Terry Donahue’s legacy helps young football players

IRVINE — These are trying times for high school seniors planning to extend their football playing careers. Transfer portals, which make it easier for players to move from one school to another, have been around since 2018. Now the best players can capitalize financially on their names, images and likenesses (now commonly called NIL), and the havoc that may create is still unknown.

Recruits, more than anything else, want to go to a school where they have the best chance of playing right away. With rosters continually changing, decisions become more difficult.

Such uncertainty brought players like Manaia Ala, who competed in the ultra-tough Trinity League, to the Terry Donahue Memorial California Showcase high school football combine Saturday at the vast Great Park recreation area in Irvine.

The all-league safety for Orange Lutheran High has offers from such Division I colleges as Arizona State, Miami, and Florida State. But he can’t look at a roster and say to himself, “That’s where I have a chance to play right away.” Because that roster likely will be changing.

“I came here to expand my options,” Ala said.

Ala, like others among Saturday’s several hundred participants from throughout California, praised all aspects of the combine. That includes morning drills to afternoon sessions with coaches and recruiters representing Division II, Division III and NAIA schools from all over the country. Local junior colleges were also represented.

This was the 10th showcase combine, now named in honor of its founder, the legendary UCLA football coach who died from cancer at age 77 on July 4, 2021. It is a one-day free event in which participants get advice, instruction and tips during the morning drills from “staff coaches,” who are former college and NFL players, as well as current and former coaches at all levels.

The first showcase combine was held in Houston, and now there are several at various locations around the country. The initial idea was to give high school seniors bypassed by Division I schools a chance to find a lower-level school where they can continue their playing careers. But it seems to be evolving into more than that.

Any high school senior is eligible to sign up through the website, no matter his plans.

Take, for example, Gavin Rogers, a Division 8 All-CIF quarterback at Crean Lutheran High, a school of less than 1,000 students in Irvine. Rogers threw 38 touchdown passes with only three interceptions last season. He plans on attending Saddleback College, the two-year school in Mission Viejo. But that isn’t locked in.

“I figured, why not come out and see what is offered?” he said. “Everything about this is great. I learned a lot, and I also got to meet a lot of famous football players.”

The staff coaches Saturday included two of UCLA’s best-ever quarterbacks, All-Americans Cade McNown and John Sciarra. Here is a trivia tidbit Sciarra offered.

In his first UCLA game as a freshman in 1972, he made some key plays as a safety and kick returner to help UCLA knock off No. 1-ranked Nebraska, the defending national champion. The game was played at the Coliseum, then UCLA’s home field. Mark Harmon was the quarterback in that 20-17 victory. Then in his last UCLA game as senior, he was the quarterback when the Bruins knocked off Woody Hayes and No. 1-ranked Ohio State in the 1976 Rose Bowl Game. The Bruins, heavy underdogs, beat the Buckeyes, 23-10, and Sciarra was named the game’s outstanding player.

Pretty good bookends to Sciarra’s UCLA career.

Sciarra later played for the Philadelphia Eagles for six seasons (1978-83) as a safety and punt returner. The Eagles went to one Super Bowl during that time, losing to the Oakland Raiders, 26-10, in 1981. Sciarra’s coach at both UCLA and the Eagles was Dick Vermeil.

Another staff coach Saturday was James Washington, who starred in two Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys in 1994 and ’95. Both games were victories over the Buffalo Bills. In the second game, Washington returned a fumble 48 yards for a touchdown, caused a fumble that resulted in a touchdown, and had an interception. He was a close second in the MVP voting to running back Emmitt Smith.

One of James Washington’s four children, Ryan, 25, was also a staff coach Saturday. Ryan Washington, a quarterback at La Habra High in 2015, is a California Showcase alum. He ended up at the University of La Verne, got a degree in education and is now well on his way to a successful coaching career. His sister Kinsley Washington, who knocked in the winning run for the UCLA softball team in the 2019 championship game, is now on her way to becoming a certified public accountant.

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Other staff coaches Saturday included massive UCLA offensive linemen Kris Farris and Andy Meyers. Farris, named the 1998 Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s top interior lineman, had his pro career cut short by a series of injuries. Meyers, a teammate of Farris’, was an all-conference lineman for UCLA who played for the Buffalo Bills, but he is best known for his philanthropy. He and his wife Shannon donated $1 million toward the construction of UCLA’s new football training center.

Another former Bruin there Saturday was wide receiver Michael Young, whose 10-year NFL career involved stints with the Rams, Broncos, Eagles and Chiefs.

The combine is now spearheaded by Terry Donahue’s young brother Pat and former Donahue assistant coaches Bob Field and Norm Anderson. Everyone involved, including the staff coaches, are unpaid volunteers. But it still takes about $200,000 to put one of these on. Costs include hotel rooms and a Friday night banquet for visiting recruiters and special guests at an Irvine Doubletree Hotel.

“This is a non-profit in association with the National Football Foundation and financed solely through sponsorships and personal donations,” Pat Donahue said. “Our sponsors include the Rose Bowl and the L.A. Chargers. Donations can be made through our website.”

The organizers say that since 2013, this event has drawn more than 4,000 participants, with 1,080 making rosters at 93 four-year colleges in 27 states. Nearly $40 million in scholarships and financial aid has been handed out. The average is $31,000 per year, which amounts to $124,000 over four years.

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