Terry Donahue’s presence was felt at the California Showcase – Orange County Register

The California Showcase, the annual free one-day suit for underdog high school and college football players looking to play at the next level, was Terry Donahue’s baby.

He felt it was as important to his legacy as his winning and losing record for 20 years as head football coach at UCLA, as important as having the Rose Bowl pavilion named in his honor, as important as any of the many other honors he received.

“Football has been very good for me and my family,” he used to say. “It’s a way for me to give something back to a game that I love.”

In 2011, Donahue discovered the showcase concept, founded by a Houston high school coach named Phil Camp in 2008. Camp created a small-scale showcase because he believed an all-state guard on his team, overlooked by Division I schools, could play at a Division II, III, or NAIA school.

Donahue, assisted by his younger brother Pat and others, as well as sponsors and the National Football Foundation, took the concept west and expanded it. The first two editions of the California Showcase were held at the StubHub Center in Carson in 2013 and 2014. Then the site moved to its current location, Orange County Great Park in Irvine.

The ninth California showcase, after a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic, resumed its course last weekend, with more than 300 attendees pursuing their dreams of playing college football – and earning a college degree from four years.

There were the usual morning drills conducted by most former college and professional football stars. Former players who donated their time included Frank Stephens, Cade McNown, John Sciarra, Paco Craig, Matt Stevens, Michael Young and Wayne Cook.

Former Bishop Amat, UCLA and Philadelphia Eagle quarterback John Sciarra pay special attention to one of the combine attendees at the California Showcase on Saturday, February 12, 2022, at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. (Photo by Larry Stewart)

It is now called the Terry Donahue Memorial California Showcase. The presence of Donahue, who died on July 4 after a long battle with cancer, was felt throughout the day on Saturday.

The start was a moving and beautiful speech about her father by Michele Donahue Hull, who was there with her mother Andrea and her two sisters and their families.

“My dad has coached a lot of very successful athletes in his career,” Donahue Hull, 46, told the gathering of young men. “He has accompanied his players through the ups and downs of football and life. If he were here today he would walk up to each of you, look you straight in the eye, reach out and say: “Terry Donahue, UCLA”.

Donahue Hull, just like his dad, then walked up to three attendees, offered them a firm handshake, and said, “Terry Donahue, UCLA.”

After the morning drills, the players met with coaches and representatives from around 60 small colleges.

As the proceedings drew to a close, Michele’s older sister, Nicole Donahue Ianni, was spotted talking to two young men from Gardena High.

Giving them a “chasing your dreams” speech, Donahue Ianni said his father, after graduating from UCLA, drove the family car from Los Angeles to Lawrence, Kansas, in search of an unpaid coaching position under Pepper Rodgers at the University of Kansas. The thing is, Terry Donahue was determined to succeed and do whatever it took.

The two young men listened intently, then, before walking away, said, “Thank you.”

Donahue Ianni then turned to a reporter and said, “You know, I think I’ve heard the words ‘Thank you’ more today than at any other time in my life. With everything going on in our society today, the politeness of these young men restores your faith in the future of our country.

Wayne Cook’s wife Sue, one of the many volunteers working at the event, also commented on the politeness of the players.

Wayne, in addition to working on UCLA football radio shows, is an eighth grade teacher at Temecula. Sue Cook teaches third grade.

Wayne invited Showcase alumni Chasen Gempler and Zach Hunter to this year’s event. The two have been close friends since playing for Temecula’s Chaparral High — Gempler as a quarterback and Hunter as a linebacker — and attending the 2014 event in Carson.

California Showcase alumni Chasen Gempler and Zach Hunter of Temecula served as volunteers at the California Showcase on Saturday, February 12, 2022 at Orange County Great Park in Irvine. (Photo by Larry Stewart)

Gempler, who played at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif., before transferring to Kansas Wesleyan, is now a coach and special education teacher at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix.

Hunter, a Western graduate, among other things plays professional football from May to October in Paderborn, Germany. He plans to eventually become a coach.

When asked what the California Showcase meant to them, they simultaneously replied, “Everything!”

Another alumnus in attendance Saturday was Isai Fernandez, a former San Gabriel High wide receiver and defensive back who attended California’s inaugural Showcase in 2013. This earned Fernandez a scholarship to Saint Mary’s University, a school NAIA in Leavenworth, Kansas. He earned a degree in psychology.

Fernandez was there Saturday representing Santa Ana College, where he is the football team’s receivers coach. He also works as a campus supervisor at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton.

“California Showcase gave me a platform that allowed me to continue playing football and also get a college education,” Fernandez said.

Pat Donahue, younger brother of Terry Donahue, addresses players at the California Showcase Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, at Orange County Great Park in Irvine. (Photo by Larry Stewart)

Pat Donahue, who addressed the players after morning drills much like his older brother, pointed out that each Showcase costs $200,000 to run. He said the money came from more than a dozen sponsors, including Bank of America, Toyota, Rockefeller Capital Management and Enterprise.

Event coordinators Norm Anderson and Bob Field also addressed the players. Another speaker was Charger Guard Matt Feiler. He told his story about coming to Bloomsburg University, a Division II school in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. His journey includes being cut as a freshman in high school, not being drafted after graduating with a history degree from Bloomsburg in 2014, being cut by the Houston Texans, playing six seasons for the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and now leaving for the Chargers. He is in the middle of a three-year, $15 million contract. He encouraged the players to stay focused no matter what.

The players, as usual, came from afar.

Christian Canales, a four-year starter defensive lineman, made the long drive from Strathmore, a small farming community in Tulare County. He was accompanied by his father and younger sister.

Strathmore High is a small school powerhouse in the San Joaquin Valley. In 2017, Strathmore defeated Orange High to win a lower division state championship and finish 16-0.

Last season, Canales had 48 tackles and five sacks for a team that finished 11-1.

Asked about his reaction to the showcase, Canales, who has a 3.9 GPA and wants to major in business, said: “It was even more exciting than I thought. And everyone was very polite. I really enjoyed getting to know some of the other players and working with the staff coaches.

On Saturday, Calvin Toliver, the new head coach of Rockford University, a Division III school in Rockford, Ill., had his eye on Canales during practices. When Toliver met Canales in the afternoon meeting sessions, the coach told the player he was impressed with what he had seen.

The next day, Canales received an offer from Toliver.

Another small-school player who was impressive in morning practices was quarterback Julian Martinez, a three-year-old starter at Big Bear High.

Among the big local school players was quarterback Isaiah Dunn of St. Paul High in Santa Fe Springs, who completed 169 of 245 passes for 2,342 yards and 26 touchdowns last season.

Towards the end of the day, Dunn, who has a 4.0 GPA, said, “This event opens up opportunities and provides a great way to get your name out there. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but now I have so many other options to consider.

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