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CV grad enjoys breakout performance on national stage
Gardner rushes for 104 yards, two touchdowns for San Diego Fleet
Central Valley High School grad Ja'Quan Gardner (pictured carrying the ball) helped propel the San Diego Fleet past the visiting Atlanta Legends, 24-12, in Alliance of American Football play Sunday night. The game was televised on the NFL Network. - Photo courtesy of Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports

Central Valley High School grad Ja’Quan Gardner was greeted by a host of family members following the San Diego Fleet’s 24-12 home-opening win over the Atlanta Legends in a downpour Sunday night at SDCCU Stadium.

“He’s always smiling no matter what,” said Stacey Gardner, Ja’Quan’s mom. “But I could tell he was really happy. His happiness is my everything.”

Gardner turned in a career-best performance during the second week of the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football league.

He set single-game team records for rushing yards (104), rushing touchdowns (2), carries (15) and longest run (31).

Gardner was quick to give credit to his coaches and teammates after the game, which was televised by the NFL Network.

“Our offensive line did a great job,” said Ja’Quan, a 5-foot-7 206-pound tailback. “Our receivers did a great job blocking. As (running backs), this is (the type of) game we wanted. It was pouring rain. We knew we’d run the ball a little more. Our goal was to hold onto the ball and get yards.”

Gardner did most of his damage in the fourth quarter as the Fleet (1-1) rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat the Legends (0-2).

He scored on runs of 8 and 7 yards.

He also ripped off a 31-yard run.

Gardner tallied San Diego’s first-ever touchdown. His 8-yard scamper proved to be the game-winner.

“I think I celebrated too much,” Ja’Quan said. “I was really exhausted afterwards. It was a one-of-kind experience for me.”

“We were jumping up and down,” Stacey said while talking about the reaction her and the rest of Ja’Quan’s family had after his historic run. “Everybody was juiced.”

Gardner put on a show in front of 20,019 spectators on a rainy Sunday in San Diego.

“Because of his size, it’s a great advantage for him,” San Diego head coach Mike Martz said. “When he gets back there, defensively, you don’t really know where he is, especially on draws. He has such a great center of gravity. He runs through tackles. He’s very explosive and quick. He’s a very patient runner. I’m very happy with him.”

As Ja’Quan and his family capped off the night with a celebratory dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, supporters of Gardner marveled at his latest achievement.

“It was fun to watch,” said Jason McCloskey, Gardner’s head coach at Central Valley his senior and junior years. “I’m sure most NFL teams know who he is now.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel Quezada, a teammate of Gardner’s at Humboldt State in 2017 and a fellow Central Valley grad. “He definitely made a statement. This is just the beginning.”

In August, Gardner signed a contract as a rookie free agent with the San Francisco.  A longshot to make the team’s 53-man regular-season roster due to his late signing, Gardner was released following the organization’s final preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Gardner rewrote Humboldt State’s and the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s record books while in college.

He didn’t receive any Division-I scholarship offers coming out of high school despite shattering the Stanislaus District’s career and single-season rushing yard records.

Gardner was overlooked because of his size.

“Ja’Quan can do it all,” McCloskey said. “I honestly believe he’ll be on an NFL team next year.”

Maurice Jones-Drew, one of three broadcasters for the San Diego-Atlanta game and a former standout running back in the NFL, agreed.

Gardner and Jones-Drew are similar in stature.

“I guarantee you he gets a second chance,” said Jones-Drew, who also stands 5 feet 7 inches.