Less than halfway through its second game of the 2017 season, the Ithaca College football team looked like it was headed in the wrong direction. After losing their first game of the year, the Bombers found themselves down 17–0 in the second quarter against SUNY Brockport, having only gained a total of 18 yards on offense.
Searching for anything to bring his team to life, head coach Dan Swanstrom decided to replace senior starting quarterback Adam Fron with freshman Wahid Nabi. Nabi brought some life to the Bombers’ offense, finishing the game with 153 passing yards and two interceptions. The first interception came on his very first pass, but he was unable to contribute to his team’s side of the scoreboard, and they lost to Brockport 31–0.
Nabi said he was not expecting to hear his name get called against Brockport and had to calm his nerves after his first pass.
“When I was told to start warming up, I was surprised,” Nabi said. “After I threw the pick on my first pass, I knew unless I threw a pick-six on my next pass that I could only get better from there. Once I started to adjust to the speed of the game, I started to feel more comfortable.”
Swanstrom said he decided to put Nabi into the game to see if the freshman could ignite an offense that was averaging 3.6 yards per possession through five drives.
“We just wanted to see if the kid could give us a spark,” Swanstrom said. “First pass he throws, he hits Will Gladney right in the chest and it’s intercepted. We put him back out there, and we called the game like he wasn’t a freshman to see what he would be like. While he still made some freshman mistakes, he started to move the ball, and we got to see a glimpse of his talent.”
A native of Latham, New York, Nabi originally played soccer as a kid until he started playing football in seventh grade. However, looking back, he said he was not sure if football would be a part of his future going forward. When he first started playing Pop-Warner-Youth Football, he said, he was a wide receiver and hated it because he wanted to play quarterback.
“I was thinking about going back to soccer,” Nabi said. “But one day, one of our coaches asked me if I still wanted to play quarterback and told me I should start going to quarterback training with our high school’s varsity coach … and I fell in love with it.”
Greg Sheeler ’02, Nabi’s high school coach at Shaker High School in Latham, New York, which is near Albany, said Nabi’s dedication to these early morning workouts showed how serious he was about becoming a good quarterback.
“From the time he started coming to the workouts, I don’t think he missed a single one through when he graduated,” Sheeler said. “This was a really strong indicator that he had a strong passion for the game.”
Swanstrom said he was attracted to Nabi as a quarterback during the recruitment process because of Nabi’s strong fundamentals. Since Swanstrom was hired in December 2016, Nabi was one of Swanstrom’s first recruits.
“The way he stands in the pocket and the technical aspects of his release are exactly what I look for in quarterbacks,” Swanstrom said. “It was very obvious on film that the ball spun very well out of his hand even though I never got the chance to see him throw in person. He was everything I was looking for when I was at Penn, but he didn’t have size those guys look for.”
Nabi was named the Bombers’ starting quarterback going forward after the loss to Brockport and has since led the team to a 5–1 record in six starts. In his first start against St. Lawrence University, he completed 16 of 27 passes for 357 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions as the Bombers earned their first win of the season 24–13.
Nabi said he was more nervous before the game against Brockport than he was before the St. Lawrence game and that being able to get a win in his first start set a good precedent going forward.
“Before the Brockport game, I was still the backup, so I have to be ready at all times in case my number got called, while against St. Lawrence I was more comfortable because I knew I was starting,” Nabi said.
Swanstrom said he chose to make Nabi his starting quarterback against St. Lawrence because changes needed to be made after being shut out by Brockport, but said that he was concerned with how a poor performance would affect Nabi going forward.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Swanstrom said. “I knew I didn’t want to lose the kid or shatter his confidence in any way, so I was prepared for many different scenarios. I felt good about his performance, and I felt good that his mistakes were correctable, and that if we fostered his talent, he would continue to progress.”
Nabi said being named the starter as a freshman was one of the many lofty goals he set for himself at the beginning of the season.
“My main goal was just to get on the field in some way as a freshman, and if it happened to be as the starting quarterback, that would be awesome,” Nabi said. “I was excited to be named the starter because I set really high goals for myself, but once I was the starter, I started telling myself not be satisfied because there is still more work to do.”
Since entering the game against Brockport, Nabi has completed 63.46 percent of his passes for 1,725 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. Four of those interceptions came in Nabi’s one loss as a starter against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Oct. 14. The Blue and Gold lost 27–14.
Swanstrom said Nabi’s confidence as a quarterback has been both his greatest asset and a source of many of his mistakes.
“He’s incredibly confident in his abilities, so he doesn’t really get rattled by his mistakes,” Swanstrom said. “The other side of that is he also thinks he can make every single play, so sometimes he’ll try to make something out of nothing and make a mistake.”
Junior wide receiver JR Zazzara said he has been impressed with Nabi’s command of the position throughout the season.
“It’s very hard to play quarterback in an offense like this,” Zazzara said. “He’s a great football player and a great leader, and that’s all you need to get a team to follow you, and when a team follows you, it leads to wins.”
His strongest performance so far came on Sept. 30 against Hobart College when he completed 29 of 45 passes for 343 yards and one touchdown to lead the Bombers to a 24–21 win. Nabi said he is not as interested in the statistics as he is in leaving a positive impact.
“It’s always been a part of my personality that I want to be someone who is remembered for being a good influence,” Nabi said. “If I am given the opportunity to start for four years, I hope what I am able to leave is something positive.”
Nabi said the abilities of his teammates around him are a large part of the success he has had during his freshman season.
“Everyone sees my stat lines, but they don’t see the offensive linemen blocking their tails off or the receivers getting open and making great plays for me,” Nabi said.
Swanstrom said his expectations of Nabi will only grow as he continues to play more.
“Whatever his expectations are for himself, I can guarantee mine will be higher,” Swanstrom said.