Whether it's an opportunity to fulfill a long-held belief, a chance to atone for past transgressions, a gift of redemption, or a final moment to be part of a team in a sport that one's played and loved for years, the confluence of sporting destinies at the junior college level brings forth numerous fascinating stories, many which will end up being untold. There is no U.S. Army All-American Bowl for junior college players. ESPNEWS doesn't have live announcements when a junior college player chooses his college, and there is a widespread perception that teams that rely too heavily on junior college recruits are in some ways dishonorable.
Yet the passion and aspiration of players at the junior college are no different than those of players anywhere. Since schools don't have the opportunity to work with junior college players for four or five years, players who intend to move onto major college football are expected to perform at a high level right away. Here's a look at three California players who have all come to junior college under different circumstances, but are all leaving with the same goal.
The Defender's Nightmare
While it's fairly common practice for published rosters to add an inch or two or a pound or 20 to a player, there's no question that Maurice Purify is as tall as his listed 6-5. For the past two years, he's been one of CCSF's most potent weapons; with good hands, an ability to catch the ball while closely guarded, and a knack for using his body well in short yardage situations. In the state championship game against College of the Canyons last year, quarterback Joe Ayoob repeatedly found Purify on a series of corner patterns. Ayoob would lob the ball where only the receiver could catch it, and Purify would run to the back corner and catch the ball high in the air with his arms fully extended. Executed properly, this play cannot be defended.
Although he was second on the team with seven receiving touchdowns last season, he was denied an eighth on the next to last play of the COA Championship game. CCSF had come back from a 39-18 fourth-quarter deficit to make it 39-32 and was driving for a game-tying touchdown. In a thick fog at Visalia's Mineral King Bowl, from the COC 22-yard line, Ayoob fired a deep pass downfield to Purify who caught the ball while being guarded by two players. The referees ruled that the ball was caught out of bounds; the fog was sufficiently dense and low, that making any judgment from any distance beyond 10 yards would have been difficult. After the game, CCSF head coach George Rush said that a couple of witnesses who were standing at the end zone said that the catch was inbounds. Purify was disconsolate; about the catch that had been taken away from him, about the championship that had been taken away from his team. A small group of reporters observed him from a distance; torn between an obligation to get the story and showing compassion for someone going through a difficult time.
Among the many challenges of junior college football is that half of the team turns over every year and each team is essentially a new team. Each group of newcomers hasn't seen and doesn't particularly care what the previous year's team has done and has players who are hungry for playing time and the opportunity to claim some of the occasional spotlight.
"Last year's [championship] game didn't stay with me," said Purify. "It's a new season. I'm trying to get better and learn from last year. Last year, I was slower getting to the ball and running my routes. Our strength and conditioning coach John Balano gave me some drills to work on and they've really paid off this season."
Eight games into the season, Purify has been torching defenses with regularity, leading the team with 45 catches for 927 yards and 15 touchdowns; as a receiver he's tied for third in the state in scoring. Against a Butte team that was #5 in the state, Purify caught five passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. The Roadrunners attempted to defend Purify with 6-3 Jameel Dowling. On the first play of the game CCSF quarterback threw a pass deep down the left sideline to Purify who caught the ball over Dowling for a 52-yard gain. On the next play, he caught an 8-yard screen, and four plays later, a 10-yard corner pattern for a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Purify shows his speed by catching a short slant pattern and running 85 yards for a touchdown. It's a play where he probably would have been chased down in 2004. Later that quarter, he's running a crossing pattern to the left behind teammate Roberto McBean. Collins throws a pass that goes off of McBean's hands and behind him. Purify races in, grabs the ball, then spins right and runs into the end zone for an outrageous 29-yard touchdown, putting CCSF up 35-7 and for all intents and purposes, finishing off the game.
"They played a lot of man-to-man," Purify said afterwards. "The offensive game plan had me off to one side so I had a lot of field to work with. They had a taller defensive back on me, but he wasn't opening up his hips and I could tell that he wasn't going to be that fast."
Coming out of Eureka High School, where he was a teammate of USC's Rey Maualuga, Purify drew some interest from Cal, Oregon State, Nevada, Washington, Washington State, and UC Davis. Playing for CCSF has raised his visibility, but the recruiting process is still very early for him.
"I'm going to take my visits and wait out the process," said Purify, who didn't consider any school to be the favorite. "The right school will come. I've visited Nebraska, and I've got a visit scheduled in January to go see Washington. I try to keep track of how they're doing and what their receivers are like. But I know that the right school will come."
This past Saturday, Purify caught 12 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns as CCSF defeated College of San Mateo 41-40.
Bouncing Back Strong
While Maurice Purify was in the early stages of working with Joe Ayoob on the CCSF campus, Frank Summers was making a big impression during early fall practice at Memorial Stadium. The Skyline High graduate was getting a lot of attention for his work ethic, his energy, and his thunderous hits on special teams play. The announcement that he was being redshirted for the 2004 season came as somewhat of a surprise, but the future looked bright for Summers who was being pegged as a possible replacement for fullback Chris Manderino.
However the obligations of a student-athlete can be quite challenging; some people are able to fulfill them quite easily and for others it takes considerable work and time to manage those responsibilities and success doesn't always come the first time around. Consequently, Frank Summers found himself at Laney College this fall.
From practicing at Cal as a fullback whose primary function is to block, Summers was recast as a 5-11, 244-lb. tailback. He shows the same power and determination that he did during his brief stint at a Golden Bear, only this time he's carrying the ball.
On a September evening against CCSF on a September eve, a defense that has several players who will continue playing on Saturdays after their junior college days are over, and a couple who could conceivably play on Sundays, Summers is a battering ram. Most running backs at this level are 50 pounds lighter, and a tackling technique that might work against a 190 pound back won't necessarily work against a 240 pounder. Some plays have a cartoonesque quality as Summers barrels off tackle with one defender trying to grab his leg, another wrapped around his waist, and another defender flinging himself in the air in a doomed attempt to knock him down. As the evening continues, defenders are getting up increasingly slowly, grabbing their arms, sides, shoulders. Summers invariably pops right up on his way to a 37 carry, 152 yard, one-touchdown game. His efforts weren't enough as CCSF defeated Laney 27-8 in a game played much more competitively than the final score would suggest.
"I've never carried the ball this much," said the always upbeat Summers afterwards. "I pulled my groin this week and had it wrapped up during the warm-up. I had some acupuncture done and I'm 200% better."
After the game, he had to wrap up his left leg in ice. As he points out the wrapping, it's clear that beneath his football pants are a pair of Cal shorts.
Having sat out a year prior to coming to Cal and then redshirting, the adjustment to being an every down ball carrier has gone well.
"I've felt like two years have built up inside of me, " said Summers. "I feel real fresh this year."
If there's any disappointment at being at Laney, Summers doesn't show it. His teammates are players he played with and played against during his Oakland Athletic League days. Junior college football isn't glamorous. Instead of a spacious locker room, the pregame talk might take place past one of the end zone. At halftime, players race to find a restroom, and then run back out in hopes of finding a part of a fence to lean back upon and rest. And to avoid late-game cramps, some players will find some way to stash a banana somewhere. When Laney's on defense, Summers is walking up and down the sidelines, tapping linemen on the shoulders and patting them on the back.
"The one thing I really learned at Cal was that football was a lot more mental than physical," Summers said. "I wondered why players weren't a lot more emotional before games. A lot of them were fairly calm. That was a real change for me."
Summers is the second leading rusher in the state (1,232 yards) and the leading scorer (110 points). While the official stats and the team roster list him as a freshman, he could conceivably be finished with junior college after this spring.
"I was a full qualifier coming out of high school, so I don't need my A.A.," said Summers, who plans on taking larger class loads during the winter and spring. "If I pass 22 units, I can go anywhere I want."
While not saying much about his college possibilities other than he's given it some thought, there is one school that's still on his mind.
"I think about Cal weekly," said Summers. "I want to get back there and prove something. Even if I end up somewhere else, it'll stay with me that I couldn't contribute to the program the way I wish I could."
Two weeks later, following a tough 45-44 loss to Los Medanos, Summers is about as close to down as he'll be. He had injured his ankle the previous week in a game against West Valley. Consequently, he saw limited duty in the first half and played most of the second half, running for 60 yards and three touchdowns.
"I wasn't supposed to be out there. I didn't practice all week," said Summers. "I'm about 60%. But once I'm on the field, I'm going to give my all. When my teammates are out there I expect them to give their best."
For any player, sometimes the uncertainty surrounding an injury is worse than the injury itself. The acupuncture treatments the previous week didn't seem to change things and a Laney teammate who had a similar injury last season is still having problems this year.
"I'm going to just have to play through it," Summers said. "You've got nine months to rest and recover."
There are many terrific aspects to attending a junior college football game; one being that you can almost always get a good seat between the 30-yard lines and two being that you're always within earshot of friends, family, or coaching staffs from other teams who are trying to do some scout work. On this night, coaches from Diablo Valley College are on hand to watch Laney, who they'll be playing the following week. Stopping Laney's offense means stopping Summers. Tackling him high is a good way to end up being road kill. The general sentiment of the coaching staff is that the way to contain Summers is to wrap up his legs, which sounds all well and good unless you're the person who actually has to do it.
The following Saturday, Summers carried the ball 35 times for 280 yards and four touchdowns as Laney defeats Diablo Valley 35-24.
Fast and Ornery
While Maurice Purify has put last season's championship game out of his thoughts, one player who hasn't is Larry Grant. An outside linebacker with terrific speed and an ornery streak, Grant was injured on the first play of the game. College of the Canyons diced up the CCSF defense with options, misdirections, and aggravitingly, passes to tight end Jason Lance; a matchup Grant likely would have often had.
"Every single day I carry that with me," said Grant. "I didn't get a chance to play. I got hurt on the first play, and I'm going through this year like the whole season's on my shoulders."
In CCSF's defense, the 6-3, 225 lb. Grant is moved around, playing both on the strong and weak sides. One of his primary roles is containment, and given the chance, he'll leave a forget-me-not along the way. Early in the Laney-CCSF game, with Summers pounding the ball up the middle of the field, Laney hopes to catch the Rams napping and quarterback Houston Lillard takes the snap, fakes the handoff to Summers and begins running toward the right end. Grant is waiting. Lillard attempts to outrun Grant, but it's hopeless. Grant picks up the Laney quarterback and slams him into the ground, which elicited quite a few "oooohs" from Laney's home crowd.
Two weeks later, against Butte, the Roadrunners have a 1st-and-goal from the CCSF 2. Tailback Webster Patrick, who led the state in rushing in 2004 averaging 169 yards a game, attempted to run around the right end. There again was Grant. Patrick couldn't turn the corner and was grabbed by Grant who flung him into the open long jump pit that was just beyond the sideline. Angry and perhaps being humiliated by being flung into a sandbox like Raggedy Andy, Patrick came up fuming wanting a piece of Grant. Grant held his ground and order was restored before further chaos broke out.
"I watched wrestling a lot growing up," said Grant, who doesn't have a favorite wrestler. "Once I get my hands on someone, I've got to let them know that I'm there."
Grant is listed as being from Norcross, Georgia, which might be unusual for most junior college football teams, but not one as cosmopolitan as CCSF, which has players from Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, and Samoa. While most players are reluctant to talk about the academic circumstances that landed them in a junior college, Grant, who grew up in California prior to moving East is upfront about it.
"I wasn't a full qualifier coming out of a high school," said Grant. "I was looking into junior colleges and I talked to my oldest brother and he told me that he thought that this would be one of the best places that I could go to."
Coming to CCSF has worked out well for Grant, and even having the large turnover from last year to this didn't faze him.
"We lost a lot of people, but (Jimmy) Collins and (Maurice) Purify took a on a leadership role," said Grant. "It's great at CCSF. Everybody here's like family, and it was nice to see a lot of people from last year's team move on to D-I and stay in contact with them to see how they're doing."
Grant excels in pass coverage, and already has four interceptions this year. Against Butte, one of his best plays resulted in a teammate getting an interception. With Butte trailing 21-7 early in the second quarter, the Roadrunners had already shown that they could run against the Rams, and were just one score from getting back in the game. From their 47-yard line, quarterback Dan Pinegar dropped back to pass, and it was clear that they were setting up a screen to running back Patrick. Grant read the play and raced forward to cut off Patrick's path. As the pass rush closes in, Pinegar saw that Patrick's route has been cut off and decided to throw a shorter pass than he originally intended, hoping that Patrick will turn around. CCSF defensive end Corey Dehl stepped in front of Patrick, intercepted the ball and returned it for a 40-yard touchdown. Dehl will get a line in the box score the following day, while Grant's read will end up largely unnoticed.
Grant has drawn notice from several schools. For any junior college player, evaluating colleges is a tricky prospect. Most junior college games are played on Saturdays which means that not only does that limit chances to make visits during the course of the season, even watching teams on TV is hard, especially if a game ends and is followed by a three-hour bus ride back to San Francisco from Coalinga.
"I look at the depth chart, " Grant said. "I have conversations with coaches, and I'm looking for a school where I could fit in."
While he's not close to making a choice about which school to attend, he's got offers from Oregon State, Tennesse, Florida, and Texas A&M, adding, "I'm waiting to see what Cal has to say."
With two regular season games left, and possibly four regular season games left, Grant still has a lot of football left this season, culminating, he hopes with the championship game to be held in Fresno on December 10th.
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