Ben Axon delivered on the promise he made to his friends, coaches and supporters. He enrolled Wednesday at Western Kentucky and was on the practice field that afternoon.
The former Manatee High standout gives WKU head football coach Willie Taggart another pillar to prop underneath the field of dreams he has created on campus.
Axon was arguably the longest shot to make the Taggart institute of miracles.
Since he played his last down for Manatee in 2008, Axon committed to six schools, attended four (including WKU) and played at two.
A Rivals.com four-star prospect, Axon was a coveted back who could move a pile with his brute strength and had the speed to get around the perimeter and take it the distance. Unfortunately, his biggest obstacle off the field was himself.
His odyssey began with an arrest for marijuana that forced Steve Spurrier to take back a scholarship offer at South Carolina. After escaping jail time, Axon began a nomadic journey that took him to Eastern Michigan, Butler Community College and Holmes C.C.
Bad luck seemed to dog him at every turn.
Just when Axon appeared to clear all those hurdles, he was hospitalized two weeks ago after a spider bit his leg. He couldn't move and says he was lucky to be treated early because he was told it could've been life threatening.
As soon as he was able, Axon was back in the weight room and running.
His determination is one reason Taggart is so high on the 23-year-old, not to mention his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame that can cause nightmares for would-be tacklers.
"Ben is a strong runner with good feet who can get up field and go the distance. He is really put together," said Taggart, one of Manatee High's all-time greats at quarterback.
Now Axon wants to keep the promise he made to himself, that he would be some team's workhorse running back.
"I want to be the starter; that's why I came here," Axon said. "But I realize nothing will be given to me. I have to work for it, and there are a lot of good running backs here."
Axon got his first taste of contact at WKU on Friday. Taggart said he was tentative, which is to be expected because he played only briefly last season at Holmes before leaving for personal reasons.
But his potential is obvious. The coach won't commit to anyone and says he might use a running-back-by-committee approach with last year's leading rusher Bobby Rainey gone to the NFL. "Ben showed a lot of ability, but also looked like a guy that was out there thinking a lot, like he is trying to figure out what he is supposed to do," Taggart said. "He was a little tentative. He has a lot of potential. He has a license like the rest of those guys to take the job and keep it. The competition is wide open at running back."
One of those competing for the job is freshman Leon Allen, another Manatee High product. He also had to overcome some long odds and was befriended by Axon, who is not afraid to help out his competition.
"To be here is great. I feel like I just got drafted," Axon said. "It was a long process, but I never gave up. Now all I have to do is concentrate on playing. I think I am about 75 percent game shape. If I continue to get the reps, that will come. The first day of contact felt good."
Taggart runs a lot of the pro-style offense he used when he was an assistant under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and WKU and is now used by Harbaugh with the San Francisco 49ers. It seems to be tailor-made for Axon, a big back who reminds you of Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson.
"Ben did all the things he had to do to become eligible and get here and that speaks volumes about his character," Taggart said. "There has been no consistency to his college path, and he knows a big part of that was Ben. Now he has put himself into a position where he can make his life better, and he is determined to take advantage of his opportunity here." "He doesn't remind me of any back I've coached because of his stature; he is tall and thick. I am used to having guys a little shorter and stockier."
Axon's best collegiate season came in 2010 at Butler, when he was nearly the Grizzlies' entire ground game with 967 yards on 233 carries and led them to the national JUCO runner-up spot. He gives a lot of credit to the coaching staff at Manatee under Joe Kinnan and WKU assistant Ray Woodie. "So many people helped and I want to promise them I won't let them down. I am going to make every effort to be successful like I should've the first time," Axon said. "Coach Kinnan is the one who called Coach Taggart about me, and Coach (Chris) Conboy has always been there for me and always lifted me up. Coach Woodie and my uncle, Richard Woodie, have helped me a lot."
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.