Sitting at home in Auburn, Calif., Greg Denham was a 17-year-old with dreams.
He dreamt of glorifying God on the football field. He dreamt of leading his team to championships. He dreamt of playing in the NFL.
There was just one problem: Denham was sitting at home.
In a non-contact offseason drill leading up to his all-important junior year, the Placer High quarterback suffered a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
“Your junior year is crucial – it’s the year you send in your film and get evaluated [by college coaches], and I tore my ACL,” Denham said. “I had a huge, horrible bone contusion, and my doctor told me, ‘You’re not going to play this season.’ I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I have to play.'”
So he sat up and played, passing for 1,507 yards and 10 touchdowns while wearing a brace around his knee. Shortly after the season, Denham tore his ACL completely in another non-contact drill and had to have surgery. But by that point, he had film to show college coaches.
Fifty miles away, UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs’ phone rang.
It was Greg Denham, Sr.
“Yeah, he called me out of the blue,” Biggs said. “It’s a funny story. His dad called me when Greg was a junior. I didn’t know the first thing about Greg, and I told Pastor Denham at the time, ‘I don’t know anything about him. Why don’t you send me some film?’ And then I watched some film and said, ‘Geez, this guy can play.'”
The workout Denham had for the Aggie coaching staff left a similar impression.
“The first time we ever saw him on film, Coach Biggs and myself knew he was special,” said Rich Scangarello, UC Davis quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. “The first time we ever saw him in person, the two of us turned to each other and said, ‘He reminds us of John Elway or a guy you’d see in the NFL.’
“He’s a fluid passer. He has a natural motion, and it’s what sets him apart. That’s what you can’t teach. Guys are born with that gift, and Greg has the pure passer gift. If you watch the great ones – [Joe] Montana, Tom Brady – the game is effortless.”
By his senior year, many colleges had seen Denham’s tape and were recruiting him, including Pacific-10 Conference schools such as Arizona State, California and Washington.
He decided to choose the school he felt wanted him most, the one where he could develop both on the field and off of it.
In the fall of 2005, Denham committed early to UC Davis.
Three years later, he has arrived.
On Saturday, Denham will conclude his first year as a starter when the Aggies travel to San Diego to face the Toreros. The sophomore has thrown for 300-plus yards in each of his past four games, and he ranks fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision with 3,044 passing yards.
But it’s not what Denham has done this season that is turning heads. It’s what he dreams to do.
“I want to win a national championship,” Denham said. “You’ve got to start with game-by-game, but I want to make the playoffs, I want to win a national championship. I think I should shoot for the top, you know?
“And my whole life, I’ve had aspirations of going to the NFL, and I thought UC Davis would be a great way to teach you the game -good environment, good school. You just learn about the game of football. It’s just a great place for quarterbacks.”
Denham knows his history.
UC Davis has a track record of putting quarterbacks in professional football leagues, including Ken O’Brien (NFL), Mark Grieb (AFL), Khari Jones (CFL), Kevin Daft (NFL) and J.T. O’Sullivan (NFL).
Mike Moroski, the Aggies’ offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, was drafted in the sixth round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Biggs played in the CFL and WFL and spent time in Denver Broncos training camp.
Denham’s dreams don’t stop with a national title and NFL roster spot.
“I want to be a good teammate, a good role model for kids,” Denham said. “I want to make not only a difference on the football field but in life and be a good representation of what a Christian should be.”
When UC Davis’ season ends Saturday, Denham will be given the chance to run down his dreams.
Biggs and Scangarello have both targeted this offseason as the time when Denham must fine-tune his skills and progress toward his potential.
For the two coaches, Denham makes for an easy student.
“He’s got a real hunger and passion,” Biggs said. “He really wants to learn the game. He really wants to understand defenses. He wants to learn leverages and shades and all the little things. He wants to be a complete player.
“[The offseason] is just an opportunity to grow into that position. He’ll be watching a lot of film. He’ll be working out in the weight room, working on his agility and all those things.”
Denham’s time in the film room will include studying Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and the other quarterback greats.
Hours upon hours spent watching football on tape in a dark room would put some people to sleep, make them dream off into space.
Denham will be wide awake, but like the 17-year-old sitting back home in Auburn with one good knee, he will be dreaming.
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.