Down by three points in overtime on third and nine from the opposing team’s 24-yard line, then senior quarterback Anders Hill dropped back and rifled a pass down the middle of the field. Wide receiver Josh Wainwright, then a sophomore, snagged the ball in between two defenders, fell in the endzone, and to deafening cheers from the crowd, vehemently spiked the ball in celebration. With fans streaming from the bleachers and teammates mobbing him on the ground in joy, Wainwright capped off a 10-reception, 193-yard, and two-touchdown performance by giving Columbia a statement 2017 Homecoming game-winner against the University of Pennsylvania.
“I think that was probably the most exciting, best moment of my life,” said Wainwright, looking back at the play. “To give that moment to all of our fans and our alumni and to beat Penn, coach [Al] Bagnoli’s former school on Homecoming, that was definitely the most packed, most exciting game I’ve ever played in.”
The 34-31 overtime victory against Penn was cause for celebration for both Columbia football and Wainwright. The Lions improved to an undefeated 5-0 record for the 2017 season, and Wainwright set a career high in receiving yards, which was further enhanced by the dramatic walk-off game-winner. That season, he would go on to set the program’s single season receiving yards record, cementing his place as one of the best wide receivers to ever don light blue.
Now, Wainwright is living out the pandemic in his hometown of Austin, Texas, taking the down year to explore his interests away from the game. After five years at Columbia, he has experienced it all on the field: the pinnacle of football excellence, captainship of the team in his fourth year, a devastating injury that sidelined him during his junior campaign, and a global pandemic robbing him of his final season. Wainwright has had one of the most unique journeys in the Lions’ history, leading the football program back to relevancy through a series of unprecedented obstacles.
Growing up in Austin, Wainwright was introduced to football at a very young age. “The first thing I can remember was I was always holding a football, running around and playing catch with my friends,” he said.
By the time he entered James Bowie High School, he embraced the competitive atmosphere and high energy levels surrounding football in Texas, as even high school football stadiums in the Lone Star State can fit upwards of 20,000 people. Wainwright especially loved playing against school rivals like Westlake High School or Lake Travis High School, with thousands of raucous fans on both sides.
“They call it ‘Friday Night Lights’ down here for a reason because it gets really excited and really jam-packed,” he said. “The energy is just through the roof. So that’s really where my love for the game grew deeper.”
A wide receiver and defensive back in high school, he was named First Team All-Central Texas as a wide receiver after accumulating 1,098 yards on 56 passes his senior year.
The Columbia football team was a complete change of scenery for the Texas star. Wainwright held offers from multiple other universities but ultimately chose to play for the Lions.
“One thing that I thought about in making my decision was, ‘Are you making the four-year decision or the forty-year decision?’” he explained.
Wainwright and his parents recognized the unique educational experience that Columbia could provide, and valued the ways a Columbia degree could set him up for success later in life. He was also drawn to New York City, home to a vastly different culture than his hometown down south.
One of the biggest selling points for Wainwright and the rest of his recruiting class was the vision for the future that was presented by coach Bagnoli. A nine-time Ivy League champion with the University of Pennsylvania and the winningest active head coach in the Ivy League, Bagnoli sent shock waves around the Ancient Eight by coming out of a short-lived retirement to coach Columbia in 2015. At that time, the Lions had not won a game in over two seasons, and Bagnoli was committed to turning the program around with his new recruits.
Wainwright looked forward to “being able to come and play for a coach that has made such a big name for himself and having the chance to come into Columbia and actually make a difference. And at the end of the day, to win games was the biggest thing. As a football player, as a competitive guy, that’s all you want to have the opportunity to do.”
And win games he did. A part of coach Bagnoli’s first recruiting class, Wainwright and the rest of his team quickly turned around a historically poor football program, all while surpassing countless individual records.
While Wainwright set multiple receiver records and led his team to its best season in 21 years at 8-2 in his sophomore year, he credits a lot of that success to what transpired in his first-year season. The team went 3-7—poor, but an improvement from the previous year, when it went 2-8—and Wainwright got his first taste of football at the college level, leading the Lions in receptions (42), receiving yards (515), and receiving touchdowns (five).
“Josh was obviously a very coveted recruit,” Bagnoli said. “We knew right away that we had a unique athlete.”
Knowing that Wainwright could immediately boost the team’s ceiling, “we treated him almost like a returning starter, even though he was a true freshman. We gave him a ton of reps,” Bagnoli added. By the middle of the season, the raw talent and explosiveness paid off in the dynamic plays that they expected from him.
Despite the 3-7 record, Wainwright felt the season was productive. “That was the first year that the culture was starting to get set in motion. It was a very competitive year, even though the record didn’t reflect it,” he said, referring to the five games the Lions lost by one score or less.
To Wainwright, that season served as motivation for the team. “Going into the offseason, everybody who was coming back to the program really committed to putting their feet in the dirt; getting down and dirty; blood, sweat, and tears; and really doing everything that they could to make sure they are the best so that our team was the best come next fall.”
The Lions had an oft-used acronym: EAT, which stands for Effort, Accountability, Team. Those were the three pillars that Bagnoli instilled at the forefront of every practice and game. Wainwright bought into the culture and views it as a catalyst for not only his individual achievements but the team’s overall success. The next year, the team bounced back to have a season he called “one of the most fun years of my life.”
Leading the Light Blue to a spectacular 8-2 record in 2017, Wainwright put together one of the best wide receiver seasons in the history of Columbia football. A First Team All-Ivy League selection and Columbia’s Offensive MVP, he led his team in receptions (78), yards (1,001), receiving touchdowns (eight), and all-purpose yardage (1,127). Wainwright’s 1,001 yards overtook the record of 1,000 yards set by Don Lewis, CC ’84, in 1982, and his 78 receptions finished second all-time, only trailing Lewis in 1982.
But most importantly for Wainwright, the team won games and, against the odds, beat longtime rivals.
“Being able to be a team and a program that people can look to and be proud of was something that really mattered to us,” he said.
While the Lions ultimately failed to capture their first Ivy League title since 1961, they finally found a winning mentality, and the culture change that Wainwright and his class set out to implement was in full swing.
“He’s one of those kids that is blessed with talent, but he’s not satisfied,” Bagnoli said. “And he continues to work. He was really good in the weight room; he was really good on the running track. … He did all the things that you want a premier player to do.”
Bagnoli noted that Wainwright put on extra muscle without losing speed or lateral agility, which was important for the rest of the team to see. “If your good players see your elite players working that hard, it’s a much better scenario to get them working that hard,” he said.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Wainwright tore his ACL in the season opener of his junior season. Decimated by injuries to a total of 25 starters, the Lions finished with a 6-4 record as Wainwright watched from the sidelines.
“It was like going from my highest high to my lowest low in a split second,” Wainwright said. “It was tough—just not being able to be out there for my teammates and doing what I at the time knew best how to do.”
From landing on the preseason All-Ivy League First Team to missing the whole season due to an unfortunate injury, Wainwright’s outlook changed instantly. The days immediately following the injury were part of “one of the more awful experiences of my life,” he said, but he turned it into a new source of motivation. “I pretty much committed to my rehab and to getting better so that I could be out there the next season for my teammates.”
After a knee surgery and a year of recovery, Wainwright returned to the field for his fourth year and was elected co-captain of the team. He finished top ten in the Ivy League in receptions per game and receiving yards per game, with 571 total receiving yards on 46 receptions. Plagued by a struggling offense and more injuries, the Lions could not reach the lofty expectations they set heading into the season, ultimately finishing with a 3-7 record. However, there were still some bright spots—the team beat Harvard University for the first time since 2003 in an overtime thriller, and blew out Penn 44-6 for the largest Homecoming victory in program history.
“I was elected captain by my teammates, which is really special to me,” Wainwright said. “It’s something that I hold very close to my heart. … The fact that my teammates, the ones who I had been in the trenches with, wanted to give me that honor to represent them and to lead them was definitely one of my prouder moments.”
He added that seeing the growth from his younger teammates reminded him of the journey he went through himself, and he carried the captainship with pride.
Coming back from a season-ending injury was a testament to his undying work ethic, Bagnoli said. “Being the focal point of that 8-2 season … and his actions to come back after knee surgery [gave him] tremendous gravitas,” and his full investment in recovery served as motivation for the rest of the team.
Because he lost the 2017 season to injury, Wainwright still had an extra year of eligibility and returned for a fifth year to play in the 2020 season. Unfortunately, he was sidelined once again, but this time, it was due to the cancellation of all Ivy League fall sports in light of COVID-19.
“It’s tough. My whole life has been tied to football up to that point,” he said. “But when you have to step away from the game, you’re forced to really understand who you are as a person and what you enjoy, and the things you actually like to do when you’re not spending 40 hours a week doing football.”
It was clear that the star receiver played with a strong passion for the game. Animated and expressive, always dancing to the music blasting through the stadium between plays, Wainwright brought an energy to the team that not many could emulate. Beneath that joy was a fierce competitor who always fought for Columbia. “I hope people can remember me as a kind guy who never ever took shit from anybody,” he said.
As a captain of coach Bagnoli’s first recruiting class, he hopes to have left a strong mark on the younger players and the future generations of Columbia football.
“Something that I learned in my four years there [is] that you only get as far as you are willing to work,” Wainwright said. “Anything is attainable, especially from a football perspective. It really just comes down to how hard you work and how hard you want it.”
“[Wainwright] was front and center and the face of our program by the time he got to be a junior and senior,” Bagnoli said. “He had such a dramatic impact on our program, from a confidence level, approach level, production level.” While Bagnoli expressed that it was a group effort to turn the program around, he emphasized that Wainwright became the first clear-cut go-to player in Bagnoli’s time at Columbia.
“His footprint is all over the program now. … I think the team gravitated around him because he has such self-confidence. … He raised the culture and the mentality of success within our program,” Bagnoli said.
Now back in Austin, Wainwright has found a silver lining to the canceled season. “Things happened the way things did. COVID-19 happened. I made my peace with it,” he said.
Whether it is making music on a DJ set or kayaking down the river that crosses through downtown Austin, he has taken time to embrace the next step of his journey. “I’m in a lucky place in my life where I have the luxury of being able to wait for an opportunity that I feel is right. So I’m going to use this time wisely, and I’m going to make sure that I’m in a good spot mentally. … I have a good feeling. Good things are definitely coming.” Wainwright is currently exploring his options and finding out what creative or professional endeavors outside of football resonate with him the most.
“One of the reasons you choose to go to a place like Columbia is to mature a little bit quicker,” Wainwright said. “I think everybody’s journey is different, but I can look back on my decision … and be happy that I made it just because of the people I met and the person that I turned out to be.”
On the field, Wainwright’s decision to buy into the journey led to one of the greatest individual seasons in the Columbia Lions’ history and the best team record in over 20 years. Off the field, Wainwright’s journey continues.