A ceremony at his American Canyon High alma mater in February 2019 celebrated how Gamon Howard’s perseverance had paid off in the form of a full-ride scholarship to play for NCAA Division I football for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
He may have been deserving of the celebration, held in the school theater and well attended by immediate and extended family, but it was a little too early.
He ended up not passing a difficult calculus class at City College of San Francisco that he needed to transfer. He redshirted last fall while making up the class at home.
After the season, UNLV fired head coach Tony Sanchez — who had won just 19 of 59 games in five seasons — in favor of former Placer County hero Marcus Arroyo, a former Colfax High and San Jose State quarterback who was Oregon’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the past three seasons. Arroyo, along with coaching at Oklahoma State, Southern Mississippi, California, Wyoming and San Jose State over the years, was also the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ interim offensive coordinator in 2014.
Howard aspires to play professionally, and tries to meet as many people like Arroyo who have been there. But the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Howard said UNLV had tabbed him to play safety, a physical position he felt he was too lanky to play, and he wasn’t sure about his scholarship status under the new staff.
The only thing he was sure of was that Adams State University, a Division II school in rural Colorado, still wanted him and had a spot open at cornerback.
“I think with my size and my footwork, cornerback fits me well in the long run,” he said.
Howard began attending Adams State in January. He participated in three spring practices and a basketball tournament for football players. The hoop tourney was fun for Howard, who was named Napa County Boys Basketball Player of the Year as a junior in 2015-16 and led the Wolves to their first-ever playoff berth in 2016-17.
“We had the basketball tournament because it was so cold, and my team made it to the championship,” he recalled. “We lost, but I showed them I could hoop a little bit.”
Encouraged by NFL draft
Howard was interviewed by phone from Bedford, Texas, where he has been staying with his mother since being evacuated from Alamosa in mid-March. He said he’s been working out at the apartment complex’s weight room, watching Adams State football film, and taking summer classes to get ahead before he returns to campus on Aug. 8.
“We’re going to have masks in the classroom,” he said. “But I like the town. I’ve already lived there for three months and I’m used to it now. I’m just worried about getting my business degree and graduating and, once that’s over, having film to show somebody in the NFL or CFL.
“I understand the NFL is not just football, it’s a business. So whether it’s the NFL, CFL or practice squad, you gotta just bet on yourself and believe in yourself. Whether you’re at a D-I, D-II, D-III or NAIA school or a JUCO (junior college), you have to treat everything the same so the best of your ability comes out. I watched the (NFL) draft and a D-II safety got picked up (Kyle Dugger, of North Carolina’s Lenoir-Rhyne University, by the New England Patriots).”
Howard also noted that Tyreek Hill of Division II West Alabama was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fifth round in 2016 and won a Super Bowl this year, and Adam Thielen of Division II Minnesota State, though undrafted, was picked up in 2013 by the Minnesota Vikings.
Jerrell Harrison, the defensive backs coach, special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator who is going into his fifth year on the Adams State staff, had met Howard during his sophomore season at CCSFHoar.
“Gamon stuck out to me for a variety of reasons,” Harrison recalled. “Obviously he’s long, he can run, and he can attack the football. When I watched his tape, I was blown away. This kid was making plays all over the field. I first went in November (2018) and he had no offers yet and I was surprised as hell. They had other guys like Tyriq Mack (now at Akron) and Derrick Langford, who went to Washington State, but when I met Gamon and he had no offers, I offered him right off the bat. I wanted to be the first one to offer him.
“I told him straight up, ‘Look man, you’re about to blow up in the next several months, and I know you’re a D-I kid, but if it doesn’t work out, you got a home here.’ I wanted to be the first one to offer him to show that I saw his talent. And then, literally two weeks later, he started getting all these Mountain West (Conference) offers – Boise State, UNLV and a bunch of other schools. So it kinda came to fruition, what I said, but I think it also worked out in my favor, obviously. I told him he had to make the best decision for himself. I always just wanted to be real with Gamon about his talents. Fortunately he’s here playing for us.”
Harrison, a Las Vegas native, had a few things in common with Howard. According to a December 2008 story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Harrison signed with UNLV as a quarterback in 2005 but failed to qualify academically. After starring at CCSF in 2007 and 2008 at free safety, Harrison considered UNLV again but ended up finishing his playing career at Missouri.
Howard had led CCSF in 2018 with five interceptions at cornerback, including two pick-sixes, and he was more than happy to accept when Harrison offered the spot at Adams State in the tiny town of Alamosa.
“I bet on myself and chose Adams State because I built a relationship with Coach Harrison. He’s a player’s coach, and he got me on board,” Howard said. He came to one of my practices at City College and said I was going to blow up (in popularity for recruiters) and I did, but the situation didn’t work out at UNLV. So I contacted him and decided to go to Colorado.
“We have a good recruiting class. After I came in, people were starting to bet on themselves just like I did. I’m super excited because last year they had an OK (4-7) season and just needed a few pieces and with me coming in and inspiring other kids in our recruiting class coming in, we have good players.”
Howard said Adams State defensive line coach Kai Ellis, who starred at CCSF and Washington before being signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 2003 and playing 10 years in the Canadian Football League, put him in contact with a CFL coach during his first visit.
“If you’re a good person, people will look out for you. I try to be good to people and be open-minded,” Howard said.
Cliff Stroughter, a former Hogan High football star who was signed by the San Diego Chargers in the 1980s and is in the Vallejo Sports Hall of Fame, has been a football and track coach at American Canyon.
“Cliff wants to train me,” Howard said. “He calls me all the time and says ‘Keep going, you can do it, you can do it.’ It’s just motivation like that that keeps me going.”
Practices against star receiver
Another person helping Howard achieve his professional football dreams is Adams State wide receiver Tariq Bitson in practices. As a redshirt junior last fall, Bitson tallied 63 catches for 1,255 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games – eclipsing 200 receiving yards in four games – before a knee injury sidelined him.
“He’s very explosive with good hands and was on a pace for over 1,700 yards,” Harrison said of Bitson. “The first practice of spring was a very good test for Gamon to just hop right back in and go against a receiver of that caliber, especially after being out for a year. You could see rustiness in his fundamentals and movements, but you could see talent. By the third day, you could see he was going to be a good player for us if he continues to do what he’s been doing.
“After the first day, he was in my office asking ‘Hey Coach, what do I need to do to get better?’ He’s a good kid to be around.”
Said Howard of Bitson, “We wear the same helmet, so we just compete and make each other better.”
The quarterback he tries to pick off in practice is none other than returning senior starter John Buksa, who was Howard’s teammate at Golden West College in Huntington Beach in 2017.
Howard started his junior season at American Canyon as the quarterback, throwing for 303 yards in the first two games before being moved to receiver and setting the existing school record with 38 catches for 376 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had the second-most catches as a senior, 31, for 260 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“I grew up playing sports and I knew everybody from playing sports. I played (youth football) for the Vallejo Raiders, and that’s not even an organization anymore,” Howard said. “Once I get a platform, I want to bring that light back to my city, a positive note for the youth.”
Though Howard wanted to play Division I football right out of high school, and again last fall, he seems perfectly content where he ended up.
“It doesn’t bother me one bit (to not be playing at Division I), to be honest with you,” he said, “because I know my ability and what I’m capable of and if you’re good enough, they’ll come find you no matter where you’re at. It’s always about being humble. At City College I led my team in interceptions and I didn’t get any accolades, but I was still happy to be a part of that program.”
Harrison, who earned a master’s degree in business leadership from Adams State in 2018 to go along with his agricultural business degree from Missouri, thinks Howard will continue to fit in well at Adams State.
“He’s a very responsible young man, not high-maintenance at all, very self-directing and mature for his age — all things you look for in a recruit — and he’s obviously talented,” said the coach. “Alamosa is a big switch-up from the big Bay Area cities and traffic. It’s very quiet, very outdoorsy, an easy town to come to focus on school and football. There’s hiking and fishing, which a lot of our guys have picked up, but you can get away to the bigger cities like Albuquerque or Colorado Springs to do stuff.
“There is no mall to go to, no huge nightlife, but our team is very close-knit because of the small town. A lot of our guys are always together, doing cookouts and other little get-togethers during the school year to build camaraderie.”
Due to COVID-19 concerns, the Grizzlies’ scheduled season opener at Western New Mexico was canceled. They are now scheduled to open at home against Eastern New Mexico the night of Sept. 12.
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