Life After JCU — Larry Wanke

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Provided Courtesy of Larry Wanke

Larry Wanke %238 walks down the track during his Senior Day game for the Blue Streaks.

By Ashley McCall, John Carroll University

John Carroll University has received the title of the “pipeline to the National Football League” with many of the alumni working in the front offices or on the coaching staffs of these professional teams.

While only ranked as a Division III school, names like London Fletcher and Tom Arth going to play at this higher level prove that John Carroll continues to have an unique connection to the NFL. A name that might not be as familiar to most, but one that has special meaning to the Blue Streak community is Larry Wanke.

Wanke graduated from John Carroll in 1993 where he majored in sociology. He played football for the Blue and Gold during his time in college and quickly made a name for himself as highlighted by his induction into the JCU Hall of Fame in 2004.

His story at John Carroll is only a small part of the bigger picture of his life, although being a Blue Streak has had a tremendous impact on his journey.

The Carroll News had the opportunity to meet with Wanke and discuss his story from growing up in Cleveland, moving away for college, coming back to JCU and his life after being a Blue Streak, all with relevance to, specifically, John Carroll sports.

Growing up, Wanke lived in South Euclid and attended Benedictine High School which is about a 15 minute drive from John Carroll.

“I always enjoy that I grew up in a kind of, I’d say, middle class neighborhood. Everybody played outside. There were little city baseball leagues,” Wanke reflected. “It takes a community to raise a child and that’s really how it was. Everybody’s parents pitched in and would discipline you if you did something wrong. I loved growing up here.”

Larry Wanke on the field for the Blue Streaks. (Provided Courtesy of Larry Wanke)

“High school was awesome. I enjoyed it a lot. I got a scholarship to go to play at Benedictine,” explained Wanke. “I loved the diversity there. It was such a nice mix of diversity and I just felt like that experience was awesome because you got to meet kids from the west side, from the south side and from the inner city.”

All throughout high school, Wanke was being recruited to play football at the collegiate level.

While there was probably an opportunity for him to play baseball at the college level, football was his passion, so he focused on those specific opportunities.

“When I started getting recruited back then, you could take five official visits to colleges, so I visited University of Miami, Penn State University, University of Pittsburgh, Ohio State University and Boston College because at that point, I wanted to play Division I football.”

The decision weighed heavily on his mind, but he ultimately decided to leave his home city and head further north to Pittsburgh, PA to play for the Panthers.

“I went to Pittsburgh and connected with the people. It was a lot like Cleveland in a lot of different ways. It just felt right at the time and I went with it.”

With the Panthers, Wanke recalls playing in about seven games and being redshirted his sophomore year. The starting quarterback was younger than him, so he realized he could either stay at Pitt and be a part of the team and experience, but not see the field, or transfer to another school.

However, the issue with transferring is that, if he transferred to another DI school, he would have to sit out for his junior year. With this in mind, he started looking at schools closer to home.

“I visited John Carroll because one of my receivers in high school, a real close friend of mine, went to the school. A part of me wanted to make that connection again. John Carroll was right down the street from where I lived, one city away from University Heights. My best friend, Jimmy Flynn, had just transferred to John Carroll, so I decided to check it out.”

“I visited and I felt good. I met Coach Tony DeCarlo and we hit it off. I made the choice to do it and I’m really glad I did. I met some awesome people, but the reason I transferred was more football related.”

It was not an easy transition though. Wanke felt like he had to prove himself to the team coming from the DI level. What made it easier for him was starting football almost immediately.

“It was the camaraderie of the guys. I love all that stuff. The whole team was so ingratiate and welcoming that it was an easy transition. Division III is very different from playing at the Division I level because you’re not on scholarship, no one is on scholarship. Everyone is playing because they want to play and there was a beauty in that to me. I loved the coaching staff. They were like your favorite uncles. They worked their butts off and did a great job and I appreciated that. It made my transition easier and I’ll be forever grateful.”

Larry Wanke with his teammates and friends that he met after transferring to John Carroll. (Provided Courtesy of Larry Wanke)

With this smooth integration into the John Carroll Football family, The Carroll News asked  Wanke to recall what one of his most memorable moments was at John Carroll. Interestingly enough, he remembered his first game as a Blue Streak against Buffalo.

“Buffalo was good and they were loaded with talent. I did not know what to expect out of our team—I didn’t have any benchmarks. I didn’t know the Division III level. We went down to Buffalo and played in a really difficult game, but we ended up winning in the last couple of minutes. There was a great deal of fear because I put pressure on myself to help these guys win and so losing that game would have been devastating to me personally.”

As reported by the JCU Sports Information Department in their “100 Years of JCU Athletics Celebration” story, this game is credited as the moment that Wanke became a Blue Streak.

As written in the article, “…‘Larry Wanke entered John Carroll in January, but yesterday it was when he found a home with the Blue Streaks.’ /// That was because Wanke’s 45-yard touchdown pass with 2:07 remaining in the contest were the winning points. /// ‘It was a heckuva game,’ said JCU coach Tony DeCarlo. ‘We beat a quality football team … I saw more character out there today than I’ve seen in the past.’”

For the next two years, Wanke found a home, but also brought a great deal of success for the football team.

As recorded by the JCU Sports Information Department, “A two-time All-Ohio Athletic Conference player (1st team in 1989, 2nd team in 1990), Wanke set 16 all-time JCU passing records during his tenure. He led the Blue Streaks to an OAC championship and their first NCAA Division III playoff appearance in 1989, and earned honorable mention All-America status that season. He led the conference in total offense as a junior, and was ranked 32nd nationally in that category as a senior. A 1990 team captain, Wanke had a record of 17-4 as a starter.”

With this impressive collection of awards and accolades, there is no wonder why NFL scouts were attending John Carroll football practices.

“As I started having success, there were some inquiries from teams and agents calling me. We had some coaches and big name people come to JCU and watch practice and stuff like that. It was crazy, but it was a really fun experience. And I think the guys enjoyed it too because it was different. You see a couple guys show up from the (Cincinnati) Bengals or the (New York) Giants or whatever, it was kind of cool.”

“I was selected into the All-American Classic Game my senior year. That game pitted Division II and III athletes against Division I athletes. We ended up losing the game, but I was the starting quarterback, so I had some success there.”

With Wanke getting on the radar of some NFL teams, people started expressing their certainty of him being selected in the NFL Draft.

During the second day of the 1991 Draft, Wanke was sitting by the phone when he got a call from the Cleveland Browns. They asked him if he would be willing to come on as a free agent.

Wanke explained that two teams, the New York Giants and the New York Jets, were expressing some interest in possibly a draft pick and so when the Browns called he told them that he wanted to see how it would “shake out.”

Soon after this phone call, the quarterback coach from the Giants called Wanke.

“He said to me, ‘Hey, listen, you know, I’m pushing for you for our last pick, but if I don’t win, would you be willing to come on as a free agent?’ and I said, ‘Coach, I’ll be honest with you, the Browns, just called me and if it comes down to a free agency opportunity, I’m gonna stay home. I’m gonna stay in Cleveland.’”

The Giants didn’t want to risk losing out on the opportunity of Wanke joining their team. So, in the last pick of the 1991 NFL Draft, the New York Giants selected Larry Wanke of John Carroll University.

This is a special pick of the draft, as the final pick gets the title of “Mr. Irrelevant.” While most people have heard of this title, most people might not know of the after effects of earning this name.

“They rush you off very quickly following the Draft. I was flown out to Newport Beach, California. I was like the Grand Marshal and in the DisneyLand Parade. It was like I was on tour—from 6 a.m. to midnight every day for a week. It was nuts. You’re on TV, you’re doing speeches. It was crazy, but then I had to go right to Giants camp.”

Larry Wanke in the Disneyland Parade after being drafted as “Mr. Irrelevant” in the 1991 NFL Draft. (Provided Courtesy of Larry Wanke)

“That experience was crazy. I mean, my roommates were (established quarterbacks) Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler, Matt Kavanaugh and then a couple other rookies. These are guys you watch on TV every week and they were my suitemates. I met (eventual Hall of Fame linebacker) Lawrence Taylor in the hall, just me and him. I was very much starstruck when I first got there.”

Wanke went through training camp and was unfortunately cut before preseason, but his dreams of continuing to play football at the higher level were not crushed.

He was drafted into a league in Canada, but decided he wanted to earn his degree from John Carroll so he returned to Cleveland and finished his education.

“I hadn’t graduated from John Carroll yet, so I actually went back to finish up school and Coach D[eCarlo] was gracious enough to let me coach. Canada could have been a great opportunity, but I just felt like you know what, at that point, you better be so unbelievably gifted at that level, or you have to want it with every fiber of your being like you are willing to put the world on hold and put the blinders on, and honestly, I wasn’t either. I love the game, but it wasn’t my world. So that was kind of the realization to move on and try to be an adult and figure some stuff out.”

After graduation, Wanke got a job at AXA Advisors, a financial service company. Not finding a passion for this line of work, he took his signing bonus from the Giants and bought houses. This line of work is a hit or miss for many people, but for Wanke it worked.

“I think, at the height of it, I had about 40 properties that I owned, operated and managed. We would flip a couple a year as well. But then 2008 hit with the real estate crisis and the world shut down.”

Wanke made it through the tough years and has found more success than ever.

“I am the team lead of the Larry Wanke Group of Keller Williams (in Pepper Pike). My team is a top producing team in brokerage from the standpoint of volume and unit sold. I’m proud of that. We’ve tried to build a team and help some younger agents and help my client pool. It’s been as busy as it can be for the last three years. It’s awesome and life is good.”

Wanke still attributes many important life lessons that he learned to his time at John Carroll.

Provided Courtesy of Larry Wanke

“I learned to be resilient and to get back to the basics—trying to work hard, trying to do the best you can, trying to determine your course, your path to be tried, to be good to people. John Carroll just really helped to ground me again.”

Larry Wanke’s legend as a Blue Streak will forever be cemented in the school’s history and, hopefully, now his story will also be engraved with our own.

This story was originally published on The Carroll News on October 7, 2022.