By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sometimes numbers are more than mere numbers.
Sometimes numbers are facts that scream opinion, offer insight and crush stereotypes.
Just as a picture may be worth a thousand words, so can a number.
How about this number: 3. Three Heisman Trophy winners went to a junior college before going on to claim college football’s top prize: Cam Newton, Mike Rozier and Charlie Ward.
How about this one: 70. There are 70 players on Pac-12 football rosters that came from junior colleges.
And this one: 194. Since 1995, that’s the number of football players who played for SRJC that went on to play football on scholarship at a four-year college.
And there’s one other number, clearly the most amazing number of them all: 0. That’s exactly how many of those 194 SRJC players were offered college football scholarships upon graduating from high school.
Yes, from zero to scholarship, that’s like going — in a manner of speaking — from zero to hero. From unknown, to being coveted. That just doesn’t say something about junior college football, it says something about SRJC.
“I tell, flat-out, the new kids the same thing every year,” SRJC head coach Lenny Wagner said. “The one thing I can promise you is an environment comfortable in which to learn.”
Wagner paused. This was the moment in which he could have patted himself on the back. He had reason.
“I wish I could tell you,” Wagner said, “that I was the coach who made Jason Verrett the player he is. I can’t. Jason did all the hard work.”
Verrett graduated from Rodriguez High School in Fairfield after the 2008-09 school year without an offer. Quick, reactive, good hand-eye coordination, no oaf for sure, Verrett was but 175 pounds. Too light, colleges thought. Will crumble easily. Break in half. Too bad, dude.
“I told Jason there weren’t a lot of triple option quarterback in college,” Wagner said.
“But if Jason was willing to put the time in, he could play defensive back. He was going to have to take his time though. I told him he may have to sit out a year as a gray-shirt.”
That’s what Verrett said. He didn’t play football in 2009. He was learning to play cornerback. Wagner found it a challenge, but only because Verrett was such an athlete.
“If you or I make a mistake in coverage,” Wagner said, “we might go 2-3 steps before stopping. Jason’s reactions were so fast, he’d cover 15 yards before stopping. We had to challenge him to be as patient as possible. We had to teach him to slow down.”
Verrett played in 2010 for SRJC. Wagner, never to hoard a player just to benefit SRJC’s chances of winning, called Texas Christian University coach Gary Patterson. Patterson had been Wagner’s linebacker coach at Sonoma State in 1989 and 1990. They had formed a bond and more importantly, a trust. Wagner has sent five SRJC players to TCU.
“Lenny was a smart player,” Patterson said.
“I like coaching smart players. Nothing was ever handed to him. He earned everything he’s got. He’s a man of high character. He knows the kind of program I run. He knows I want character guys as much as athletes.”
Wagner told Patterson not to be put off by Verrett’s lack of size, 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. Verrett’s a pure athlete, pure in that he moves smoothly, quickly, with agility and intelligence through space. He reacts well. He is everything you want in a cover corner.
Three years later, Verrett is rated by many NFL scouts as the top cornerback in next year’s college draft.
Either a low first-round or high second-round pick, Verrett is expected to go within the first 40 selections.
Verrett was the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
A first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation and FOX Sports, ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 player in the Big 12, Verrett will soon become a millionaire.
From a kid who no college wanted to a high NFL draft choice, Verrett has gone from zero to hero, as close as a player can get to being Exhibit A on how a junior college can benefit a player.
“I talked to a few coaches who played TCU this season,” Wagner said, “and they all told me the same thing: They never threw to Jason’s side of the ball.”
Not all athletes arrive at their skill and future at the same time. They are the late bloomers, whose body and mind takes a little longer to finally work in tandem with the natural physical skills. For that to happen those late bloomers need a firm but sensitive touch. Rarely does an athlete mature under a cracking whip.
Wagner satisfies that coaching requirement. Tim Walsh recruited Wagner to play for SSU in 1987. Impressed as Gary Patterson was with Wagner, Walsh has developed the same relationship with Wagner that is both professional and personal.
Over the years, Wagner has sent 10 players to Walsh, five when Walsh was at Portland State and another five now that Walsh is at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
“When Lenny calls me and tells me he has a player who can play for me,” Walsh said, “I know right then the player can fit into my system, with what I want on and off the football field. I know what kind of kid he is that because I know what Lenny stands for.”
Determination, which would be one of those things. Verrett was torched like a thatched hut in his first start as a TCU cornerback in 2011. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III threw three touchdowns to wide receivers Verrett covered. So discouraged and embarrassed, Verrett wanted to quit TCU. Verrett called a couple of people to ask them what they thought of his college future.
One of them was Wagner, then SRJC’s defensive coordinator.
“I told Jason to stick it out,” Wagner said. “I told Jason RGIII was going to burn a lot of people before he left Baylor. Be patient. Learn. It’ll work out. You’ll be fine.”
Jason Verrett turned out to be just fine.
“I owe Coach Wags everything,” Verrett told me three years ago.
To see what others cannot, to provide encouragement where there is none, to be see success rather than failure, a junior college can create that atmosphere.
It would be a junior college whose football coach doesn’t see his players just for the moment.
Lenny Wagner sees them now and forever, and for all the possibilities contained within.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.