I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was the first game of my senior football season at Cienega High School, and we had just lost to Sabino 31-14. During the postgame handshake, Sabino linebacker David De La Ossa grabbed my left arm and pulled me aside.
“You might’ve been the smallest center I ever played against, but you’re one of the best linemen I battled with, man. Big things are ahead of you, bro,” he said.
He gave me two taps on the crown of the helmet and continued shaking hands with other Cienega players.
He doesn’t know this, but that compliment meant the world to me. See, my offensive line coach, Mark Fontana — a former Arizona Wildcat who played under Dick Tomey — told me all week that if I didn’t come prepared, “De La Ossa is going to kick your (expletive) all night long and embarrass you.”
I wasn’t your average built-like-a-house offensive lineman. I was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 220 pounds as a high school senior.
By season’s end, I had zero offers to play football anywhere — and rightfully so.
Still, I always held on to the dream that I would someday run out of the tunnel with a chance to win the Rose Bowl.
That dream never really died.
Roughly 50 players, me among them, tried out for the Indoor Football League’s Tucson Sugar Skulls tryouts Saturday morning at Kino North Stadium. Over three hours, we ran the 40-yard dash, took part in the short-shuttle and worked on both position and individual drills.
We came in different shapes and sizes. Some were tall, while others were short. Some were lean, while others — including me — were on the hefty side. One participant was the night chef at Hi-Fi Kitchen and Cocktails downtown. Another one — OK, it was me again — was a sportswriter and radio host.
“It doesn’t matter what road you take; everybody’s road is different to make it professionally,” Sugar Skulls coach Marcus Coleman said. “Whether you’re a first-round draft pick or a nowhere draft pick, or you have to start semi-professional and then work your way up, the end goal is trying to move up to play in the NFL or CFL.
“It doesn’t matter where you start or whatever road you took, if you still have a few years left on your clock, you can pursue that goal.”
Kurt Warner did.
The Hall of Fame quarterback got his professional start playing for Coleman’s former employer, the Iowa Barnstormers.
In 1995, Warner — recently cut by the NFL’s Packers — signed with the Barnstormers, then part of the Arena Football League. He became arguably the greatest AFL quarterback of all-time, earned a contract with the NFL’s Rams, won a Super Bowl and made millions.
Warner beat the long odds. Cameron Gaddis hopes to follow him. The wide receiver and defensive back recently signed with the Sugar Skulls, and hopes to be part of the expansion team’s roster when it plays its first game at Tucson Arena next spring.
Gaddis played under coach Jeff Scurran at Santa Rita High School and spent two years at Pima College.
Gaddis worked as a waiter at IHOP before signing with Albuquerque’s Duke City Gladiators of the Champions Indoor Football League. After a brief stint with the Gladiators, Gaddis returned to Tucson, began training athletes and joined the Tucson Thunder, a semi-pro team that plays at Cienega.
“It’s been a journey,” Gaddis told me Saturday. “I’ve been grinding and just trying to stay focused. I got my goal in mind and I want to get to the NFL, and no one is going to tell me anything else. I just got to keep faith and it’s a process, but we’re getting there.
“Deep down inside, I know I can play on Sundays and I know I can play better than semi-pro, better than arena, so it’s just something deep down inside that’s just, ‘I’m not giving up until my feet are gone.’”
He’s not the only Tucson product who wants to be a Sugar Skull. Sahuaro High School graduate Kori Hurd was among the players who tried out Saturday.
Football has taken Hurd around the world and back home again. After playing at Sahuaro, Hurd joined the team at Arizona Christian University. From there, Hurd signed with the Aarhus Tigers of the American Football Club in Denmark.
While in Europe, Hurd — a defensive lineman — slimmed down. The limited access to American food allowed him to shrink from nearly 300 pounds to 260 on his 6-1 frame. Hurd became a free agent this year and moved back to Arizona with hopes of playing for the Sugar Skulls.
He calls it “a beautiful struggle.”
“You have your ups and downs just like anything in life,” Hurd said.
“There were times when I wanted to give up and times that I didn’t want to play anymore, but I just kept faith and believed in what I was doing. Tucson is like a second home to me, and I just wanted to come out here to represent the city of Tucson and the state of Arizona.”
If Hurd doesn’t receive another tryout, he plans on moving back to Europe to play for the AFC.
Hurd’s Arizona Christian teammate Jamari Williams also tried out Saturday. The speedy 6-foot wide receiver and kick returner got a taste of professional football after working out with the Seattle Seahawks, but didn’t get a call back.
“After that I came over here to Tucson to pursue my dreams,” he said.
Joshua Robertson didn’t necessarily pass the “eye test” compared to the other players at Kino North Stadium on Saturday.
But that wasn’t the point. Robertson, an assistant football coach at Mesa Mountain View High School, was keeping a promise to one of his former players.
“He was thinking about quitting before his senior year and I talked him out of it because I told him ‘You’d regret it,’ and I also tutored him in math so he could graduate,” Robertson said. “The bet was, ‘You graduate and finish football and I’ll try out for any tryouts close by.”
The kid kept his promise, and so did Robertson.
Will he make the team? It’s unlikely.
Will I make the team? Hell-to-the-no.
But trying out — and failing — sure beats sitting around wondering what would’ve happened.
The last time I played football was six years ago, and my dream was to always play past the high school level.
For three hours on Saturday, I did. And so did many others.