Ja'Quan Gardner slowly made his way out of the locker room following the 15th-seeded Central Valley High School varsity football team's 69-55 setback at No. 2 Manteca in the opening round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-III playoffs on Nov. 15.
Gardner rumbled for 378 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries against the 13-2 Buffaloes. He also tossed a 4-yard TD pass to Christian Romo. Ja'Quan's fifth score cut the deficit to 62-55 with 8:35 to play. Chase McKee's 69-yard fumble return touchdown dashed the Hawks' upset bid.
"This is the last time I'll ever suit up with these fellas," said Gardner, a 5-foot-7 170-pound senior running back. "That's the worst part, just thinking about it. It's over."
Ja'Quan will compete at the collegiate level.
Gardner earned a full-ride scholarship to Division-II Humboldt State.
He signed a national letter of intent with the Lumberjacks on Feb. 5.
The Lumberjacks compiled an 0-11 record this past season.
Humboldt State finished 9-1 and captured the Northwest Athletic Conference title in 2011.
"The coaches were really friendly," he said. "I met a few of their players. They were all cool and seemed to be hungry to get on the field. It's definitely a dream getting to the next level. It's a good feeling knowing I don't have to worry about a single dime coming out of my pocket."
"He'll have a chance to start as a true freshman," said Jason McCloskey, Gardner's head coach at the prep level for the past two seasons. "He'll have a great career there. He'll get the program back to where it was."
Ja'Quan, a three-year starter, broke the Stanislaus District's single-season rushing yards record this year.
He totaled 2,467 yards and 27 touchdowns in 11 games. Homer Garza set the previous mark (2,195) in 1997 with Hughson.
Gardner also ranks first on the district's career rushing yards list (6,014). He eclipsed Central Catholic star Louis Bland's all-time record. Bland (2004-07) piled up 5,140 yards in 47 games.
Ja'Quan tallied a program-best 67 TDs.
"It's a cool thing to say, to actually have a record," Gardner said. "It's not just me. My teammates helped me along the way. I give credit to all the offensive linemen I've had the last three years. They kept me grounded."
Manteca offered high praise for Gardner following the Division-III playoff clash.
"You're the real deal," one Buffalo player uttered while greeting Gardner in the postgame handshake line.
Former Central Valley head coach Tim Garcia made the drive from Modesto to Manteca to watch Gardner play one last time. They exchanged hugs after the game.
"I had so much fun this year," Ja'Quan said. "I love all of teammates. I'm so proud of everybody. We played hard."
The face of Central Valley's program for three seasons, Gardner remained humble while rewriting the Stanislaus District record books.
More importantly, Ja'Quan helped the Hawks reach their team goal of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time.
Central Valley also secured its first-ever winning record (6-5).
Gardner's teams never lost to crosstown-rival Ceres High. The Hawks won 48-15 this year and improved their head-to-head record versus the Bulldogs to 7-1.
"When I'm running, I don't really think about it (breaking records)," he said. "Getting wins, that's the most important thing."
"If someone wants to look at just the size of the kid, and not think he's a special talent, they're wrong," McCloskey said. "There's no knocks on him. He's a solid football player. He's the best player in the whole area, not just running back. I'll arm wrestle anybody who thinks different. He's the best football player I have ever coached. I'm really proud of him. I can't wait to see him play on Saturdays."
Ja'Quan considered attending Central Catholic prior to enrolling at Central Valley.
"I'm happy with my decision," said Gardner, who will in all likelihood be selected to compete in the Lions and Rotary all-star football games this summer. "It's been fun. I got to play with all my friends. I've known these guys since seventh and eighth grade. They're like my brothers."
Gardner won the USA Today/Asics Ultimate Athlete of the Year competition in December. He was presented the national award in front of a large crowd prior to the start of the Central Valley-Ceres High varsity boys basketball crosstown game on Jan 24.
Ja'Quan was selected to the Cal-Hi Sports medium schools' first-team offense on Jan. 27.
He was also named to the MaxPreps 2013 All-Northern California and All-Sac-Joaquin Section first teams.
Gardner was voted Western Athletic Conference MVP.
One of five finalists, Ja'Quan was named Stanislaus County's top male high school athlete by Modesto's Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club on Wednesday.
"I wouldn't change the way I did anything," he said. "It's an honor to be recognized for all the hard work I've put in. It puts our school on the map. It's pretty cool. It doesn't get old. It's a new feeling every time."
A once-in-a-generation type of player, Gardner works just as hard in the classroom.
"Will I ever see another Ja'Quan Gardner?" McCloskey pondered. "Maybe if he has kids."