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Sparks Feels It’s His Turn to Shine at Washington State : Football: Running back whose controversial career took him to four high schools has overcome three shoulder surgeries.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Derek Sparks was issued a red Washington State practice jersey last week. You would have thought he’d been handed the Heisman Trophy.

“There was a lot of hard work in getting that jersey,” Sparks said. “When they gave it to me, I started getting excited. I was ready to get in there and hit. I felt strong again.”

Seems like a small step for one who danced so brazenly through a four-year odyssey of a high school career. But for Sparks, a junior running back, it was a symbol.

No longer would he carry the stigma of that yellow shirt, the one injured players are required to wear. No longer would he be damaged goods. No more would he be a bundle of unfulfilled promises.

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That red jersey was big man, big .

With it, returned the old Derek Sparks. After two years, three shoulder surgeries and a number of unanswered questions, he was back, talking tough and playing rough.

“I’m not hesitant at all about getting hit,” Sparks said. “I’m looking forward to that first contact. I’m ready to go. I just want to get two-a-days over with and then I’ll set some goals for myself.”

Time passes quickly, even in Pullman, Wash. A mere four years ago, Sparks was the most controversial high school football player in Southern California.

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He was hot property long before college recruiters began circling.

Sparks attended four high schools in as many years, one in Texas, and nearly reduced one football program to rubble. He finished at Mater Dei, where he helped the Monarchs reach the Southern Section Division I semifinals.

But Sparks then vanished at Washington State. He had a solid freshman season; he was being groomed to be the Cougars’ workhorse. But the shoulder injury changed that.

It’s tough to carry a load when you’re a burden yourself. Sparks underwent two surgeries last year and missed the entire season.

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“That was the worst time in my life,” Sparks said. “I had to wonder if the man upstairs was saying, ‘Kid you got to find something else.’ But I kept my faith and here I am today.”

Today, he’s at the top of the chart. Sparks is currently the Cougars’ starting tailback, and that’s written in stone, barring further injury. Cougar coaches already know his value.

Sparks’ size, now 5 feet 11, 228 pounds, and speed have always been an attractive package and he delivered as a freshman.

“I’ve seen very few freshmen who were as ready to play college football as Derek,” Cougar Coach Mike Price said. “He was mature and he was strong.”

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The latter was the reason Sparks gained 269 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry his first season. He spent the year as a caddie to Shaumbe Wright-Fair, the Cougars’ junior running back, but when asked to take the leading role, Sparks shined.

In a junior varsity game, he gained 267 yards in 18 carries and scored five touchdowns. That may seem less impressive, being a JV game, but Sparks also produced with the big club as well.

With Wright-Fair injured, Sparks started in a 40-27 victory over Arizona and gained 97 yards in 16 carries. He had a 45-yard touchdown nullified because of a penalty.

“I need to get the ball 16 to 20 times a game,” Sparks said. “I’m not effective if I only get the ball five or six times. The more carries I get, the stronger I get.”

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Price plans to accommodate him.

“Derek is a load when he carries the ball,” Price said. “He has speed, but he’ll also plow over people. I knew he was special the first day he was here. I remember thinking, ‘Notre Dame gets 25 of these guys each year.’ If I had 25 Derek Sparks, coaching would be a little easier.”

At times, there did seem to be a number of Derek Sparks running around. Almost every school seemed to have one.

Sparks’ high school career was a movable feast. He started in Wharton, Tex., as a freshman, then transferred to Wilmington Banning. He gained nearly 1,394 yards for Pilots, but left after one year.

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He spent his junior season at Montclair Prep, where he gained 1,944 yards and scored 35 touchdowns. But Mountie coaches were no better at holding onto Sparks than opponents. One game into the 1990 season, he broke free and was gone.

After playing in Montclair Prep’s opener, Sparks and his cousin, Leland, transferred to Mater Dei. The move sparked plenty of finger pointing on both sides.

The Sparkses were declared eligible by the Southern Section after two meetings, during which Montclair Prep coaches were accused of grade tampering and recruiting.

Leland Sparks also went to Washington State to play football, but is now academically ineligible.

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Montclair Prep was placed on probation. Its football program was not allowed to compete in the 1991 playoffs.

“There was a lot of bad blood,” Sparks said. “There were things that happened that shouldn’t have happened. All the chaos made it hard to focus on football.”

Even distracted, Sparks gained 1,745 yards for the Monarchs. But not all was rosy. After a 3-0 victory over Loyola, Sparks and one of his uncles--angered by comments made by Loyola officials about the transfer--taunted Loyola coaches, dancing in front of them, and nearly started a fight.

A week later, Sparks apologized.

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His notoriety, he said, scared off some recruiters. But not Price.

“We looked at the circumstances and we found no character flaw,” Price said. “It was an unusual situation, but Derek didn’t do anything improper.”

Said Sparks: “You know, I wouldn’t change a thing. It prepared me to face problems.”

The problems came.

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Sparks isn’t sure how or when he first injured his shoulder. He just knew it hurt throughout his sophomore season.

At one point, he had arthroscopic surgery on it, and five days later, gained 40 yards against Arizona in relief of Wright-Fair. He finished with 244 yards, but something wasn’t right.

He carried only once for 11 yards in the Cougars’ 31-28 victory over Utah in the Copper Bowl. A week later, he visited the doctor.

Sparks had reconstructive surgery on the front of his shoulder in January 1993. If it was successful, they would do a similar operation on the back of his shoulder in the summer.

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His was going to miss the following season. Worse yet, his grades dropped. Sparks had to wear a special brace to keep his shoulder in place. It made school work difficult.

“In class, I couldn’t find a seat I could fit into,” Sparks said. “It made it tough taking notes. I was on pain killers, which made me drowsy. It was a rough semester.”

But he held on.

“It was hell for six weeks,” he said. “It wore me down. I’ve learned there are walls you have to climb. I could have given up. But there were things left to prove.”

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Said Price: “I think Derek is hungrier now. I think football has become more important to him.”

Sparks had surgery to reconstruct the front of his shoulder and came back healthy this spring. But Price, fearing another injury, chose to hold him out of contact drills.

Instead, Sparks lifted weights--he bench presses 340 pounds--worked on blocking bags and went through conditioning drills.

Always, he was itching to play.

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“I did everything I had to do,” Sparks said. “People here believed in me and I believed in myself. Once I get a little contact in, it’s going to be smooth sailing.”

Said Price: “Yeah, we expect Derek to be in a red jersey all season. Especially on Saturdays.”


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