By Joe Scalzo
The former Warren Harding athlete is expected to be drafted this weekend.
Every year around the time of the NFL Draft, you can read stories about freakishly gifted athletes who break records in high school, then become big names in college and seem almost preordained to play professional football.
This is not one of those stories.
This is a better one.
Antwaun Molden was one of those guys who could have easily gotten lost. He was raised in Warren by his grandmother, Bernice Molden. His mother essentially stopped being part of his life around age 3 or 4. His father was slightly more involved, but not much.
He arrived at Warren Harding High almost a decade ago as an undersized, overlooked project. He had talent, but with players like Maurice Clarett, Prescott Burgess and Mario Manningham around him, he wasn’t the type of player who grabbed headlines.
“Antwaun was a project,” said Rob Andrews, a former assistant coach at Warren Harding. “He wasn’t a Prescott Burgess or a Maurice Clarett. He was a nobody.”
But what most people didn’t see was the fire burning inside him. And it took a coach like Andrews, a former Youngstown State assistant, to bring it out.
“I remember giving a motivational speech to the team about how, if you worked hard enough, you had the same opportunity as the guy next to you to make it to the NFL,” Andrews said. “He jumped on that.”
Andrews encouraged Molden to get in the weight room and use the track season to work on his speed. Molden grew 4 inches during high school, from 5-foot-9 to 6-1, and packed on about 50 pounds of muscle.
He also grew close to Andrews, spending time with his family off the field while soaking up his coaching on it. (“He had the speed, we just had to teach him the technique,” said Andrews, who has trained several NFL players. “He was a fanatic for it.”)
Molden spent his first three years at Harding, developing into a promising defensive back and an even better track athlete. After playing on the Raiders’ 2002 state runner-up team, he transferred to Cleveland Glenville midway through his senior year to compete on the Tarblooders’ renowned track team.
Not coincidentally, Andrews had just taken a job at Glenville as an assistant track coach.
“I was really hard on him at Harding, so when he told me he wanted to go to Glenville, I didn’t understand it,” said Andrews. “I was like, ‘Why come here?’ ”
At Glenville, Molden was part of three relays that broke national records — Ted Ginn Jr. was also on that team — and, after graduation, went to Toledo to play football. But academic problems kept him from getting a scholarship, which put a financial strain on him and his grandmother.
In 2005 he transferred to Andrews’ alma mater, Eastern Kentucky, a Division I-AA program where he saw significant action over the next two seasons before becoming a starter last fall.
“It was a really good experience,” said Molden, whose head coach at Eastern Kentucky, Danny Hope, was hired on as Purdue’s top assistant in January. “I went from UT to a slow college town and I had to adapt to the environment, but they have great people and a great coaching staff.”
Through it all, Molden never stopped chasing his NFL dream.
“I always worked hard during and after practice,” he said. “I was the guy who went out at 12 o’clock at night and ran steps in the stadium when everyone else was partying.”
Molden had his breakout year last fall, recording 70 tackles with two interceptions — despite playing with a cast on his hand for much of the year — and led the Colonels to the Ohio Valley Conference championship.
But he also dealt with tragedy, losing his 21-year-old fiancee, Joi Smith, to cancer. Still, he earned his degree in criminal justice — he’d like to be a prosecutor when his playing career is over — and caught the eyes of NFL scouts, earning an invitation to February’s combine, where he wowed scouts with his size (6-1, 198), strength (he benched 225 pounds 23 times) and speed (4.38 40-yard dash).
The performance elevated him from a possible draft pick to a definite one, possibly as high as the second or third round.
In fact, the only one he didn’t impress was himself.
“I expected better of myself,” he said. “I was sick that day and I had a temperature of 100 [degrees]. I had a high standard and I fell short, but it was a great performance to the scouts.”
Molden missed his school’s pro day March 5 — a blizzard grounded his plane in Cleveland — but has met with several teams since. He’s not sure where or when he’ll get picked — he’s garnered interest from San Diego to New England and everywhere in between — but he’s confident he’s done everything he could to prepare for this weekend.
“I seized the opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully everything works out.”
Molden credits Andrews with his development (“He’s one of the biggest reasons for my development and on a personal level, he’s like a father figure,” he said) and Andrews thinks of him like another son.
“Antwaun is an example of what you can do if you believe and you work hard,” he said. “I knew he could make it if he just had a chance.”