Third time’s the charm

— Brent Uberty

The old saying goes: The third time’s the charm. Such has been the case for Utah running back Devontae Booker.

In the second quarter of his first game, Booker swung outside and cut through the Idaho State defense for a 38-yard touchdown. It was his first Division-I touchdown, in his first Division-I game, but playing on the third Division-I team he has signed with.

Booker’s talent has always gotten him noticed, and that has been the case ever since he first walked onto a field.

“When he first started playing, he was playing flag football,” Devontae’s father, Ronnie Booker, said. “He was so much more talented than the other kids that the coaches would say, ‘We have to take him out of the game because he is scoring too many touchdowns.’ ”

House calls have always been common for the Utah co-starter. As a senior at Grant Union High School in Sacramento, Calif., Booker scored 45 touchdowns. In his last season at junior college American River College, he led his conference with 15 scores.

Even with hundreds of touchdowns to his name, Booker remembers his first.

“I played QB at Pop Warner, nobody probably knows that I can play quarterback, but I can play quarterback,” Booker said. “The play was about 4th-and-18 and we ran a play action boot, and I took it 85 yards to the house. I think it was my first carry of the game.”

Booker’s Pop Warner days took place in his hometown, Sacramento. His father described the neighborhood as one filled with crime and gangs, though he was quick to add that it has gotten better over the years. Even growing up in that environment, Booker stayed away from trouble. That was partly because of his friends, partly because of his family and partly because of football.

“My older brothers always had a football around,” Devontae said. “I picked it up at the age of four and just fell in love with it.”

Devontae’s closest brother in age is six years older than him. This forced the Ute tailback to play with kids much bigger than he was.

“He had no choice but to always play with older kids,” Ronnie Booker said. “Maybe that made him turn out to be as good as he is, because he had to be better to play with the older kids.”

So how good is Booker?

His senior year in high school he rushed for 2,884 yards and 45 touchdowns, becoming NorCalPreps.com Division I Player of the Year. During his junior year, he led Grant Union to the 2008 CIF State Open Division state title, and while at American River, Booker became a first-team all-Valley Conference in 2012, leading the conference in rushing yards per game and touchdowns.

Though Booker excelled at American River, it was never in his plans.

“Once I first started playing football, I always wanted to play for a big time D-I school, and as I got older chances started getting good,” Booker said.

Booker signed with Washington State straight out of high school, but he never got on campus. According to Booker, he didn’t receive a high enough score on his SAT, and the Cougars pulled his scholarship.

A few weeks later, Booker passed the SAT and signed with Fresno State, but yet again, problems arose.

There was a deadline to turn paperwork into the clearing house, and the school didn’t submit Booker’s until after the deadline, so he was automatically marked as a non-qualifier.

Booker’s father remembers the situation.

“I got a phone call on that Monday, and he was supposed to leave that Tuesday,” he said. “And they said there was a problem, and he just went ballistic there. He was pretty hurt and said ‘forget it’ and gave up [trying to get into Fresno State]. When he got that information he was devastated. So he sat out a year.”

Booker’s father said his son’s struggle to find a school to attend is not an uncommon one in the area. The kids there are talented, but their grades get in the way of success.

“Me personally, I stayed on Devontae about his grades,” Ronnie Booker said. “He had me to help him and at points and times when I would say, ‘No you can’t play ball with your friends, you’ve got your homework. It doesn’t matter how good you are physically. All the God-given talent you have doesn’t mean anything if you can’t read or write.’ ”

At the recommendation of a friend, Booker enrolled at American River, and a year after his struggle to get to college he was back where he belonged — on a football field.

Even with the success he had in JC, Booker knew he was good enough to be in the backfield of a much bigger school.

“As everything kept going on, I’m like, ‘Am I every going to be at that level?’ ” Booker said. “I just continued to fight because this is where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to play D-II or D-III ball. I’m a D-I player, and I wanted to be with the best of the best.”

Booker had a training partner that helped steer him towards Utah. In the offseason, former Ute receiver, and Booker’s fellow Grant Union High alum, Paris Warren trained with Devontae and according to Booker’s father always talked about how great Utah was.

Since coming to the Beehive State, Devontae has worked himself up head coach Kyle Whittingham’s depth chart, being named co-starter with Bubba Poole this past Monday. Through two games, Booker has impressed, gaining 145 yard on just 20 carries for a stellar 7.3 yards per carry.

Even with the good start, Booker told his father he doesn’t believe he’s been able to show all he can do in the backfield. It’s in those times the elder Booker has some words of advice for his son.

“There’s always some kid that’s bigger, stronger, faster and has just as much talent as you, if not more,” Ronnie Booker told him. “So you’re going to have to wait your turn, and eventually it will come. It will come because you have a gift. But just because you’re a star in high school or a star in junior college doesn’t mean you’ll be a star in D-I. You wait your turn, though, and your time will come.”

With his new promotion to co-lead back, that time might just be now, but don’t expect Booker’s success to go to his head.

“He’s been a very humble child,” Ronnie Booker said. “His brothers mention playing in the NFL, but Devontae has never mentioned that. Some kids feel they’re gifted and get a little arrogant, but he has never been that way, ever. He mentions like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I got drafted and made enough money for you and mom?’ but that’s it.”

Booker’s ambitions aren’t just growing on the football field. After fighting through classroom issues to finally get on a D-I squad, Booker may have larger educational goals now that he is there.

Booker’s father received a call from his son and was asked a question that surprised him.

“He called me and said, ‘Hey, dad what classes do you have to take to become a doctor?’ ” Ronnie Booker said. “And I was like, ‘Where is that coming from?’ ”

Devontae responded, “I want my degree in business, but I might be having a change of heart.”

Devontae said the failed attempts to play D-I ball left him hoping for better, brighter days. After two games in a Utes uniform, those days have come. The third time was indeed the charm.

r.miller@chronicle.utah.edu

@millerjryan

Read more here: http://www.dailyutahchronicle.com/2014/09/12/third-times-the-charm/
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