Where are they now? Sparks shares his lessons

DEREK SPARKS REMAINS one of the most decorated prep athletes to ever sign with Washington State. Back in 1991, when he inked his letter of intent with Mike Price, Sparks was just the third "Best in the West" recruit the Cougs had signed since the Long Beach Press-Telegram began publishing its coveted prospect list 15 years earlier.

The others were Spokane quarterback Mark Rypien in 1981 and Yakima linebacker Kyle Foye in '89.

Sparks' football future looked boundless at the time.

Indeed, after capping a chaotic high school career at California football power Mater Dei, Sparks thought Pullman simply would be the next step en route to a successful NFL career.

But injuries, requiring six surgeries, derailed his plans. So Sparks had to forge a new path in life and find new dreams. It's a journey – and life lesson -- that he shares everyday with the young people he now works with as a counselor at South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard.

Sparks also is on D.J. Sigurdson's South Kitsap football staff, where he serves as running backs coach for the Wolves.

In a recent interview with Cougfan.com, Sparks said he relies heavily on his playing experience when advising students, both on and off the field.

"Sports prepare you to be successful in life," said Sparks, who lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters. "It allowed me to have a career and a family."

He has read the stories about former athletes who have failed to find their way once football is over.

"Life without an education is pretty harsh," said Sparks, who earned a business degree at WSU.

Sparks is accustomed to making transitions. As an adolescent, he dreamed of donning UCLA's powder-blue and gold. But he had a messy transfer from Montclair Prep, where he played as a junior, to Mater Dei in the fall of 1990. He alleged the Van Nuys, Calif., school lowered his grades and misrepresented his academic standing to college scouts after he and his cousin, Leland Sparks, left.

Just months after graduating from Mater Dei, Sparks sued Montclair Prep for $40 million. The lawsuit was settled out of court, and Sparks was awarded an annuity -- terms of the settlement prevented him from disclosing the amount -- to be paid throughout his lifetime.

He's used some of the proceeds to make donations to Mater Dei, his fraternity at WSU and "GAMETIME," a youth organization based in Seattle that strives to mentor sports activities and provide scholarship opportunities.

"Football was everything for me and it still is," he said. "It's provided a lot of opportunities for me. I was the first person in the history of my family to graduate from college, and to leave. When I was growing up, no one ever went anywhere. Everyone stayed in this kind of dead-end town. When I got this gleam of light, I never looked back."

Sparks chronicled his time at Montclair Prep and other experiences in high school in the 1999 book "Lessons of the Game: The Betrayal of an All-American Football Star," that he wrote with Stuart K. Robinson.

"He's worked through all types of adversity, and he just keeps coming back and coming back," said Mike Price when the book came out. "He's used his experience to deliver something positive."

Sparks said the book doesn't just focus on sports. He writes about being raised as an only child by a single mother and not knowing his father.

"That ghost haunts you for a long time even when you're an adult," he said. "What was wrong with me and why wasn't I good enough? I think a lot of young people write me and talk about those non-athletic challenges. I feel blessed I was able to tell that story."

Sparks was raised in Wharton, a small town outside of Houston, but relocated when his uncle sent game footage to coaches at Banning High School in Los Angeles, his first stop in California. He discussed replacing "a known Crip" as the starting fullback en route to becoming the state's sophomore player of the year.

"I pretty much had keys to the school and tuition paid," said Sparks, adding that he has had discussions with ESPN about a made-for-TV movie. "It was a turbulent time as a prized athlete."

AFTER HIS MESSY TRANSFER to Mater Dei and the "hired gun" label that had been very publicly slapped on him, UCLA and USC lost interest in Sparks. But his smooth, yet powerful running style garnered him national attention from the recruiting analysts of that era.

He narrowed his college choices to Arkansas, Illinois and WSU.

When Ted Williams, who previously coached at UCLA and developed a relationship with Sparks, was hired by Price, the Cougs had the inside track. Both Sparks and his cousin Leland Sparks signed with WSU.

"That kind of sealed the deal from me," Sparks said. "I felt like Pullman was a good place for me."

The 5-foot-11 running back gained 234 yards on 69 carries as a sophomore and was expected to replace Shaumbe Wright-Fair in 1993. But Sparks missed that season after an initial operation on his left shoulder revealed extensive damage. More injuries followed and he spent more time on the bench than in the lineup.

He said his favorite playing experiences were winning the 1992 Copper Bowl against Utah and the '94 Alamo Bowl versus Baylor in which he carried the ball eight times for 20 yards.

"My college career wasn't quite what I wanted because of injuries," said Sparks, who retired from football when he injured his right knee in training camp with the San Francisco 49ers. "But I always tell these guys that you have to make sure you prepare yourself to do something else."

Sparks did that after graduating from WSU, working with the Associated General Contractors Education Foundation and later at Olympic College.

A Cougar connection then brought Sparks to South Kitsap High.

The school's career and technical education director, Dr. Thomas Mosby, worked on Price's staff when Sparks played for the Cougs.

"We interacted with him (Sparks) through a couple of different organizations and we saw the presence he commanded with students," said Mosby. "They gravitated toward his message."

Among them is South Kitsap senior running back Robert Issa.

"It's actually really cool to play for someone with all that experience," Issa said. "We know he brings a lot of stuff we've never been taught before."

And Sparks has some advice when adolescents ask about his playing days and their own prospects.

"They turn on the TV and see John Madden and the glamour," Sparks said. "Have a healthy reality about what you want to do. It's tough trying to reach that pinnacle of sports.

"It's OK to have that dream, but make sure you're realistic and are willing to pay the price."

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