MANHATTAN — On a day when fans were invited to practice and encouraged to interact with Kansas State football players, two teenage fans found it difficult to approach Braden Wilson.
Autograph seekers surrounded him in every direction, and they didn't want to join that group. Sure, they wanted his signature on a pair of posters, but what they really wanted was a conversation with the sophomore fullback.
Like Wilson, who hails from Smith Center, they grew up in a small Kansas town. Their high school even played the Redmen a time or two in the playoffs. Smith Center won big, and Wilson was a big reason. As a ball carrier, his power was impossible to ignore.
Before he ever tried on a purple jersey, they were fans.
Never miss a local story.
"You absolutely killed us in high school," they told Wilson during one of his down moments. "We're so glad you ended up at Kansas State."
Wilson smiled. He's getting comments like that a lot these days.
"This is crazy," Wilson said. "I've probably signed triple the autographs that I signed last year."
It's easy to see why Wilson's popularity is on the rise.
During his freshman season with the Wildcats, he played in all 12 games and emerged as one of the team's most promising young players. As the lead blocker for star running back Daniel Thomas, he helped K-State rush for 179.9 yards per game.
Typically that type of low-profile contribution can go unnoticed, but K-State coach Bill Snyder made sure Wilson got his due. Throughout spring and summer practices he has raved about Wilson, and singled him out as the hardest worker on the roster.
"He is one of those guys that is going all-out every time you see him," Snyder said. "No matter what the snap might be, he does it like it is supposed to be done. You would like to have 105 Braden Wilsons.
"That does not mean other guys do not work hard, but I think that Braden kind of sets the standard in that respect. He knows one speed and that is everything you have got every single snap. I love him to death for that."
Snyder is not the first football coach to speak so glowingly of Wilson.
During his four years at Smith Center, a football program so dominant at the Class 2-1A level that it became the subject of a book, Wilson was part of a dynasty. He never lost a game and celebrated four straight state championships.
Before joining K-State, he had to think all the way back to seventh grade to remember defeat.
"We could do whatever we wanted with that group," Smith Center coach Roger Barta said. "There were some good kids in that class, but Braden was the only one that went Division I. He was one of the toughest and hardest working kids we've ever had."
Because of his size — he now stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 244 pounds — Barta asked him to play running back out of the wishbone formation.
It was a job that required him to run for big yardage, but also block for his teammates regularly. Wilson loved to do both.
"He was a devastating blocker," Barta said. "That's probably what got him noticed by colleges. He just ran over people. We really enjoyed watching his blocks on film. He annihilated high school players."
But that's not why he remembers Wilson.
"With Braden, every rep in practice was full effort," Barta said. "Coach Snyder really likes him because of his work ethic, and so do I. He always had so much fun. Against our young kids, he would knock them down in practice and then run back and pick them up. He was really enthusiastic, offered encouragement and wanted his teammates to do well. That gets contagious. You love having guys like that on your team."
Still, Wilson faced an uphill climb getting to K-State.
It's a big jump from small high school football in Kansas to major college. The Redmen ran the ball on almost every play, and Wilson was never taught how to pass block. For that reason, he was lightly recruited and was asked by K-State coaches to take a grayshirt — not being a full-time student his first semester — before officially joining the team.
"The transition wasn't too bad, but that part was tough," Wilson said. "We never threw the ball in high school."
Even now he admits there is more to learn.
But Snyder is not worried about Wilson's progression. He's seen how hard he pushes himself in the weight room and how attentively he studies video. If there is work to be done, there's no doubt Wilson will do it.
He's reliable, and Snyder appreciates that. He is one of his favorite players, and K-State fans are starting to appreciate him, too.
If his work ethic is what correlates to popularity, Wilson has a lot more autographs in front of him.