Life-saving chance

Reuben Ricketts wasn’t ready for his first opportunity at a second chance.

After graduating from Sequoia High School in Redwood City and concluding what had been a tumultuous prep career in 1996, the star defensive tackle was ready to take a job and start making some money. So when College of San Mateo football coach Larry Owens invited Ricketts to lunch to talk about playing for the Bulldogs, Ricketts blew it off.

But when a persistent Owens called again, Ricketts was prepared to listen. And a kid that had been in gangs and spent part of his teens in reform school suddenly found direction.

“That lunch was one of the best things that ever happened to me — it changed my life, and it changed my family’s life,” Ricketts said. “I was a lost seed searching for a role model, and I found one in coach ‘O.’”

The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Ricketts left CSM as a grayshirt sophomore in 1998, having become an All-State defensive tackle and earning a scholarship to Portland State. He can remember spending his time at the school falling asleep in the library and in 2001 became the first member of his family to graduate from college. Now 30, Ricketts works for the Redwood City Department of Water, has two children and recently bought a house.

“Everyone that knows me now says, ‘Reuben, out of everyone we knew, we thought you’d be in prison,’” Ricketts said. “And now I’m this calm, relaxed square. It’s emotional to think about those times and I’d sell my soul on the field for coach ‘O.’ If he didn’t push me, that was it for me.”

Stories like Ricketts’ form the lifeblood of junior college football, where players seen as too short, too big, too troubled or are otherwise overlooked are offered opportunities to prove themselves. Coaches such as Owens and City College of San Francisco’s George Rush have two short years (or sometimes three if the player grayshirts, the juco equivalent to redshirting) to help them mature and grow enough to advance to four-year schools.

“It’s funny — you start to see them developing into young men, you start to see the change but you never see the finished product,” Owens said. “At times you wish you could, but you’re happy they’ve taken the opportunity and moved on.”

Rush has taken a similar philosophy at CCSF.

“It’s not only about winning games,” Rush said. “It’s about giving kids a chance and helping them develop into good men and good husbands and good fathers.”

One player who appears to be well along on the path to redemption is Rams quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. The former Serra High School star pleaded guilty to armed robbery after his junior year with the Padres and was forced to spend three months at Hillcrest Juvenile Hall. He spent his senior year at the St. Louis School in Honolulu waiting for the chance to come back to the Bay Area.

“I did something wrong and being punished for it was the right thing,” said Masoli, who recalled spending his 17th birthday alone. “I was humbled by it and I thought I might be done playing ball. But I thank coach Rush so much for giving me a chance. He’s one in a million.”

Proving ground

Junior colleges such as CCSF and CSM offer a path to better opportunities for football players.

» MONDAY: The historybehind CCSF and CSM

» TODAY: Junior college provides second chances

» WEDNESDAY: Plethora of teams means state stands alone

» THURSDAY: How do the big boys use jucos?

» FRIDAY: Making it all the way to the NFL

melliser@examiner.com

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