A.J. Jenkins stood before the gathered crowd and talked about the opportunities afforded him thanks to his time at Merced College.
The former All-American linebacker’s story is a familiar one. A tremendous talent that somehow slipped through the four-year school cracks coming out of high school, but seized their opportunity at the JC level. Jenkins shined as a Blue Devil, earning a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton and ultimately being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Though their paths to and from Merced varied, that appreciation for the doors that the College helped open was a constant theme in the speeches of the seven former athletes that were enshrined into the Merced College Hall of Fame on Saturday, Oct. 7 at Don Reid Court.
Jenkins was joined by Clark Bird (aquatics), Brooke Eisner (aquatics), Pat Fuentes (baseball), Dan McIlhatton (aquatics), Calvin Roberts (basketball) and Rataya Williams (basketball) as the fifth class to be inducted since the Hall of Fame got going in 2013.
“What we’ve always known is that we’re life changers,” Merced College athletic director Steve Cassady said. “I don’t mean we as in you and I, but the experiences that our athletes have here. We become stewards and missionaries to make sure people move on. “Look at our two water polo guys, Clark Bird and Danny McIlhatton. They grew up and had no idea what was next. They play college water polo and all of a sudden the world opens up for them. They go on and become life-long water polo people that have had tremendous influence on the community here.”
Just under 200 people gathered together at Don Reid Court to enjoy a meal and celebrate some of the most decorated athletes in school history. It was a nice mix of the current Merced College athletics community as well as a number of former coaches, athletes and their families.
“The crowd was on par with what we’ve had,” Cassady said. “We prepared for about 200 people more or less. Two hundred excited people makes for a fun evening.
“People enjoy the meal and the speeches, but honestly, it’s the mingling and the reunions that really make it such a special evening.”
Nobody had more former teammates to catch up with than basketball great Roberts. Seven different members from the 1977-78 state championship team, including current women’s basketball coach Allen Huddleston, made it out. Cassady and company are hoping for even more next year, when the Merced College Hall of Fame will honor the 40-year anniversary of the men’s basketball, baseball and football teams all capturing state titles within the same calendar year.
While that promises to be quite an evening, the 2017 dinner will be difficult to top.
“The inductees were very enthusiastic and all seemed to have a good time,” Cassady said. “As the wall starts to fill a little bit and they see their plaques up there with the inductees that came before them, you can see the excitement.
“Brooke Eisner, for example, had a lot of emotional aspects to her speech. And Leslie Jackson, who came up and spoke extemporaneously on her behalf, you could tell the moment got to them. We had everybody go up in chronological order, but Brooke’s speech was probably the best possible way to end the night.”