Four years removed from suiting up for the Humboldt State University’s football program for the final time, 2014 Central Valley High School grad Ja’Quan Gardner revisited the past last week while talking about his breakout sophomore season with the Lumberjacks.
“It was a special year for myself and the team,” he said. “The stars aligned for us to do great things that season.”
Gardner’s individual play at running back brought national attention to HSU during the 2015 campaign.
He finished second in voting for the Harlon Hill award, the NCAA Division-II football’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
“The whole experience was cool,” he said.
Gardner watched a live webcast of the 30th Annual Harlon Hill Trophy presentation with his mother Stacey, sister Roneesia and grandparents Luvell and Sharon.
“A lot of people around me were really excited,” he said. “Now that I look back on it, it’s definitely something to be proud of. It was a tremendous honor to be one of the top two players in Division II. There was a lot of talent.”
Gardner ranked first in the nation in rushing yards (2,266), rushing yards per game (188.8) and rushing touchdowns (25).
Ja’Quan broke Humboldt State’s single-season and single-game rushing yard records.
He shattered the GNAC’s single-season rushing yard and carries marks as well.
Gardner matched a program record with five TD runs as Humboldt State posted a 59-10 victory over South Dakota Mines.
He totaled a team-record 305 yards in the Lumberjacks’ 34-16 Homecoming win against two-time defending GNAC champion Azusa Pacific.
Gardner ran for 246 yards and two touchdowns during fourth-seeded Humboldt State’s 45-31 victory over No. 5 Augustana in the Super Region Three playoff bracket.
Alex Cappa, a 2018 NFL Draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, anchored the Lumberjacks’ offensive line.
“It wasn’t just me,” Gardner said. “We had a bunch of dudes that wanted to work. He (Cappa) was a monster. When in doubt, run left.”
Ja’Quan was named to the Division-II Conference Commissioner’s Association All-America First Team.
He was selected to the American Football Coaches Association All-America Team.
He was voted to the CCA All-Region First Team on Dec. 3.
Gardner won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year award.
He was also a unanimous All-GNAC First-Team selection.
With Gardner leading the way, the Lumberjacks compiled a 10-2 overall record and collected their first postseason win in 47 years.
Humboldt State won the GNAC title outright with a perfect 6-0 mark.
“Teams really didn’t know how to play us,” Gardner said. “We were so multi-dimensional on offense. We were really balanced. We had great leadership and team chemistry. We enjoyed being around each other. We were always cracking jokes and laughing. We played for each other.”
Gardner managed to earn second-team GNAC honors as a freshman despite being slowed by a quad injury. He ranked second on the team in rushing yards (607), touchdowns (8) and carries (88) for the 8-2 Lumberjacks.
“I came back (sophomore year) with a chip on my shoulder wanting to prove I was good enough to play at the collegiate level,” he said. “The strength coach (Drew Petersen) helped me get bigger, faster and stronger. The game slows down with experience.”
Gardner 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 GNAC’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 had a blast competing in front of large home crowds at Humboldt State, which had its football program cut in 2018 due to budget issues.
Redwood Bowl averaged over 6,300 spectators per game in 2015.
“It was a special place to play,” he said. “The fans always showed us love. They love their football up there.”
“It would be very meaningful,” Gardner added while talking about the possibility of being inducted into the Humboldt State Athletics Hall of Fame. “They gave me a home when no other school in the country did.”
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 year removed from suffering a season-ending shoulder injury while starring at running back with the San Diego Fleet in the Alliance of American Football League, Gardner and the Seattle Dragons played their last XFL game on March 7.
Sports leagues across the United States postponed and/or canceled their 2020 seasons to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Gardner has been working out and playing video games during quarantine.
“I talked with my agent,” Gardner said. “He told me we got to stay patient. An opportunity will come again.”