If you’ve got a map of northeast Texas handy, open it up. If not, find one at your earliest convenience. In between the cities of Dallas and Tyler, you might notice a series of towns that you didn’t realize existed in Texas: New York, Trinidad and Athens probably don’t bring the Lone Star State to the front of your mind. Heck, even if you’re thinking of an American Athens, you’re almost certainly thinking of the college town in Georgia.
The freeways form a perfect circle around Athens, and smack dab in the middle of that circle is Trinity Valley Community College, more colloquially known as TVCC. If you take a look at the college’s most noticeable athletes, it’s not too shabby for a student body of about 8,000. Two ‘90s NBA stars (Shawn Kemp and Nick Van Exel) and a whole lot of “oh that guy” football players. But if you take a look at those players’ bios, you probably wouldn’t even see TVCC listed as their college; it would be shocking for the school to get more than a sentence in anyone’s story.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Athletic programs at junior colleges like these are designed like this, a pit stop for athletes who couldn’t hack it in the big time right away, who are hopefully on their way to a bigger four-year program. If you’re one of the luckier few, a professional career can come after that. Winning is great, but hardly the point: The most crucial part about that freeway loop is that there are seven more connecting freeways that take you out of Athens and on to somewhere else.
It’s a strange process, and it’s certainly not the path people plan from day one. But what does that matter? Cal junior outside linebacker Alex Funches, freshly transferred from Athens, will tell you that all you’ve got to do is put some faith in it.
“Going back just to trust the process,” Funches says. “That was something that has pushed me through. Sometimes you’re here at fall camp and you’re like, ‘Man I’m tired,’ but it’s going to pay off. And at (community college), you’re like, man, ‘I’m not getting any looks right now, I thought this was going to be my year to go D1.’ And you’ve just got to remember to trust the process.”
Born in Fontana, California, it didn’t take long for Funches to end up in the spiritual home state of football, moving to Denton, Texas in the third grade. There’s nothing quite as good as a Texas football story, but that cuts both ways. With no shortage of guys trying to write their own Lone Star story, it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. If that’s the case it can be tough to figure out what comes next.
The NCAA has rules regarding minimum test scores necessary to play for a Division 1 program. Funches’ ACT score eventually got there, but that point came past National Signing Day, by which time almost all D1 programs have their recruiting classes figured out and announced.
He drew some interest from four-year Division 2 programs, but that wasn’t in the cards.
“My plan coming out of high school was to go D1 just like everybody else,” Funches says. “I was kind of scrambling around looking for a school to go to. My head coach was telling me to go try (community college). I had another guy telling me you might have an offer from two schools. Then I had a couple of my teammates thinking of going the (community college) route, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna stick with y’all. Wherever you go, I’ll go.’ And it worked out that way.”
Enter Brad Smiley. Smiley kicked off his coaching career at Baylor University, leaving Texas for a 10-year odyssey in Louisiana (between Northeastern University and Tulane University). Just about 20 years ago, he came to TVCC as an assistant, and 10 years ago, he took the reins of the program, consistently leading the Cardinals to record success ever since. Regional titles and top-five national rankings have become routine over the past few years in Athens.
“The first day I met him, it was on a day where all the kids in my high school were kind of showing off about the scholarships that they got, and I was one of the kids that didn’t go up there,” Funches says. “One of my coaches came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, the TVCC coach is here to see you’ … He got me with the ring. He had a ring that they just won, and he was like, ‘We’re gonna win you one of these when you get here.’ ”
Smiley knew he had something special on his hands before he even came to Billy Ryan High School.
“His high school coaches were all very close, and they called me and said, ‘Smiley, this guy is a no-brainer man, he’s gonna develop,’ ” Smiley says. “There were a lot of former D1 and D2 coaches on his high school staff, and they were all in agreement that with a year in a college weight room, Alex was gonna beef up and blow up, and then he’d be a D1 recruit.”
The match was excellent off the bat and would prove to be mutually beneficial, to say the least. But that didn’t mean success would come without some struggle.
Smiley doesn’t take it easy on his guys. He knows that for his best players, TVCC is one part in a long-term plan, and he takes pride in making sure guys are prepared as hell for the next step. That applies on and off the field.
“We treat them like Division 1 players here, that’s my background,” Smiley says. “When coaches come into recruit, they know they’ve been up early for weeks, they’ve had study halls and class checks, grade checks; they’ve been held accountable all the way along. If a guy can’t handle the D1 level, he won’t be able to handle it here, either. The common denominator is guys who aren’t afraid to work extremely hard. Guys who are looking for the easy way out don’t make it.”
Funches’ pedigree would have likely made him a special case at a lot of community colleges, but not at TVCC. He was just one of the Cardinals, and that meant redshirting his freshman year and learning from the guys in front of him.
Talented older players, some of whom even drew NFL scouts to Athens, opened up Funches to observing a whole new level of talent — and something greater to aspire to.
Two division titles followed for Funches after his redshirt season. His sophomore season ended with All-Southwest-Junior-College-Football-Conference honors. He didn’t even need that big-time performance before his path to the Bears was more or less sealed: Smiley had inroads with former Cal head coach Sonny Dykes’ staff, and Funches had declared his intent to join the team in the summer before his sophomore season.
“I was on my way to the training facility, and all my friends knew I was waiting on a phone call,” Funches says. “And I was trying to play it as mature as possible, so I just kept a straight face and was like, ‘thank you coach, thank you coach.’ Then I hung up the phone and I was like ‘bro, I got it, I got it, I got it.’ They were all there to support me.”
His first call after hearing from the Bears? Smiley, of course. The voice on the other side of the phone wasn’t one bit surprised.
“The first thing you saw about Alex is he had great work ethic,” Smiley says. “We’ve got a lot of (athletic players), but it was his character and his work ethic and his drive that we loved as coaches. When those guys come in and you put together a plan to get them where they want to be, and they work hard and keep to the plan … those opportunities come.”
The California kid had made good and ended up right where he was supposed to be. The coaching change from Sonny Dykes to Justin Wilcox occurred just as he came to campus in January this year, but he’s been flexible in moving positions (defensive end to outside linebacker) in a new scheme (4-3 to 3-4 under defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter).
“If you ask any of my friends coming out of high school, the first thing that I wanted to do going to JC was come to California,” Funches says. “From Day 1 … (friends) were all saying, ‘What kind of school do you want to go to?’ I kept on saying, I don’t know where I want to go, but I want to go to school in California. So (for) my first offer to be Cal (was) just a blessing.”
Before his first game as a Bear, Wilcox tried to impart the importance of staying level, not getting too amped up or down low. It’s a sentiment that perhaps should have come easy for someone who had some collegiate experience. But for someone who after such a winding path finally got exactly where he wanted to be, some moments can simply overwhelm.
“I was telling (fellow linebacker) Cameron Saffle, and he says that’s good to hear, but when you get to that time, when the game is about to start and you’re about to get in, you’re going to feel something different,” Funches says. “I sort of didn’t listen to him, and sure as heck, I was on the sideline and they called my number, and I looked at (Saffle) and said, ‘Cam I feel it, Cam I feel it!’ ”
What does the future hold for Funches? Maybe he joins the ranks of former TVCCers in the NFL after his stint in Berkeley. Maybe not. He doesn’t seem too worried about it. After all, by now, it’s pretty clear he knows where to find the right roads to take.
“I’ve never been a go for 20 sacks, go for tackles guy,” Funches says. “If you listen to the coaches and what they’re trying to say since day one and push out everything you think you know better, the process will bring you up to speed and get you where you need to be.”