Central Valley High School grad Ja’Quan Gardner received hundreds of messages via text and social media while making his pro debut with the San Diego Fleet during the first weekend of the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football league.
Gardner and the Fleet lost 15-6 to the host San Antonio Commanders in front of 27,857 spectators at the Alamodome on Saturday.
“After the game it was pretty hectic,” said Ja’Quan, a 5-foot-7 206-pound running back. “I got a chance to respond to a lot of the people. It’s a respect thing. I want to thank everybody for their support. They motivate me to be a better player and keep going.”
Gardner rushed for a game-high 55 yards on eight carries and caught two passes for 17 yards against the Commanders.
“It was an out-of-this-world experience being on the field competing again,” he said. “Of course you want to score TDs and all of that. I’m pleased with my performance. My offensive line did a great job.”
Gardner did most of his damage as San Diego and San Antonio battled to a 6-6 tie in the first half. He totaled 40 yards on the ground.
“It was great having the helmet and pads on again, running out the tunnel and hearing boos,” said Gardner, who last played in an official football game during his senior year at Humboldt State in 2017. “It was a new experience for me. All of it was fun. I didn’t take any of the moments for granted.”
Fans from the city of Ceres, surrounding communities and throughout the state of California tuned into CBS to watch Gardner play.
He didn’t disappoint.
“He looked great,” said Jason McCloskey, Gardner’s head coach during his junior and senior years at Central Valley. “He was big, strong, fast and elusive. I thought he was the best player on the field. He kept himself ready and didn’t let his dream die. Hopefully, he gets the ball a little more and has a good season.”
“When he spoke at our campus a few months ago, the kids were very excited he was going to play for this organization,” said Greg Magni, Central Valley’s athletic director. “I sent a staff reminder out a week ago about his first game. While walking around campus, quite a few people mentioned they were going to tune in. It was very exciting to see him out there. He deserved it. He’s put in so much work. He proved he was the right guy for the job.”
“It was cool to see someone from the Ceres area play (pro) football,” said Joe Borba, Gardner’s coach with the Ceres Seahawks at the varsity youth level. “One of the broadcasters mentioned Ja’Quan’s stutter-step. It made me laugh. He’s been doing that since he was seven years old. I’m not surprised he’s having success. He works too hard.”
“I talked with him after the game,” said Les Bonsu, who started training Gardner when he was a sophomore in high school. “He was pretty excited. Normally, he downplays everything. He should be excited. He got to play on national TV. Every time he was given an opportunity, he made the best out of it. I’m not surprised. He has that ability. This is something he’s done forever. He just needed a chance to show off his talent. Hopefully, as the season goes on, he’ll become a bigger part of the offense.”
Gardner and two other running backs earned spots on the Fleet roster following a month-long training camp in San Antonio.
He started during San Diego’s season opener.
“I’m definitely thankful for this opportunity,” Gardner said. “All of the NFL teams are paying attention to this league. I need to keep getting better each week. Hopefully, at the end of the year, I get that shot. If not, I’ll keep working hard and stay motivated.”
Gardner and the Fleet will play against the Atlanta Legends this Sunday at the San Diego County Credit Union Stadium.
The game will be televised on the NFL Network at 5 p.m.
“I plan on heading down there and watching him play in person,” Bonsu said. “I’m definitely going to get one of his jerseys to wear and one for him to sign.”