Julian Willis was a football player at Cascade High School before graduating in 2008. He dreamed of playing in college, but a series of circumstances led him to three different schools in three years, all without football.
Until last year.
Willis, a running back, returned home, enrolled at Everett Community College and joined the Everett Red Raiders, an independent team comprised of area community college students. Unaffiliated with Everett CC, the Red Raiders have players from several schools between Mount Vernon and south Seattle, though more than half of the team’s 43-man roster attends Everett CC.
“I’m very blessed to have been out of football for three years after high school, and then to get this opportunity,” Willis said. “Football is my passion, and it’s my dream to play university football.”
Playing for the Red Raiders “is a huge opportunity,” he said, “and I’m definitely not taking it for granted. I’m taking every snap serious, every practice serious … (because) I’m ready to move on to the next level.”
Teammate Keith Wigney, meanwhile, played three varsity seasons at Snohomish before graduating in 2010. He loves the game so much that he finds a way to fit football into a daily schedule that includes school and what is essentially a full-time job.
“I’ve been playing football since I was 9 years old and it’s something I don’t feel I can give up,” said Wigney, who attends Bothell’s Cascadia College. “I don’t want to call it quits because I love it so much.”
And he is not alone. “The guys out here,” he said, pointing at the other Red Raiders, “love football just as much as the guys who are going to four-year universities. Maybe more just because of how much we all have to sacrifice. Nobody here is getting anything (financially, such as scholarships or other benefits). They work all day and go to school, and then they come out here for the chance to play football.”
The Red Raiders, members of the five-team Northwest Junior College Football League, are playing a nine-game schedule in 2012. They have home and away games against the league’s other four teams — the Columbia Basin Gladiators, Tacoma Knights, South Sound Spartans and Kitsap Warhawks — and opened their season by traveling to Ephraim, Utah, for a game against Snow College, one of the nation’s top-ranked junior college teams.
Alas, the Utah game was a 66-0 loss, but the Red Raiders are 4-1 in their league schedule to date. That includes a 41-0 victory over Kitsap on Sunday at Snohomish High School, the team’s home stadium.
Because the Red Raiders get no money from Everett CC, players are responsible for providing their own equipment, paying for their game jerseys and helmets, and their travel expenses to away games.
Wigney, who slept in his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot the night before a road game last season to save money, figures he will spend upward of $1,000 to play, which includes equipment, road trip expenses and the cost of driving from south Snohomish County to practices and games in Marysville and Snohomish four or five times a week.
According to head coach Tim Dennis, the team uses fundraisers to meet its annual budget of $7,000-$10,000, which pays for field rentals, insurance and game officials. The coaches and other team officials are all volunteers.
Though not a school team, there is an emphasis on academics. Players are required to be enrolled and taking core classes toward an associate degree, “and we hold them accountable for that. We check enrollment and we check grades,” said Dennis, a 1994 Snohomish graduate who lives in Granite Falls.
“We don’t have any affiliation financially (with Everett CC),” he said, “but they’re supportive of the program and they think it’s a good thing because they know it’s sending kids to their school that might not go there otherwise.”
Everett players do not lose a year of NCAA eligibility until they turn 21, Dennis pointed out, which means a recent high school graduate could play a season for the Red Raiders and then transfer to a four-year school as an incoming freshman. It is, he said, “the one really good and unique thing about this program.”
The goal, Dennis went on, is to give players the chance to continue in football, both with the Red Raiders and beyond. A year ago, team member Bobby Barnes, who played at Lacey’s Timberline High School, was picked up by Central Washington University. In recent weeks, former Jackson High School player Taylor Mead also moved on to Central.
Other players on this year’s roster hope to do the same, including Willis, Wigney and Taylor Metzger, who earned two varsity letters at Lake Stevens High School before graduating in 2011. Metzger, a lineman, probably had the talent to play at a four-year school out of high school, but said he fell victim to grades.
For him, the Red Raiders are “a second chance, that’s for sure,” he said.
Likewise wide receiver John Odion, who won two varsity letters at Shorecrest High School before graduating last spring.
“I want to play somewhere at the next level,” Odion said, “so we’ll see what offers I get after this year. College coaches will take people from (this league) if they have talent, so that’s what I’m hoping.”