

Skying for a fade in the back of the end zone during one-on-ones at practice early in the year, Wells snagged the pass, but heard a pop as he came down with the ball.

He tried to tough out a drag route the next play — coaches from East Carolina attending practice provided the impetus for one more run — but Wells pulled up hobbled.

He was later diagnosed with a broken foot. His season was over. Wells’ eyes grew cloudy. Tears began streaming down his face.

“I started crying,” Wells said. “I came here to play ball and I (couldn’t) even play.”

Sidelined with the foot injury, the tin-framed bed and hardwood floors of Wells’ dorm room became increasingly isolating in the immediate aftermath.

Bailey kept an extra eye on his roommate, keeping things light as best he could. Wells eventually shook the funk and refocused. He keyed in on his grades and did whatever he was physically allowed to — and then some.

When cadets were forced to turn out their lights, Bailey and Wells quietly slipped out of their beds and pulled out a deck of Uno cards they secured from teammate Larry Elder across the hall.

Putting their own twist on the card game War, whoever drew the smaller-value card had to perform a corresponding number of pushups before the next round.

It evolved into a nightly competition that lasted well past midnight.

“It got really intense and crazy,” Bailey said. “The pushup game — testosterone is going on — you don’t want to lose.”

Antwane Wells will transfer from James Madison to South Carolina.
Antwane Wells will transfer from James Madison to South Carolina.

The long road to South Carolina

Wells glances down at the tattoo sleeve that covers virtually his entire right arm. There’s an intricate piece with an image of Jesus watching over a clock that stretches from his shoulder to his elbow, the middle portion of which includes the date his nephew died.

“Psalm 23:4” is also inked into his bicep — “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” Wells recites by memory.

Gingerly shifting his left hand down the sleeve, he stops to describe the samurai warrior that runs from his wrist to his elbow. Wells had it done back home Virginia, shortly before going to Fork Union.

The piece is not quite as vibrant as it was at first. Wells says he didn’t take care of it the way he was supposed to. The long-sleeve military uniforms he wore scratched against his skin, while the hits he’s taken on the football field further muddied the complexion of the image.

That’s OK, Wells explains. There’s something borderline poetic in the disfigured ink.

“I kind of appreciate how it’s messed up, because it kind of describes me,” Wells said. “I look at myself like a warrior. It’s messed up. It’s bruised up. We’ve been through a lot. He was there in my toughest times.”

Wells eventually committed to James Madison, an offer he earned early in his time at Fork Union thanks to his first few games with the Blue Devils coupled with snippets of tape from high school.

He went on to finish his two years with the Dukes ranked third in program history in receiving touchdowns (21) and ninth in both career receiving yards (1,853) and career receptions (116).

Seeking increased exposure, he transferred to South Carolina in January.

“I was really surprised the bigger schools didn’t come after him (out of high school),” Hudson said. “He broke every record at JMU and he’s about to turn up in the SEC.”

Bailey and Wells spent most every night during their time at Fork Union kneeling beside their beds in prayer. They shared thoughts on life and aspirations for their futures.

Wells insisted on those evenings he’d make it to the highest level of college football and, hopefully, the NFL. A productive season in Columbia and he’ll be on plenty of professional radars come December.

“He’s the type of guy who when he says something, he’s gonna get it done by any means,” Bailey said. “He’s not gonna let anybody say, ‘Oh, you’re just gonna be in this little small conference.’ He shoots for the stars and that’s where he gonna go.”

Seated behind a fold-up table at South Carolina media day, Wells has long ditched his military uniform, instead siding on this day with a garnet game jersey and a pair of black Under Armour gym shorts.

He still carries his Fork Union experiences with him, though he hasn’t enlisted any of his South Carolina teammates as a barber — yet.