Marion County High School
Buena Vista, Georgia
by Robert Preston Jr.
photography by Jerry Christenson
Confidence, quiet intensity, and a powerful leg make Marion County kicker one of the nation’s best
Growing up in Marion County, A.J. Wells, now a 16-year-old junior kicker for the Marion County Eagles, dreamed of playing soccer at a high level. By the time he was in the sixth grade, he had been playing soccer for eight years (four at the recreation level, four more at the club level in Atlanta). He was talented, but he started seeing the writing on the wall. And he didn’t like what it said. “I knew I had to play in Atlanta if I was going to play with some really good teams. But Atlanta is a long way from home, and I got tired of traveling back and forth for practices during the week and games on the weekend. Football started looking more and more appealing,” he says.
Wells and football weren’t total strangers. He had dabbled on the gridiron for most of his life (at six years old, he could hit an extra point off the grass). So he was familiar with the demands of the game, and he knew he had the raw skills to be a pretty good kicker. During the fall of his sixth grade year, Wells learned of a nearby kicking camp. It would take place on December 27. He signed up and headed to the camp. That day, December 27 of his sixth grade year, marked the official end of his soccer career and the beginning of life as a placekicker. “I didn’t have to travel to play football. I could do that at home,” he recalls.
It turned out to be the best decision he could have made. That spring, Wells made his middle school football team and started as a seventh-grader. Thus far, he has four years of football under his belt, and he has been the starting kicker every year. These days, if the Eagles have to kick the ball, it’s Wells who gets the job. He kicks off, punts, and handles all of the extra points and field goals.
There are plenty of kickers who can send a ball through the uprights at 50 yards and beyond in practice. Far fewer can do so before stands full of fans. Even less can do it with the game on the line, and that is where Wells’s star shines brightest. Kickers often have the game in their hands, and when the game is on the line, there is no lonelier place than on the field waiting on the snap. Those situations don’t bother Wells one bit.
“Kicking a field goal or extra point with the game on the line is no different than a quarterback throwing a 70-yard pass on the final drive or a point guard driving down the court in the final seconds. You can’t really prepare for those situations. When they arrive, it all comes down to the moment. You have to distance yourself from the crowd, block everything out and let your instincts take over,” Wells says.
Wells’s instincts have been pretty good. Over the last two seasons, the Eagles have won back-to-back region championships, the only two in school history. During Wells’s freshman year, the Eagles won 10 games, and Wells is credited with winning at least two of them. Against Greenville, he kicked the game-winning extra point that gave Marion County a 7-6 win. The following week against Brookstone, he kicked an early field goal that ended up being the difference in the game; the Eagles won, 10-7. Last year, once again playing Brookstone, Wells made three field goals out of four attempts, and he finished the game with 12 points. He also had seven touchbacks on each of the Eagles’ seven kickoffs, pinning Brookstone deep in its own territory every time. Marion won, 30-20. “I just want to be able to step out there on the field and help my team and my community. This year, I want to mature even more and do whatever I can to help my team win,” he says.
When people think of kicking, they tend to gravitate towards field goals and extra points—those assignments that put points on the board. While Wells is quite capable of adding to his team’s point total each game, his future in football will probably be as a punter. In 2012, he averaged more than 38 yards per punt, and pinned his opponents inside the 20 on 12 occasions. He also forced five fair catches. Those stats often go unnoticed in game wrap-ups, but coaches are paying attention. And a lot of college programs already have their eyes on A.J. Wells. Schools from the PAC-10, SEC and ACC, as well as a number of smaller programs, have already contacted him. With two years of high school ball left to play, he obviously hasn’t made a decision regarding where he will attend college. Right now, he’s attending kicking camps and trying to get in front of as many college coaches as possible. He knows that college teams can be hesitant to invest scholarship money in kickers. There are so many variables: What happens to a kicker when he gets hit one good time? Is he fast enough? Is he strong enough mentally? Is durability an issue?
These factors come into play, and Wells wants to put these concerns to rest. “I’m trying to get exposure and get noticed by as many college coaches as possible. I want to make sure they know who I am,” he says.
Wells is ranked as the top kicker in the country by prokicker.com, and his plan is to hold that top ranking for his final two years of high school football. He is also a 4.0 student who takes his schoolwork very seriously. Academics play a huge role in his football future. “I want them to have no doubts at all about me. I want them to know I’m serious about my grades. I don’t want them worrying about whether or not I can handle the demands of college classes,” he says.
While he’s definitely thinking about college, Wells has something else on his mind: winning a third straight region title. “That’s what we’re all focused on. Everybody is talking about it, and we’re getting ready for the season with that in mind,” he says.
• Sport to watch on TV: Football
• Team: Atlanta Falcons
• Kicker: Jason Elam
• Last book: Inside Threat by Jason Elam
• Place to travel: Germany
• Music: “Something alternative, like Awolnation. It’s calming and has a good rhythm.”
• Person to meet: J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series
As the nation’s top high school kicker, A.J. Wells receives a great deal of attention, locally and beyond. He doesn’t let the attention bother him. He tends to look ahead to the future instead of back at the past. “No matter what you’ve accomplished, there is always something else you can do. Football can be a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ sport. The awards and recognition I’ve received give me the confidence to focus more on what happens on the field,” he says.