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Gardner doesn’t let size slow him down

HOUSTON – Ja’Quan Gardner’s road to the XFL hasn’t been an easy one.

Coming out of Central Valley High School in Ceres, Calif., he didn’t have many options when it came to playing college football.

It was either play for Humboldt State or go to a junior college.

“I did have any offers coming out of high school,” Gardner said. “That was the only school that gave me an opportunity to play at the next level.”

So, with only one opportunity, Gardner decided to make the best of the situation.

During his time with the Lumberjacks, he racked up 5,495 yards and 72 touchdowns, obliterating records that will never be broken. Humboldt State shut down its football program in 2018.

“I went to Humboldt and the story has been written ever since then,” he said.

But while Gardner put up gaudy numbers in college, the 5-foot-7 back struggled to get NFL interest because of his size and the fact he was coming out of the small Division II school. He didn’t get an invitation to the Combine. He wasn’t drafted.

But he did get a tryout with the San Francisco 49ers, and the team briefly brought him into the organization. That was only the beginning for Gardner.  

“People said I was too small or this or that,” he said. “It’s about proving I can play football. If you’re a football player, you can play.”

Gardner’s second chance at a professional career came in the Alliance of American Football with the San Diego Fleet. When he joined the team, he was behind former University of Washington standout Bishop Sankey, who spent two years in the NFL and had more than 700 rushing yards.

“Sank, that’s my dog right there,” Gardner said. “I talked to Sank the other day, actually. He was telling me about Seattle. We had a great backfield there and I had to work my way through it.”

But, as he did at Humboldt State, Gardner made the most of chances, and four games into the season, he was leading the league in rushing, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and outpacing bigger names like former Alabama star Trent Richardson.

“I did my thing there before I had an injury setback,” he said.

Gardner suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season, but he made a name for himself and was a player the Dragons coveted in the XFL draft.

His professional career lives on.

“It was always my dream,” he said. “Once you start in Pop Warner, it’s always your dream to play professionally, whether it’s here or the NFL. This league wasn’t around then, but it’s always been a dream to play professionally, for sure.”

Gardner is part of a deep Seattle running-back group that also features Kenneth Farrow (Houston), Trey Williams (Texas A&M) and Lavon Coleman (Washington).

“Not only do we have a great backfield, but it’s a great group of guys,” he said. “We all enjoy being around each other. We learn from each other. I take a lot from what they say to me.”

One day, when he’s done playing football, he will go back to school to finish his degree. “Mom, I’m going to get back to school,” he said with a laugh, but he doesn’t plan on wrapping his playing career anytime soon.

For now, his priority is a helping the Dragons find success in their inaugural season.

So far, so good.

"We’re looking good," he said. "We’re coming together. Day by day this offense is getting better. The defense is flying around. I think we’re going to be mean team to mess with come Feb. 8."