By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Early in Justin Sagote’s career at Washington State, coach Mike Leach ended practice by showing his football team five clips of players who had given extraordinary effort. Sagote, an undersized linebacker who had transferred in from the College of San Mateo, showed up in two of them.
The next day it was more of the same, two of the five effort clips featured the newcomer.
Sagote didn’t always stand out so much. At just under 6 feet tall, he was too small to be seen by four-year schools coming out of high school. Linebackers are typically expected to provide the kind of physical presence in the middle that one doesn’t anticipate from a player with the size of a wide receiver.
“He’s not your prototypical size. On a lucky day he’s 6-foot,” said Tim Tulloch, Sagote’s defensive coordinator in junior college. “He’s strong now, he’s put together at 220-plus pounds, but he plays big. I knew that if a school gave him an opportunity, they’d find out that he’s an impact guy.”
Now a senior, Sagote has made a big impact for the Cougars, who won two of their final three games to earn a spot in Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl, the school’s first bowl game since 2003. Sagote racked up 38 tackles over those final three games, leading the team each time.
He’s a solid tackler with a nose for the football, but it’s his everyday attitude that his coaches love.
Tulloch likes to tell the story of their first meeting during the recruitment process. How the high school kid took his family members’ plates and filled them with the food provided by the coaches before ever sitting down to eat himself.
Leach went the junior-college route to replace linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, who were dismissed for violating team rules. In Sagote, he found a player who could not only fill the void left on the field, but could contribute to the locker room attitude adjustment the coach was looking for.
“I think he ignited the other guys,” Leach said. “Anybody can work harder than they think they can, and Sagote proved it to a bunch of them and I think it elevated their play. “
Coaches at both San Mateo and WSU maintain Sagote’s passion for football far outstrips whatever may be lacking in height or frame. Linebackers coach Ken Wilson says he’s “never been around a guy who enjoys the game of football as much as Justin.”
It’s a new love for the Santa Clara native, who didn’t grow up playing the sport.
“Never did I think that football would be something he would be interested in,” Sagote’s mother, Rachel, said. “He tried out for wrestling in middle school and he put a lot of effort into it because it was something that he loved to do. He went on to high school and he played football during his freshman year and from then on he knew that football would take priority over wrestling.”
Sagote finally got to go through the major-college recruiting process after earning All-NorCal Conference honors as a sophomore at San Mateo. But even that wasn’t easy.
To have a chance to play in a major conference like the Pac-12, Sagote had to reject a sure chance to play NCAA Division I football at a school he liked.
“He visited San Diego State, he had a good vibe about it. But he wanted to go and visit the other schools as well,” Rachel said. “San Diego State gave him an ultimatum that his scholarship would be tossed if he visited Purdue. So he wrestled with that one and ultimately made the decision to move ahead and visit.”
After the Purdue trip, he visited Pullman, and ended up a Cougar. Saturday he’ll play in the biggest game of his collegiate career, and WSU’s coaches are confident that their smallest starting linebacker will once again have an outsized game performance.