Aaron Wimberly drags himself out of bed every morning and glances at the note hanging above his black laptop. That paper combines his motivation, obsession and dreams into a space no larger than his computer screen.
That loose-leaf page is one of the first things he sees and one of the last before he flips off his lights and decides to dream. Three goals, written in black ink, run the length of the note:
1. Become the first running back at Council Bluffs (Iowa) Iowa Western to rush for 1,000 yards. 2. Become a First-Team All-Conference selection again.
Check and check. Wimberly, one of the most coveted junior college tailbacks, scribbled out those two goals weeks ago.
And No. 3: Become an academic All-American. He's still waiting to cross that goal -- maybe the most important of the three -- off a list that's been tacked to his wall since training camp.
That final goal, the most elusive, holds special significance for the sophomore, who looks upon his GPA as a form of redemption. He remembers watching his high school teammates at Snellville (Ga.) South Gwinnett trying on ballcaps and scribbling their signatures on LOIs when he was a senior. The tailback, pursued by the likes of Troy and Minnesota, didn't qualify. His SAT scores came in too low -- and he promised himself he wouldn't repeat his errors.
"When I didn't qualify, when I had to take the juco route, I figured it was my second chance," Wimberly says now. "And it was a blessing I even had a second chance. I thought I'd take advantage of it."
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound prospect enrolled at Iowa Western before he ever saw the campus. He had never before stepped inside a plane or glanced down at white clouds. He just wanted to play and earn high marks. But before he beat out three tailbacks for the starting job, on his way to the university, his hands grew slightly clammy as he thought about all that awaited him.
He wondered how he might fit in with the team. He wondered if Council Bluffs would have any of the collard greens and soul food he grew up on just outside Atlanta. He wondered about academics and playing time. He wondered about everything.
"But I felt that I didn't come this far not to make the team," he added. "I came out to compete. I was far from home, but I wasn't going back home because I didn't compete right."
He arrived a week after his teammates had already started summer workouts. He devoted himself to the playbook and the weight room. He nodded to any advice, kept his head down and -- when preseason started up -- the coaching staff quickly noticed the quiet-but-determined rookie.
"From Day 1he stood out," receivers coach Scott Strohmeier said. "He came in with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and, within that first week, we felt this kid could be pretty darn special. He ended up being an All-American as a freshman, with just under 900 yards rushing and 300 receiving yards and another 200 in the return game."
Wimberly sat down in the offseason, when he was able to take a break from studying, and thought for a while before putting this year's goals to paper. He didn't mention FBS scholarships or an appearance in the national title game. But he's already achieved both.
He has seven offers -- from the likes of Boise State, Penn State and Iowa State -- and he's planned official visits to all three. Wimberly is currently committed to Iowa State.
Strohmeier said his ability, especially his determination on the field and off, has been difficult for most colleges to ignore. Iowa Western's white board is filled with more than 25 visiting schools, all stacked atop one another in different shades of marker, some taking closer looks at Wimberly and some at his teammates.
"Lots of times you see running backs that are really good outside running, some are tough running between the tackles, and some are better in the pass game," Strohmeier said. "Aaron? Honestly, he does it all."
He's sprinted, juked and spun his way to 1,092 rushing yards this season, averaging 7.6 yards a touch and fumbling just once in 143 carries. Wimberly is aware of those numbers, and he said his second chance has evolved into an even-better opportunity for his future -- something he never imagined during that plane ride.
He holds a 3.5 GPA after three semesters, settled into an unusual place "with a lot of crops and deer" and is coming out of it with the potential to start at programs his high school teammates dreamed about.
What's next for Wimberly? "Well," he said. "After the season, I'll just start a new goal sheet."
He's not yet sure what he'll scrawl on it. But, whatever it is, nobody's discounting Wimberly.