Ja’Quan Gardner hasn’t given up hope on his dream of playing in the National Football League.
Just 24 years old, the 2014 Central Valley High School grad will be ready when another chance presents itself.
“I’m not just a feel-good story,” said Gardner, a 5-foot-7 206-pound running back. “I work hard. I’m still able to play the game at a high level. I believe I’m good enough to be on an NFL roster. Whether they feel I’m good enough, it’s up to them. All I can do is keep working hard and wait for the next opportunity. I’ll make my case whenever I get back on the field. I’ll play even harder.”
Gardner has suited up for teams in three different professional leagues over the past three years.
He provided depth at running back during the San Francisco 49ers’ final 2018 preseason game. A long-shot to make the team’s 53-man regular-season roster due to his late signing, Gardner was released.
Gardner made a name for himself during the inaugural season of Alliance of American Football prior to having his season cut short by a right-shoulder injury in March of 2019. The AAF ended up suspending all operations due to a lack of funding.
Gardner ranked eighth in rushing yards (311) in the league.
He scored three touchdowns.
He averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
Gardner was named the AAF’s Offensive Player of the Week after setting multiple records in the Fleet’s 31-11 home win over the San Antonio Commanders.
He rushed for an AAF single-game record 122 yards.
He raced 83 yards for a TD in the third quarter. It was the longest scoring play in Alliance history.
Gardner became the first player in AAF history to post back-to-back 100-plus yard games.
He had a league-leading 281 rushing yards through the AAF’s first three games.
Gardner was put on the injured-reserve list after partially tearing his labrum in a 32-15 loss to the Arizona Hotshots on March 24.
In all likelihood, Gardner would have been invited to an NFL training camp in the summer of 2019 had he not suffered a shoulder injury.
“I’m not a what-if guy,” he said. “That’s not the reality of the situation. I just look forward and wait for the next opportunity.”
Gardner was selected by the Seattle Dragons in the fifth and final phase of the XFL Draft in October of 2019.
The draft pool of more than 1,000 players featured talent from Power-5 NCAA Division-I schools, Division I-AA, Division II, Division III, NAIA and junior colleges.
Gardner totaled 127 yards on 35 carries while splitting playing time at running back for the Dragons, who compiled a 1-4 record while finishing in fourth place in the West.
His most productive performance came against the Dallas Renegades. Gardner rushed for a team-high 37 yards on eight attempts.
Seattle played its final game on March 7 as sports leagues across the United States postponed and/or canceled their 2020 seasons to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The rebooted XFL filed for bankruptcy in April and was purchased by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his business partners for $15 million in August.
The league will return in the spring of 2022.
“He’s played the game,” said Gardner, who would welcome the chance to play in the XFL again. “He knows the trials and tribulations of being a pro athlete. He’s one of the biggest entertainers in the world. He’ll have the support. The stadiums will be filled.”
Gardner has been training five days a week during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A couple of my buddies have home gyms,” he said. “That’s where I’ve been working out the past five to six months. I started going to Bonsu (Elite Athletics) two weeks ago. I’m trying to stay in shape and healthy. You have to stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
Gardner brought national attention to Humboldt State’s football program.
He shattered 10 team records in a four-year span at Humboldt State, including rushing yards in a career (5,426), rushing yards in a single season (2,266), rushing yards in a single game (313), touchdowns scored in a career (93), touchdowns scored in a season (25), touchdowns scored in a game (5), points scored in a career (450), points scored in a season (150), points scored in a game (36) and longest rushing play.
He became the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s all-time leader in career touchdowns scored (75), points scored (450), all-purpose yards (6,979), all-purpose yards per game (170-2), rushing attempts (878), rushing yards (5,426) and rushing touchdowns (70) in 2017.
Gardner set conference single-game marks with 446 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns, and tied another league record with five rushing TDs during Humboldt State’s 52-49 Homecoming win over Azusa Pacific.
His performance earned him GNAC Offensive Player of the Week honors for a record-tying ninth time.
Gardner, a three-year starter at Central Valley, broke the Stanislaus District’s single-season rushing yards record during his final season with the Hawks.
He totaled 2,467 yards and 27 touchdowns in 11 games. Homer Garza set the previous mark (2,195) in 1997 with Hughson.
Gardner was voted USA Today/Asics Ultimate Athlete of the Year.
He was selected to the Cal-Hi Sports medium schools’ first-team offense.
He was named to the MaxPreps All-Northern California and All-Sac-Joaquin Section first teams.
He also won the Western Athletic Conference Most Valuable Player award.
Gardner ranked first on the Stanislaus District’s career rushing yards list (6,014) when he graduated from Central Valley. He eclipsed Central Catholic star Louis Bland’s all-time record. Bland (2004-07) piled up 5,140 yards in 47 games.
Gardner tallied a program-best 67 TDs.
“Everybody knows you can’t play forever,” he said. “I’m nowhere near the end of the road. It’s tough to stay motivated. But at the same time, it’s easy. I have a solid foundation around me. My family and friends are supportive.”
“It’s a crazy story that’s still being written,” Gardner added. “Hopefully, it leads to where I want it to lead.”