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BILL PLASCHKE

Trojan Legacy

Record-Setting Punter Wren Won't Forget Mother, Who Wouldn't Let Him Give Up

September 06, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

The best leg in the country has kicked in horse manure, kicked to his girlfriend, kicked himself for having no scholarship, no money, no chance.

The best leg in the country kicks footballs twice as far as some other college punters, which surprises everyone but himself.

Because Jim Wren has a secret.

"Sometimes when I'm out there," he says, "it feels like two on one."

Assistance arrives shortly before every USC game, when Wren runs to an empty spot on the field, looks around at the noisy stadium, feels the impending challenge.

The best leg in the country then drops to one knee.

And prays.

"Mom, I could use a little help here," he prayed before last year's opener.

"Mom, thanks," he said before last year's finale.

Four years ago, his mother, Joan, died in his arms.

Now he is soaring in hers.

You should watch him today against Florida State--No. 17, a thick-hipped, ruddy-faced kid buffeted by death and failure, yet solid with inspiration from a woman who convinced her youngest son he could succeed at anything.

"You were right, Mom," he prayed last year. "I really can do this."

You should watch him, the best leg in the country. It's as if his feet never touch the ground.

*

This is what it is like when one day you are bagging groceries, and two years later you are rated by experts as the best college punter in the nation.

This is what happens when, in your first major-college season, you kick a third of your 66 punts more than 50 yards.

"Just the other day I'm in a bookstore looking at preseason magazines, and I come across my picture," Jim Wren says, giggling. "I turn to my girlfriend and together we're like, 'You got to be kidding me!' "

Spend a few minutes with this unassuming 22-year-old senior and you'll discover that his life is filled with wondrous "Just the other days. . . ."

What happens to stars is happening to him, only he is not a star. He is us, and he is laughing uproariously.

Just the other day, an NFL scout from his favorite team spent the entire afternoon at a USC practice--watching Wren.

"I had a great practice, and he's walking away, and I'm like, 'What in the heck is going on! Can you believe this?' " he said.

Just the other day, he was in Phoenix with the best players in the country as part of Playboy's preseason college All-American team.

"I met Peyton Manning," he said proudly, then sighed. "But there were no bunnies. Flat out, no bunnies."

Just the other day, research revealed Wren listed this as his most thrilling moment in sports: the time he defeated older brother Pat for the first time in frontyard Wiffle ball.

"True story," said Pat, an assistant football coach at Anaheim Esperanza High. "Took him until he was 12 years old to do it. Mom wanted me to let him win sooner. But I couldn't."

His mother wanted many things for her youngest, none of which seemed within reach on a March night in 1993.

He had finished a high school football career as a punter on an Esperanza team with several big-time scholarship players--none of whom was he.

He was finishing a high school academic career he admitted was only average.

He had no college scholarship offers, no money to attend anything other than a junior college, an idea that maybe he wanted to become a cop.

His older brothers were better athletes. His friends were stars.

He was just Jimmy.

"Always one step away," Jim said.

It was his good fortune to come home every afternoon to a mother who believed he could be more.

"I can't tell you how many times I would walk in and they would be talking, just the two of them, for hours about anything and everything," Pat said. "They had something special, those two."

Jim would be berating himself over a mistake, his mom would hug him.

Jim would complain that he would never be as smart or strong as his friends, his mom would scold him.

"My mom would challenge me," he said. "If I thought I couldn't do something, she would say, 'Yes, you can. I know you can.' "

On that March night, walking to the car after a dinner with her husband and youngest son at a Yorba Linda restaurant, Joan Wren became dizzy.

Jim helped her into the front seat, climbed in behind her, figured it was something temporary.

But on the short drive home, the dizziness got worse, her head began hurting, she began blacking out.

While his father sped into his driveway to find a phone and call paramedics, Jim instinctively pulled back his mother's seat and cradled her in his arms.

She never regained consciousness, dying two days later of a stroke.

"I believe she died in my hands, and I'll always be thankful for that," he said. "The whole thing is something I never want to forget."

The healing and learning began a few days later, when his mother's words about the values of quiet hard work became astoundingly real.

Joan Wren had worked in an office at Cal State Fullerton, had worked in her Catholic church taking communion to the sick, had joined Jim Sr. in rearing four sons and a daughter without cause or celebrity.

Yet, more than 1,000 people attended her funeral.

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