My high school career got off to a slow start at Orange Lutheran High School, but I understood that my time would come.

At Olu, we had a great freshman football team.  I knew that I would be on varsity as a sophomore, and things would be headed in the right direction. Jim Kunau was a legendary coach in the area, who by the end of my freshman season had a career record of 182-52-3. Once I could learn the game under him, I felt I would start to get attention from recruiters.

Then randomly in the spring of my freshman year, he was let go. And the guy they brought in was from Air Force, where they ran the triple option. While I'm sure he was a terrific coach, he did not believe in passing the ball.  I knew that I wasn't going to get any scholarship offers by pitching the ball in an option offense. My teammates knew it too.

We all scattered..., Jaylinn Hawkins went to Buena Park, and Equanimeous St. Brown - or Nimi, as we liked to call him - went to Servite. I went to Tesoro High School in Mission Viejo. The team had a three-year starter, and so I decided to wait my time. Again.

Then after the season ended, before I got a chance to play for their coach as a junior, he got fired too. It was like history repeating itself. I wouldn't say I hit the panic button, but I knew at this point that I was starting to run out of time. Some players get recruited as freshman, but by your sophomore year, you should definitely be starting to gain the attention of some recruiters.

Since the administration at Tesoro was floundering on hiring a new coach, I decided to take a huge chance on myself -  I transferred to Long Beach Polytechnic High School (Poly). The school had produced more NFL players than any other school in the country (over 60) and when I got there, they had another future star in JuJu Smith-Schuster. I felt I needed stability in the program with Coach Lara, who was the head coach there for years.

If you ever have a chance at a scholarship, I thought, this is the place where it's going to happen.

 
 

(Before I ever played at Oregon, I had a long road in front of me)

Transferring to Long Beach was like opening my eyes up to the real world. Orange County is one of the wealthiest areas in the country, and one of the least diverse. When I got to Long Beach, I was one of only a couple of white kids on the team, and for the first time in my life I got a real understanding of the struggles other people go through.

I've never seen people work as hard as my teammates did there.  I learned how to get along with people of all cultures, and that no matter what people look like on the outside, we are all children of God.  I will never forget the culture there at Poly. The students and faculty were real. I made good friends with my teammates and other students.  I cherish the memories and friendships I made from Poly. I thank God for the opportunity to have experienced this in my life.

Of course, there was still the matter of actually playing football.

In my opinion, I emerged from fall camp as the best quarterback on the team, but I was not placed as the team’s starter.  Poly was coming off a CIF title the year before, which is like a state title in other parts of the country, and the head coach was loyal to his  senior quarterback returning from the previous season. Coach Lara made sure I would never start as a junior - I later realized how detrimental this would be for my recruiting.

The situation couldn't have been more awkward. We started the season against Crenshaw, and our team struggled to pull out a win. The coach put me in for a few throws to get my feet wet, but in those couple of passes I threw our team's first touchdown of the game, even though I had not started the game. That wasn't enough to get me the starting job, but in the second game our starter struggled once again. We were playing Servite, ironically against my old teammate Equanimeous (Nimi), and after our offense got off to another slow start, the coach brought me in off the bench.

I led the team on multiple scoring drives, but instead of emerging as the starter, I found myself in a manufactured quarterback controversy.

Page 1 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5

Thomas Hager