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MJC football program gives athletes a second chance
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Pirates head coach Rusty Stivers looks on during practice Thursday (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Sometimes, high school football players make all the right plays, excel in the classroom and are still overlooked by four-year universities in their quest to play at the highest collegiate level. The Modesto Junior College football team has quickly become one of the premier student transfer programs in the state, giving those players a second chance to prove their talent by betting on themselves.

The MJC football program serves as a pipeline for players from Turlock and Pitman high schools, as well as athletes throughout the Central Valley, to top-of-the-line schools across the nation. Over the course of the last year alone, the Pirates saw nearly 20 players transfer to four-year universities, earning over $1 million in scholarships and putting MJC on the map as a haven where athletes can hone their in-game skills, as well as propel their academic careers.

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MJC quarterback Danny Velasquez throws a pass during the Pirates’ practice on Thursday afternoon (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

“I think our main focus is to try and transfer every single student athlete who comes through our program,” MJC defensive coordinator Eddie Abbasi said. “The best thing for our student athletes is to be able to see the future in the long run, especially because coming to a junior college can be tough a lot of the time.”

The thought of attending a junior college, or “juco,” initially leaves a bad taste in many high school athletes’ mouths, Abbasi said. But as more and more junior college players make the jump from smaller, community campuses into nationally-ranked football programs at big-name universities, a spotlight is shining on the ability and depth of players who may have been passed over by scouts the first time. MJC is among the junior colleges who have made dreams a reality for players and boasts an 85-90 percent transfer rate for its athletes.

This, coupled with exposure from shows like Netflix’s “Last Chance U,” which follows players as they attempt to make that jump, is helping high school players “take a chance on themselves,” as Abbasi puts it and bring their heart and hustle to the MJC field.

While “Last Chance U” focuses on players who may have initially had the opportunity to play at the Division I level but lost their shot due to grades, behavior or other unforeseen circumstances, many players at MJC did everything right in high school when it came to grades and stats, but never received offers from four-year programs.

THS grad Mustafa Johnson was a defensive standout every time he stepped on the turf at Joe Debely Stadium, but the scholarships didn’t roll in as he had hoped. The same goes for his fellow Bulldog teammate and quarterback Danny Velasquez, as well as PHS alum Devan Bass, who was part of a Pride team that tied the school record for most wins.

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Freshmen Jahssiah Maiava and Daevon Graves strike a pose at practice ahead of MJC’s game against Laney College of Netflix’s “Last Chance U” fame (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

All three became Pirates and all three left with scholarships to D-I football programs — University of Colorado, Portland State University and Western Michigan University, respectively. Velasquez is back at MJC this season in the hunt for another D-I offer, while Johnson is surrounded by NFL Draft chatter after making an impact defensively at CSU.

“We’re getting not just the students who didn’t have the grades, but now we’re getting the students who have the grades,” MJC offensive coordinator Zach Hollis said. “They didn’t have the opportunities to go to a four-year out of high school, but those same opportunities are here. We’re at the next level, so the coaches see that if you have the experience here and you have success here, you’re going to have success for them.”

There are countless other Turlock talents who have transferred to four-year universities thanks to their experience at MJC, like THS alum and offensive lineman Ron Sharlou, who recently signed with the University of San Diego, and many others are fielding offers from multiple schools. As THS grads themselves, both Hollis and Abbasi understand the caliber of players coming out of both Turlock and the 209 as a whole is unmatched, they said.

“We know the importance of football in our area and we’re trying to build a culture here,” Abbasi said. “Kids here have the talent and athletic ability to be able to move on to the next level…the juco program is a good stepping stone for those players and coaches are starting to stop by here and figure out there are a lot of student athletes in our area that can play at the next level.”

“We know the talent that (Turlock) has. The kids that come from those programs know how to win and are ready to win,” Hollis added. “The quality of coaches in the Central Valley — kids are lucky to have it and parents are lucky to have it. We have a lot of programs and coaches that are there for the athletes first and we just get them and fine tune them, really.”

MJC serves as a development stage for collegiate athletes, giving them the tools they’ll need to succeed at the four-year level while ensuring that if they aren’t signed, they have their education to fall back on. It’s apparent in the way the MJC coaching staff nurtures its players, from making sure they’re keeping up in class during talks after practice to providing them with resources, like learning communities, in order to help them succeed.

Junior college academics used to focus mainly on general education, Hollis explained, but now, MJC is giving its students a head start by providing avenues for them to pursue classes relevant to potential career choices — a must in the world of athletics, where nothing is a given.

“(Head coach Rusty Stivers) really focuses on developing the future husbands and future leaders in the business community. It’s not just about the football aspect, because as all athletes do, you want to go D-I and go to the highest level to play ball,” Hollis said. “But, at the end of the day you have to have the fallback or realistic option, which is to have a career at some point. We try to accelerate that.”

On Friday night the MJC Pirates coincidentally took on the Laney College Eagles, whose season is being filmed for the upcoming Netflix episodes of “Last Chance U.” While MJC doesn’t consider itself a last chance for local players, it certainly provides them with a second chance.

“I think it’s really important and crucial to always give players a second chance,” Abbasi said. “Our job is to try and get as many student athletes in the area and provide as many resources and outcomes for them so that they can have a strong future, wherever they end up going. The juco stuff is a struggle, but students end up finding a way to get through it.

“We tell them, ‘Hey, take a chance on yourself. Come to a juco, prove what you can prove and if you develop the right way, do things right in the classroom, you will have opportunities.’”