by Paul Peck, Buffalo Sports Page

There has always been a stereotype in college football about junior college players

They didn’t have good enough grades.  They were character risks.  They weren’t good enough players.

They were on their last chance.

While the popular Netflix show Last Chance U has kept some of those beliefs alive, the nine JC players on the University at Buffalo roster are proving that junior college is far from a last chance.  For them, a stop at a JC has allowed them to turn UB into their “Right Place U.”

Two of the team’s top players, Khalil Hodge and Anthony Johnson, came to Buffalo from junior colleges.  Both had very different reasons for making that pit stop on the way to Division I football.

While their stories differ from the those in the TV show, they appreciate the light that Last Chance U has shined on the culture of JC football.

College Football’s Reality TV

“It’s very realistic.”

That’s the expert review of the show from Hodge, a California native who attended City College of San Francisco for a semester before coming to UB.  He is now the Bulls leading tackler, an All-MAC player and on the radar of the NFL.

“Them just struggling, having to find a way to make things work, it’s very realistic,” said Hodge.

The show focused it’s first two seasons on East Mississippi Community College, a national championship program located in tiny Scooba, MS.  Among it’s alums are LaGarrette Blount and Buffalo’s own Chad Kelly.  EMCC plays in what is considered the top JC league in the country, and attracts many players who have the talent to play in the SEC.

Season three moved to Independence Community College in Independence, KS.  Bombastic coach Jason Brown raised the program’s notoriety by recruiting a national group of players who were forced to leave Power 5 programs.  Known as “Bounce Backs” those players were hoping to use a brief stop in Kansas to get back to places like Michigan, Texas A&M and Florida State.

For the Bulls junior college alums, watching the show brings back memories and puts the spotlight on the hard work it takes to get out of a junior college.

“It’s really a grind,” says Johnson.

AJ From JC

Johnson is possibly the Bulls best player.  After a 76 catch, 14 touchdown season in 2017 he is being mentioned as an All-American and a potential NFL first round draft pick.

None of that would have a happened without the junior college experience.  Coming out of Rock Hill, SC Johnson had Division I opportunities in football and basketball.  But his grades weren’t good enough.  The only way to get his grades up, and get to DI football, was to get on a plane and fly to Kansas.

His first stop was Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.

“I was real nervous.  My whole life, I had never left Rock Hill, at all.  Take my first flight, I had never flew a plane.  I was nervous.  Moving into a dorm.  I don’t know if I trust anyone.  But it was pretty cool.”

Johnson settled in, and a had successful season.  Following a coaching change, he moved to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, IA.  His grades improved, so did his football, and it was off to Buffalo.

“If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you can be stuck there.  It’s really a struggle to get out of the mud there.”

The California Kids

At East Mississippi, Independence, Butler and Iowa Western, the players are there on scholarship and live in dorms.

Five of the Bulls nine JC grads come from California, where it is much different.  There are 68 football-playing California junior colleges.  Most don’t offer scholarships, or provide living quarters.  So the players must find there own places to live.  Or commute.

“Last Chance U is a little more pretty,” says Bulls safety Joey Banks, another grad of City College of San Francisco.  “They’re national JUCOs.  They get a lot more.  In California, you don’t get scholarships, you don’t get dorms, you have to buy your own equipment.  It’s a struggle.”

Banks, from Sacramento, commuted nearly two hours a day to get to school and practice.  Hodge, from across the Bay in Stockton, had a similar long commute on the BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

“I remember a bunch of guys getting on the train everyday, sunup to sunrise,”

Some players do their best to find a place to live.  But without dorms, it’s a struggle.

“You got 10 guys in a two bedroom with one bathroom,” says Banks.  “You got guys living in U-Hauls.  You got guys coming from Florida not knowing where they were going to sleep.”

Former Bulls safety Tim Roberts, a Louisiana native who attended Fullerton (CA) College, tells a story of living with six other players in a small apartment.  One day, due to a fight one of the roommates had with another student, Roberts had to dodge gunfire by hiding behind a couch.

Hodge went the JC route not because of grades, but because he felt overlooked coming out of high school and didn’t get any Division I offers.  He figured that a good year in JUCO would bring those offers, which it did.

Banks is a “Bounce Back,” having been on scholarship at FCS Sacramento State. In order to get his career back on track, he went to junior college looking for another scholarship opportunity.

“I wish they would do the show on a California JUCO, just to show people what it is to not have anything and have to provide for yourself,” says Banks.

The Junior College Brotherhood

“JUCO guys know the JUCO struggles,” said Banks.

There is a bond among the nine Bulls who have traveled these roads.  They have been to the bottom, put in the work, dealt with the struggles, and have come out on top with the biggest prize there is:  a Division One football scholarship.

Johnson senses that whenever he talks to his current, or former teammates.

“It’s probably a better brotherhood there because everybody is in the same struggle. Most guys relate more there.  Some of my best friends I met there, and I talk to them to this day and we always have good memories.”

“We’ve all gone through the same struggles,” says Hodge.

For all nine Bulls, who battled their way to nice stadiums, nice dorms, fancy equipment and all the food they can eat….it was worth it.  For them, they’re now in the Right Place U.

Bulls Junior College Player Notes

Here’s the list of nine UB players who attended junior college:

  • Anthony Johnson (Butler CC, Iowa Western CC):  starting receiver
  • Khalil Hodge (City College San Francisco): starting linebacker
  • Joey Banks (City College San Francisco): competing to start at safety
  • Tatum Slack (Chaffey (CA) College): starting cornerback
  • Devon Russell (Ellsworth (KS) CC): key backup at cornerback
  • LeDarius Mack (ASA College): reserve at defensive end
  • DeShondrick Foxworth (Jones County (MS) JC): reserve at defensive tackle
  • Atu Vainikolo (Mt. San Antonio (CA) College): reserve at defensive tackle
  • Wesley Scott (Mt. San Jacinto (CA) College): reserve at defensive tackle

*Last year’s #2 receiver, Kamathi Holsey, attended Independence CC.  His picture can be seen on the wall of the football offices during Last Chance U’s third season.

*Foxworth played at one of EMCC’s conference rivals, and his game against them two years ago was featured on the show

*Bulls defensive tackles coach Tim Edwards currently recruits the Mississippi JCs, and was seen on a recruiting visit at EMCC during the show’s second season.

 

Paul Peck

Paul Peck is sports broadcaster with over 25 years experience in TV and Radio. He served as sports anchor, reporter, and producer at WIVB for 24 years. In that role, he covered all four Buffalo Bills Super Bowls, the Buffalo Sabres in the Stanley Cup Finals, the NCAA Basketball Tournament and the Daytona 500. He has been the Voice of the UB Bulls Football for 17 seasons, in addition to host of Bulls Athletics TV & Radio shows. Peck also served as the sideline reporter for the Buffalo Bills Football Network, host of the bowling show "Beat The Champ" and announces college basketball for ESPN 3 and Time Warner Cable Sports Channel. He has also been the Master of Ceremonies for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, one of the largest sports banquets in WNY.

Paul is also involved in the local business community, having been a financial advisor at AXA Advisors, and is currently the Vice President of Sports Development at VSP Graphics Group.

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