Ja'Quan Gardner didn't draw much interest from NCAA Division-I schools despite putting up record-breaking numbers against quality competition while starring on Central Valley High School's varsity football team for three seasons.
Overlooked because of his size, the 5-foot-7 running back never once expressed any frustration or talked about trying to prove doubters wrong after earning a full-ride scholarship to Humboldt State.
"I'm just playing football and having fun," Ja'Quan said.
Gardner completed his second season with the Lumberjacks in November.
One of eight finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division-II football's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, Gardner finished second overall with 107 votes.
Central Valley athletic director Greg Magni watched a live webcast of the 30th trophy presentation with 11 other staff members at school on Dec. 18.
"I've learned to not be surprised at anything he (Gardner) does," said Magni, who played prep baseball at Serra High School with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "He's such a smart player. He always gives credit to his teammates and coaching staff. He does his job in such a phenomenal way. It's just amazing."
Gardner has already established himself as one of Humboldt State's all-time greatest running backs.
He climbed to No. 2 on the Lumberjacks' career rushing list this year.
Gardner's racked up 2,873 yards and 33 touchdowns through two seasons.
"I just like to play the game," he said. "I'm not really thinking about the individual success. I set team goals first. I try to be a good teammate."
Ja'Quan led the nation in rushing yards (2,266), rushing yards per game (188.8) and rushing touchdowns (25).
He 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.
He matched a program record with five TD runs as Humboldt State routed South Dakota Mines 59-10 on Oct. 3.
He totaled a team-record 305 yards in the Lumberjacks' 34-16 Homecoming win against two-time defending GNAC champion Azusa Pacific on Oct. 10.
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 on Nov. 21.
Ja'Quan was named to the Division-II Conference Commissioner's Association All-America First Team on Dec. 15.
He was selected to the American Football Coaches Association All-America Team on Dec. 10.
He was voted to the CCA All-Region First Team on Dec. 3.
Ja'Quan won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year award on Nov. 18.
He was also a unanimous All-GNAC First-Team selection.
"Ja'Quan had an incredible year, and we are very proud of his accomplishments," said HSU Athletic Director Dan Collen. "Not only are his on-field achievements impressive, but he is also an outstanding representative of Humboldt State University off the field."
Humboldt State football has experienced a rebirth since Gardner's arrival on campus.
The Lumberjacks compiled a 10-2 overall record and collected their first postseason win in 47 years this past fall.
Humboldt State won the GNAC title outright with a perfect 6-0 mark.
"We got to be better next year," Gardner said.
The Lumberjacks went 8-2 and tied for second place in the GNAC standings (4-2) with Central Washington and Western Oregon in 2014.
Ja'Quan was selected to the all-GNAC Second Team his freshman year.
He ranked second on the team in rushing yards (607), touchdowns (8) and carries (88).
He averaged a team-leading 6.9 yards per carry.
The Lumberjacks dropped all 11 of their games in 2013.
"Football's a great thing," Gardner said. "It never gets old. That's what keeps me going. I'm just going to keep having fun with the game."
Jason McCloskey was Gardner's head coach during his senior and junior years at Central Valley.
McCloskey, who now fills the same position at Mountain House High School, has been following his former player's football career at the college level.
He's watched all but three of Gardner's games.
"He's got a great personality," McCloskey said. "He's a very lovable guy. He's got some God-given talent. His offensive linemen love him. His family has really kept him grounded."
Moses Ghiorso teamed up with Gardner for one season at Central Valley. Ghiorso just wrapped up his prep football career with the Hawks in November. He was named the Western Athletic Conference's Outstanding Offensive Player. Moses amassed 2,639 all-purpose yards and 25 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,515 yards and 21 TDs. He averaged 11 yards per carry and fumbled just once. He also caught 27 passes for 411 yards and a pair of TDs.
"I looked up to Ja'Quan," Ghiorso. "I wanted to do the same thing he did."
Scott Edwards, Central Valley High School's second-year leader, didn't get an opportunity to coach Gardner. But he was quick to praise him.
"What he's doing isn't surprising at all," Edwards said. "He's incredibly strong and quick. He has great vision. He's a Division-I player at a Division-II school."
When asked if he would consider transferring to a Division-I school to play football, Gardner said: "I'm definitely happy where I'm at. I'm playing for the people that support me."
Stated McCloskey: "He's a Division-I player. But I don't see him going anywhere. He's a loyal person."
"He's so likable," Magni added. "Nobody ever says a bad word about him. People root for him."
Gardner broke the Stanislaus District's career and single-season rushing yard records at the prep level.
Ja'Quan rumbled for 2,467 yards and 27 touchdowns his senior year.
He totaled 6,014 yards and 67 TDs in 31 career games.
Gardner helped Central Valley reach its team goal of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in 2013. The Hawks also secured their first-ever winning record (6-5).
"I've been on some pretty successful teams," a humble Gardner said.