Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for the Hawgs Sports Network. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas and previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was the 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Tougher than tough: Wagner has chance to break a cycle
Arkansas offensive lineman Dalton Wagner (78) on Saturday, November 6, 2021, at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Brad Wagner looks back these days and has a good laugh when remembering how his son, Dalton, began his football career.
Dalton had a strong desire early in life to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Bryce, and join forces with him in a youth football league. But there was one key issue.
He was only 5 years old, a bit too young at the time to be able to put on a helmet and shoulder pads and play against the area kids. By rule, he had wait to get his first taste of competitive football.
Or so he thought.
“We actually lied on our application for him to play. He was literally playing football when he was five years old. It was pretty cool,” Brad Wagner said with a laugh, “until we saw him get hit really good. Then we didn’t think it was such a good idea. But he saw it through.
“He wanted to play with his older brother. My wife and I always (joked) the main reason we got married was for quote-unquote breeding stock. She’s 6-2 by trade and I’m 6-5. We always wanted to develop football players. No, but what we did was just kind of slip our pen on when he was born. It was funny.”
For Dalton Wagner, it was an unusual, outside-the-box introduction to the game. But it is the genesis of what over the years has become a unique football journey filled with peaks and valleys, and adversity overcome.
His time at Arkansas began in the spring of 2017 under former Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema, and he endured the end of that area then the tumultuous Chad Morris tenure of 2018-19. Through all of the trials, however, he did not lose sight of who he was raised to be or his personal ambition.
“Dalton is a great person and a great player, on and off the field,” Arkansas left tackle Luke Jones said. “He’s an amazing leader. He’s always ready to work. He always motivates the group.”
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The willingness and want to lead is what Brad is proudest of, and this preseason it led to the 6-9 lineman being named a team captain in a vote of his peers. Under Sam Pittman, a long-time offensive line coach, and position coach Cody Kennedy, Wagner has an opportunity to break a cycle.
Brad Wagner works in heavy construction as the vice president of operations for a paving company in Illinois, where he has created a simple, middle-class country life for his family. In his children, he instilled the blue-collar values taught by his own father, and they could aide his son in soon getting a shot at a professional football career.
“We’re always grinding more or less,” Brad Wagner said. “I always tell him, ‘Dude, you’ve got to put the work in. That’s how my dad raised me.’ I told him you can work hard for 10 years and you can have a dream and follow your dream. And maybe you can have life work in your benefit and not have to bust your ass all the time. That, I’m proud of.
“He definitely knows when he has to pull up his pants and do things right, which is cool.”
In early September, the Wagners lost the man they loved and learned so much from growing up. Kenneth Wagner, Brad’s father and an avid puzzler who also enjoyed woodworking and quality time with family, died at age 77.
After he played in the Razorbacks’ 44-30 victory over South Carolina on Sept. 10, Wagner posted a heartfelt message about his grandfather to his Twitter account. In it, he wrote that his grandfather was the definition of blue collar and grew to be a die-hard Arkansas football fan.
It was the second bout with loss he had faced in the span of a year. Prior to the Razorbacks’ game at Georgia in 2021, his grandmother died. Brad Wagner believes her passing impacted his son’s performance because, at the time, he was unsure how to handle his emotions.
But this fall, he said, Dalton Wagner was able to push through in a challenging time.
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“I told him, ‘You know what dad would want, Dalton,’” he added. “‘He doesn’t want to hear the games. He doesn’t want to hear the bullshit. You’ve got a job to do this week. Once you get your job done then we’ll get back here and take care of dad.’
“One great thing about my dad was he was very interactive in our lives. For as much as we worked, there was still a lot of time when we played. Like I always tell our family, we’re not the richest family or wealthiest family out there, but our family value is immeasurable. That’s where our riches are.”
Last October, after Pittman announced Wagner would miss time because of an injured finger that required surgery, Arkansas’ coach described the lineman as one of the greatest kids he’s ever been around. Then came an even greater descriptor: Tougher than an ol’ billy goat.
Growing up, he was just that, and more than a touch fearless. His mother, Nancy, often tells the story of her 3-year-old son running around on the roof that covers the porch on the family’s two-story home.
The brothers got into more than a few WWE-style wrestling matches, too. Between them they destroyed or ruined a handful of beds, couches and other pieces of furniture.
“They got into it one time in the bathroom, so you have two big elephants wrestling in the bathroom and Dalton pushed Bryce into the wall, and he hit it so hard that his butt broke the drywall perfectly,” Brad Wagner recalled. “We never really fixed it to always remind them. Just the joys of being a bigger family.
“And Dalton would drink a gallon of milk per day. It was whole milk, too. The kids definitely put a hurting on the septic tank, I’ll tell you that, too.”
Bryce Wagner pushed his younger brother in more ways than one. He wears the No. 78 largely because of him. Their father said he knew Dalton could become a player who might play at the college level during his sophomore season, when he was moved to varsity and held his own.
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In the name of brotherly rivalry, Dalton always strived to out-do Bryce, who initially showed him the way. Bryce, who stood 6-8 and 346 pounds late in his college career, earned a scholarship at Southern Illinois ahead of his junior season in 2017.
“He wanted to make a statement about that,” Brad Wagner said, “that Bryce had created the path, so I’m going to bulldoze that path apart. It was kind of funny.”
Entering Saturday’s non-conference game at BYU, Wagner holds the Razorbacks’ third-best overall offense grade, according to Pro Football Focus, at 79.4. He trails right guard Beaux Limmer and quarterback KJ Jefferson, and it is the best mark of his career.
He has also made marked improvements in pass protection, according to the analytics. He owns an 81.0 grade in 195 pass-blocking snaps, up from 73.7 last season and 69.2 in 2020.
Brad Wagner, who played center and is a former Western Illinois offensive lineman, made it a point raising his boys in football to tell them that linemen are often over-worked and under-appreciated. He also teased them that the responsibilities of a tackle are simple compared to center.
Pittman is thrilled to have Wagner anchoring the right side of his offensive line and that he has been able to play all but nine of Arkansas’ 457 offensive snaps this season. There was concern in the preseason, particularly because of bouts with back trouble, about durability.
“When I first saw him, I thought he was — before I got to know him — a great big guy that was kind of stiff and things of that nature. Man, I don’t think that anymore,” Pittman said. “I think he’s a really fine player. I think he’s going to have an opportunity to play in the NFL. He’s tougher than tough, a guy that the kids look up to. He certainly has gotten a lot better.
“He’s bending better. He’s much stronger than he was. But I will say this, you can win a lot of games with him because he’s a good player, A, and, B, he’s tough and cares. He’s a great kid to have on the football team.
“Knock on wood, he’s done a great job this year.”
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