February 7, 2012

Tall Tales

PRESQUE ISLE, ME --  On the way back from a recent road trip, the UMPI men's and women's basketball teams took a slight detour to the University of Connecticut to see the #3 ranked UCONN Huskies women's basketball team practice.  After the workout, Huskies players came over and mingled with the awestruck Owls.  But many of the Huskies were in awe themselves.

The source of their amazement was UMPI freshman Robert Wegner.  At 7'6, "Big Bob" knew the questions that would be coming next from the UCONN players.  He has heard them all before:

How tall are you? (7'6)  What is your wingspan? (almost 8 ft)  Were you like 6'9 in 8th grade? (pretty close)  Can you touch the rim without jumping? (yes)

Calmly and quietly the New Hampshire native demonstrates his reach rim touching abilities on the Gampel Pavilion Court.  The reserved Wegner does not relish the attention his grandiose stature garners him, but he has come to terms with it.

"It doesn't bother me now," says Wegner, "people at the mall always would walk past and do a double take, snap a picture on their phone, and think I didn't notice."

Wegner's coach has noticed it too.

"It's kind of comical in that I can be walking in front of him and see the expressions on the faces of people about to walk past me," says UMPI 1st year head coach Jim Casciano, "and I know he's walking behind me.  It's new to us, but he takes it in good nature and great stride."

Sometimes in basketball you will hear stories of players that shot up 3 or 6 or even 9 inches in a year or two usually in high school.  This is not one of those stories.  Bob Wegner was born in Rhode Island, tipping the scales at 11 lbs, 7 ounces and 22.5 inches long.  Both of his parents are over six-feet tall.  His sisters are both near 6'3.

"I consistently grew three and a half inches a year, every year, and was 6'9 as a high school freshman," recalls Wegner.

Now a college freshman, Bob is 7'6. 

"At least we think he is," says Bob's mother, Susan.  "I don't know, we haven't measured him since he left for UMPI in fall," she says only half-joking.

Maybe the only thing that has grown as rapidly as Bob himself is his love of sports.  Not one content to just sit around, Wegner recalls playing baseball and basketball as early as 3-years old.  Nowadays, when he's not on the court he is outside sledding, biking, fishing, and hiking.

"Anything outdoors... no ceilings!  Not as many things to bump your head on," he laughs.

Wegner's sense of humor has served him well as his continued growth challenged things that people a foot or two shorter take for granted.

His shoe size is 23.  He once tried to buy some shoes that were in a store's front window only to find out it was an oversized "display" shoe and they did not have the pair.  In fact, even in winter more often than not you will see Bob walking around in his trusty open-toed sandals.  His basketball shoes were originally designed for Shaquille O'Neal.

When he buys shirts, they are XXXL.  His mom learned to sew in order for Bob to have a baptismal outfit that fit and she still makes many of his clothes today.

In high school shop class, Bob made himself a bed frame that he has slept in since then and even brought with him to the dorms on the UMPI campus.

"You kinda feel for the kid," says Casciano, "he's just 18-years old and trying to fit in yet he literally stands out."

Beds, shoes, clothes, low ceilings, on-lookers... none of it matter to Bob when he is out on the court.

"I love playing."

Playing time has come slowly this season as Bob works on getting his agility, footwork, and stamina ready for the college level.  But late in the season, he has slowly started to see his opportunities increase.

"We have to keep expectations realistic and literally learn how to walk before we run," says Casciano, "we do not want him to be a sideshow.  We want to see him as a kid working to get better to be a contributor to this team."

For his part, Bob is enjoying his freshman year.  Already a fan favorite, Bob has worked the UMPI faithful into a frenzy a few times with his dunks.

"I really like the thought of that!   The crowd gets really excited when I get in," glows Wegner.

More than the crowd, Big Bob has developed a solid chemistry with his new teammates.  He readily boasts how great his fellow Owls have been.

"They don't joke around about my height and the guys give me the entire backseat (on road trips), which is helpful."

With a big reach and even bigger heart, "Big Bob" Wegner is leaving his mark in Presque Isle.