Running back Beanie Wells busts upfield during a practice run in Flagstaff.
FLAGSTAFF – Hate is too strong a word, so …
Nope. Check that. It was hate.
Beanie Wells hated Arizona.
It wasn't about coming to the Cardinals. The running back didn't know the Cardinals of end-of-the-road Emmitt and Josh McCown backward passes and one-time half-empty stadiums. He only knew the Cardinals of Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and a near-miss Super Bowl.
But Wells was just 20 years old when he was told he was going to head west for his pro career, far from his 11 brothers and sisters and the Ohio home where he grew up. He didn't know anyone. He never bonded with teammates because he couldn't come until Ohio State's quarter ended after OTAs were finished. His playing time suffered when he was hurt minutes into his very first practice.
"It was all foreign to me," said Wells, acknowledging that the hatred would have been for "pretty much anywhere I would've gone."
Beanie wasn't comfortable. And it showed. He was overwhelmed with what he had to learn and what he had to leave. It wasn't just football, either. Wells began to break out football-wise by the time the team won in Chicago Nov. 8, but coach Ken Whisenhunt sent him home from there for a couple of days anyway. It coincided with a chance to see Wells' newborn son, Christian, but Whisenhunt did it because he saw how homesick Beanie was.
"I know his mind was boggled," fellow running back LaRod Stephens-Howling said. "I could tell it was real hard for him to adjust."
It should have been expected. Two of Wells' brothers even came to Columbus to live with Beanie during his college days. He was only 90 minutes from his house. He had never been out of his cocoon.
His fellow running backs weren't really in the same place. Stephens-Howling was a rookie too, but he wasn't as out of sorts. Jason Wright was already a veteran in the NFL. Tim Hightower was only in his second year, but since he had gone to a boarding school for his final two years of high school before college, being away from home didn't affect him as much.
There was little question it affected Wells. "You're second-guessing yourself as a player, and second-guessing yourself as a person," he said.
"I can't imagine the pressure on him last year, being a No. 1 draft pick, not being able to be here with OTAs, feeling like everything is thrown at you," Hightower said. "You can tell now he's more comfortable, telling jokes, having fun. I don't think last year, he was having fun this early."
There was a chicken-or-the-egg feeling to it all. Was Wells' slow start on the field because of his off-field comfort level? Or would he have been fine off the field had he just played better early on in the season?
Not that it matters.
"Now, it's not the great unknown for him," Whisenhunt said.
If Wells had a team-high 793 yards rushing yards last season and a 4.5-per-carry average while struggling in new surroundings, the expectation of a breakout season – from Beanie, from the team, from everyone, it seems – can only follow in his newfound life.
Wells' fiancée and son Christian are living in Arizona, and the family is moving into a new house. He will still go home to Ohio sometimes, but he can't last longer than a week before he wants to return to the Valley.
Wells has always felt mature. Being a high-profile athlete at Ohio State, the spotlight shone brightly. He laughs when talking about his age (he turns 22 Saturday), noting that while many of his friends are still in college trying to find out what they want to do in life, he has a job, a house, a family to support.
"I love it though," he says with his ever-present smile, and it's easy to tell the hate – or whatever he was carrying around inside – has disappeared.
It may be Arizona, but Beanie is home again.
"It takes time," he said. "Your comfort level has to be where you want it to be able to perform."
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