As soon as Tom Wort walked onto the grass at CCRI in Warwick on Monday and saw the campers in their pads and helmets, the memories rushed back. When he was in their shoes, he had never played a down of football in his life.
He’s played a few since.
Wort returned to Rhode Island this week to help out at the Rhode Island Football Academy, the annual camp where he got his start. It was the foundation for a journey that took him from England, to Rhode Island, to Texas, to Oklahoma, and that may yet take him to the National Football League.
“Yesterday morning, when I walked up, I saw coach Silvia and said, ‘Does this not bring back a lot of memories or what?’” Wort said. “Nine years ago, I came to this camp. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a whole new world. That feeling of excitement, feeling nervous, I remembered it all.”
The Rhode Island Football Academy is run by Cranston native Paul Silvia and is staffed by local coaches. It’s drawn more than 250 kids this year, from youth players to high schoolers.
When Silvia started the camp in 2003, he ran it out of CLCF in Cranston. That’s where Wort showed up on a hot summer morning nine years ago.
“I was basically right off the plane from England,” he said.
Wort’s family hails from England, and he was born there. When his father was relocated to the states, a football dream that hadn’t seemed possible suddenly came to life.
Wort’s father had been fascinated by the game and had played a little in England. Father and sons occasionally stayed up late to watch NFL games.
“My dad has always had an interest in American football,” Wort said. “He played a little bit when I was real young. I don’t remember watching him play, but I remember the shoulder pads and the helmet and it fascinated me. We would stay up and watch football games and that’s something I really took to. Watching the games, seeing the guys – they almost looked like gladiators to me. I said, ‘I want to play that sport.’”
The move to Rhode Island made it possible, and the Rhode Island Football Academy represented the first step.
Before the family moved, Wort’s father was doing research on football opportunities in Rhode Island when he came across Silvia’s name. He called and laid out the situation.
“He said, ‘I’m looking for an opportunity for my two boys to learn how to play American football,’” Silvia said. “I’m saying, ‘American football? Where are you calling from?’”
The Worts would be moving to East Greenwich, so Silvia suggested signing up for the North Kingstown Jaguars youth organization. He also suggested the camp.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to learn the basic techniques, the skills, the rules, the terminology,” Silvia said.
Silvia had no idea the career it would launch.
Wort and his younger brother Charlie arrived at the camp with only the glow of football in a television set to guide them. But it quickly became clear that they had ability.
“Tom came in and he was put together,” Silvia said. “He was 5’10, maybe 165 pounds. He was a big kid and he was very athletic. At the time we had some college coaches here. They said, ‘Keep an eye on this kid.’”
Wort’s football career took off like a rocket. He made varsity as a freshman at East Greenwich High School. The next year, he earned second-team All-State honors while leading the Avengers to the Division III championship in 2006.
Soon enough, his career took a detour – but it only sped him up. His father was relocated again, this time to Texas. From the Division III ranks in Rhode Island, Wort stepped onto a high-school football stage that’s nationally known.
And as Silvia said, “A light just went on.”
Wort starred for New Braunfels High School, earning All-State honors and getting selected for a national all-star game. He drew interest from college football powerhouses across the country and signed with Oklahoma.
He played four years in Norman, starting nearly every game in his time there. He was the Sooners’ starting middle linebacker this past season and he ranked fifth on the team in tackles and second in tackles for loss. He graduated in December.
“Playing college football for Oklahoma?” Silvia said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Wort was not selected in the NFL Draft but hooked on as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a hamstring injury and was released.
He’s hoping to get another chance.
“I could get another call or I could not,” Wort said. “We’ll see.”
Whatever happens, Wort isn’t done with football. He’s thinking about a career in coaching.
When he reached out to Silvia in the spring to say hello, and Silvia invited him back to the camp, he jumped at the chance.
“The game of football has given me so much,” Wort said. “Being a coach is something I want to do. I’m looking at opportunities to get into that and this is definitely great practice.”
Wort is working with the linebackers at camp, lending his expertise – and delivering a message.
“People will say you can’t get a scholarship if you play football in Rhode Island,” he said. “I don’t agree with that at all. I want to these kids to know that if you want to play college football, go to the next level, play big-time ball, you can do it. You’ve just got to have the work ethic. If I can share my story with them a little bit, that’s awesome.”
Wort heard a similar message when he was in camp, and for a kid from England who had never been on a football field, it was important to hear.
“I heard that and I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it,” Wort said.
It wasn’t that simple, of course, but Wort made it happen. He’s back now to set an example, to get a little taste of coaching.
And to see where it all began.
“Coming back to right where we started, it’s pretty special,” he said. “It’s full circle. It’s been really cool.”