LARAMIE -- There are times he contemplates cutting it.

Growing up in Colorado, Andrew Wingard never really styled his hair. He’d let it grow out, his dad would give him a buzzcut, and the cycle would repeat itself over the years.

It stopped in 2014. That’s when Wingard decided to grow it out for good, giving birth to the flowing blonde mane that’s become as much of an identifiable trait for Wyoming’s senior safety as his ability to track down ball carriers.

“I was like, ‘I don’t really feel like cutting it. I’m going to let it grow and see what happens,’” Wingard said. “Obviously I’ve gotten trims here and there, but it’s just kind of caught on.”

It also takes a lot of work to maintain. Wingard estimates it takes him half an hour to dry his hair after taking a shower while there’s still not much style to it. He’s not a big fan of the man bun, so he usually just throws on a hat in order to keep it out of his face.

“A buzzcut right now probably would sound pretty nice,” he admitted.

But his hair has become his personal trademark, which is why he’ll likely hold off on cutting it all off for now. His look could help him become more marketable.

That’s because Wingard has an NFL future to think about sooner rather than later. He has at least one more game left in his collegiate career Saturday when Wyoming wraps up the regular season against New Mexico needing a win to become bowl eligible.

There’s no guarantee the Cowboys actually get placed in a bowl seeing how there are more Mountain West teams already eligible for a bowl (6) than automatic conference tie-ins (5), but Wingard’s career has already put him among the greatest players in program history.

By the time it’s over, it could be a historic one.

Wingard is second on Wyoming’s all-time tackles list and needs six more to pass former New Mexico standout Carmen Messina to become the MW’s all-time leading tackler. He’s 19 stops shy of breaking the record for the most tackles in school history held by former linebacker Galand Thaxton, who had 467 tackles from 1984-87 when the Cowboys were a member of the Western Athletic Conference.

His 449 tackles are 22nd-most in NCAA history. Needing 10 more to pass Messina, former Iowa linebacker Abdul Hodge and former Texas All-American Derrick Johnson, it’s not inconceivable that Wingard finishes as one of the top 20 tacklers in college football history.

It’s hard to fathom considering where Wingard started. Even for those who believed in him.

“We thought he’d be really good,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said, “but not to this degree.”

Small start

Dan Wingard and his wife, Missy, thought lacrosse might be the sport for their only son.

Born into a family that isn’t known for its size, Andrew stayed away from football during his early years. He played soccer and T-ball in Dallas, where Dan moved his family after taking a job as a commercial pilot for American Airlines.

“I’m 6-foot-2 and 230, and I’m by far the largest person on either side of the family,” said Dan, a punter at Nebraska during the 1980s.

With Dan a fan of Colorado’s cooler weather and outdoors scene and most of Missy’s family already living in the state, the family ultimately wanted to move to the Centennial State. Dan’s job made it possible for him to commute for work, so the family moved to Arvada, a suburb of Denver, when Andrew was in the second grade.

It wasn’t until the fourth grade that Andrew first played tackle football. In middle school, he picked up lacrosse, a sport his parents thought fit well with his aggressive demeanor yet scrawny build.

“I remember looking at my wife and saying, ‘I think this is going to be his sport because you don’t have to be huge,’” Dan said. “But you can be physical in lacrosse like you can in football.”

But football was growing on Andrew while lacrosse wasn’t. That experiment lasted a couple of years before Andrew decided to stick with football heading into his freshman season at Ralston Valley High School.

He entered his sophomore season as a 143-pound running back. Andrew also stayed busy in the winter and spring seasons playing basketball and running track for the Mustangs, which made it hard to bulk up his 5-11 frame.

“Where even the two-sport guys usually get some winter time or spring time when they’re not playing a sport and you can gain some weight, he was a three-sport athlete,” Ralston Valley football coach Matt Loyd said. “Then in the summer, you’re going to all of them. There was just no time to gain weight.”

What Wingard lacked in girth, he made up for with a level of speed and athleticism that separated him from nearly everybody else and earned him a spot on the varsity team as a sophomore. He finished his prep career with 3,251 rushing yards and 52 rushing touchdowns, including a 1,653-yard, 28-touchdown senior season.

Wanting to use his best athlete on both sides of the ball, Loyd starting playing Wingard at safety at the end of his junior season. He had 96 tackles and three interceptions as a senior and was named Colorado’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014.

“We just knew that his athleticism and his speed combined that he was going to be able to make plays,” Loyd said. “He could just get there faster than maybe people thought.”

Still, most colleges saw Andrew as a diminutive running back, and the demand for those is scarce at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Following his junior season, Andrew told his father he wanted to play college football and believed he was good enough to do it at that level, but he also knew it might require a permanent switch to the other side of the ball.

When Wingard began to map out a camp circuit the summer before his senior season in hopes of getting some looks from FBS schools in the region, he asked his dad if he should work out as a running back or a safety. Dan shot his son straight.

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“I looked him straight in the eye, and I said, ‘Look at your mom. Look at the rest of my family. There’s no big people here. If I were you, I’d learn to run backwards,’” Dan recalled.

Turning point

Andrew went through his first three camps in the summer of 2014 at Utah State, Colorado State and San Diego State as a 163-pound defensive back. They thanked him for coming, but they weren’t interested.

Washington was up next after head coach Chris Petersen, who’d seen Andrew a year earlier when he attended a camp at Boise State after his sophomore season, invited Andrew to the Huskies’ camp. Some of the eagerness for getting a chance to work out for a Pac-12 program had worn off

“He said to me a couple of days before (the camp), ‘Are we still going to Washington?’” Dan recalled. “I’m like, ‘Of course we are.’ He goes, ‘Well if the three Mountain West schools don’t have any interest in me, what makes you think Washington will?’”

Andrew followed through with the camp, which turned out to be his best showing of the summer. He ended up being the fastest camper there, which earned him a preferred walk-on spot from Washington’s coaching staff.

“It all kind of swung when I went to the Washington camp and I won their fastest-man competition,” Andrew said.

He camped with nearly 400 other prospects at Colorado later that summer and finished second in its fastest-man competition. Then-Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre made the trip to Arvada that fall to evaluate Wingard during one of Ralston Valley’s games but ultimately never offered him a scholarship.

The only FBS program to do so was Wyoming, which saw Wingard at its camp two days after his trip to Washington. Bohl didn’t take long to extend it either, calling Wingard into his office at the end of camp to let him know he had a scholarship.

“A lot of people may not have projected him over on defense, but we felt like he could be a heck of safety,” Bohl said. “We watched him, offered him and believed in him. He was evaluated by everybody in this region, and everybody in this region didn’t feel like he was a Division I player. We were firmly convinced that he was.”

Football Championship Subdivision member North Dakota also offered him a scholarship, but he was set on Wyoming. Wingard verbally committed to the Cowboys on Oct. 21, 2014, signed his National Letter of Intent four months later and reported to campus with the rest of Wyoming’s incoming freshmen that summer.

That’s when his new teammates got their first glimpse of what’s been the norm the last four seasons.

“We were in 7-on-7 one time, and he just ran somebody down so fast,” said fellow safety Marcus Epps, who’s started alongside Wingard for the duration of that time. “He was so fast his freshman year.”

Wingard started his first preseason camp running with the second team at strong safety, but he didn’t stay there long with his blend of speed and natural instincts that also appealed to Bohl during the recruiting process. Wingard got his first career start against Eastern Michigan two games into his freshman season and has been at the top of the depth chart ever since.

“I remember talking to (former defensive backs) coach (Curt) Mallory because he was kind of buried down on the depth chart,” Bohl said. “I said, ‘Hey, you need to look at this guy over here. He’s got a real knack for the football and can see things.’ What I did not anticipate was his tackling ability. He’s got really good tackling ability, and he’s really smart and instinctive. So that’s exceeded my expectations.”

Ball hawk

Wingard went through his freshman season at 175 pounds but was still one of the lone bright spots in the Cowboys’ 2-10 season. He piled up 122 tackles, finishing second in the MW in tackles per game (10.2).

He had a career year as a sophomore in 2016, racking up 131 tackles for the 10th-highest single-season total in program history. He recorded 17 tackles against Colorado State that season, which is still his career-high.

He put together his third straight 100-tackle season a year ago with 114. Though Wyoming often uses him as an extra defender in the box, he showed his knack for being around the ball in coverage with career-highs in interceptions (5) and pass breakups (8).

A preseason second-team All-America selection by The Associated Press coming into his senior year, Wingard has 82 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions in his final season, including one in the final seconds last week against Air Force that sealed Wyoming’s comeback win. His 10 career interceptions are tied for third-most in school history.

Wingard credited those natural instincts and his football IQ for being in the right place at the right time to tackle anything that comes his way. He didn’t want to discredit all those days he spent skiing in Colorado as a youngster either.

“I skied a bunch growing up, and that helps me be good with my balance and my legs and stuff,” Wingard said. “(Bohl) outlawed that but just being able to come to balance. Wherever the ball is, just go hit it.”

Said Epps: “He never hesitates. He always shoots his gun. He’s almost always in the right spot when he needs to be, so he’s able to make those plays. He just has no fear. When you watch the tape, you always see his blonde hair flying around.”

More than any stats, Wingard said he’s gotten the most satisfaction out of helping turn around what had been a dormant program before he arrived in Laramie four years ago. Wyoming had another losing season in 2015 before putting together back-to-back winning seasons the last two years, which included a Mountain Division championship in 2016.

A win Saturday would put the Cowboys in contention for their third straight bowl game, something that’s never been done before.

“Being a part of that (senior) class and laying the foundation for Wyoming football is really, really cool,” said Wingard, who’s on track to graduate in December.

But he admitted breaking a couple records along the way would make for an equally gratifying end to a career that most didn’t expect to turn out like this.

“It’s really cool just to know how blessed I am with the opportunity Coach Bohl gave me,” Wingard said. “With the help of my family, the work they put in with me growing up and then the work I’ve put in here, to have it pay off like that, it’d be really cool.”

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College Sports Reporter

Davis Potter is the University of Wyoming athletics reporter. An Alabama native and 2011 Auburn University graduate, Potter joined the Star-Tribune in 2018 after five years covering Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference. He lives in Laramie.

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