It was just about this time last spring that a new name mysteriously popped up on Vanderbilt's football roster. Word filtered quickly out of spring practice that the first touchdown in a controlled Bobby Johnson-era scrimmage was scored not by a scholarship player, but by a compact, quick-as-a-blink walk-on tailback by the name of Jason Bourque.
Just picture, if you will, Bobby Johnson trying hard to contain a smirk the day Bourque walked into McGugin Center to request a tryout. Sure, Bourque had been an All-Parish running back and linebacker at St. Thomas More High School in Lafayette, La.-- but the fact is, there just aren't too many 5-foot-7 players playing SEC football.
Bourque hadn't played football in three years, but still harbored a burning desire to try it once more. Sometime during his junior year at Vanderbilt, he came to the realization that his chances to play football again were about to run out.
"I realized I was going into my senior year in college, and it was the last opportunity I was going to get to play any kind of sports," said Bourque. "I always knew I had a good shot at playing, so I just decided I wanted to do it. I started working out, and made the team."
Making the team was one thing. But with tailbacks ahead of him like Ronald Hatcher, Norval McKenzie, and talented freshmen Kwane Doster and Matthew Tant, the odds seemed stacked against Bourque ever seeing the field in a game.
But then came an almost unbelievable series of injuries. When Hatcher and McKenzie both went down early in 2002 with season-ending injuries, Doster was elevated to the starter's position, and Bourque suddenly assumed an important role as the backup.
The 2002 season was quite a ride for Bourque. He made his college debut in the win over Furman, and managed to reel off a 13-yard gain. At Georgia, he carried the ball nine times in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach, and picked up 33 yards and a couple of first downs. He made similar appearances in the Alabama and Kentucky games, but in each case it was only after the game was decided.
Then came the season finale vs. Tennessee. The week before, starter Kwane Doster, who had stayed healthy all season, suffered a crippling ankle injury, and Matthew Tant was battling a nagging back problem. Bourque, the top tailback left on the roster besides Tant (who doubled as the starting fullback), took all the reps at tailback in practice that week.
In the game against Vanderbilt's biggest rival, he ended up with five carries, including another nice-looking 13-yard gain. Yes, some will remember that he had his clock cleaned by the Vols' Jonathan Mitchell on the play after the big gain, and fumbled on contact.
But hey, who'd have expected a guy like Bourque even to be in this situation?
Vanderbilt fans have learned that you just don't ever want to underestimate the diminutive Bourque. Five-foot-7 is his listing in the media guide-- and that's probably being very generous. But what the Commodores' mighty mite lacks in size, he makes up for with an amazing burst of quickness. And as a former power-lifter who finished second in the state competition in high school, Bourque is pound-for-pound one of the strongest players on the team.
Bourque also became semi-famous last season for his tumbling ability.
"That's something I've been doing since I was a little kid," he said. "Some of the coaches found out that I used to be a good tumbler, so one Friday after we did our walkthrough [at the stadium], they asked me to do a tumbling pass to get the team fired up."
It seemed to inspire the players so much that the coaches asked him to do it the night before every game. "It kind of became a tradition," he said. Bourque's spirited series of cartwheels and somersaults before the Alabama game was captured by ESPN's cameras and featured as part of "The Season," a TV special on the Commodores.
How does he manage the pressures of being a big-time student-athlete at a big-time academic school?
"It's obviously been pretty hard, but I've always been good at managing my time," says Bourque, who plans to graduate in May with a Chemistry major and a 3.9 academic average. "It's really not that big of a deal."
Next fall Bourque will compete as a fifth-year senior in eligibility. With spring practice well underway, the tailback position has again been stocked with impressive candidates. Doster, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year, is back. So are Hatcher, McKenzie and Tant, as well as Ian Gaines and redshirt freshman Ron Bullock-- scholarship players all. With that much competition, you wouldn't expect a 5-7 walk-on to see much action, would you?
But based on what Bourque has already accomplished as a Commodore, you wouldn't want to bet against it.
(Photo of Jason Bourque by Brent Wiseman for VandyMania.)