Teammates call him “The Wizard,” a nickname that fits on every level.
It starts with the long hair that flows from underneath the helmet of Jeff Minnerly, a star in the classroom and a Harry Potter fan who transformed himself from quarterback to safety and nine months later walked off the field a national champion.
There was no potion for that, just hard work and a willingness to put team first.
“He’s the epitome of an overachiever,” Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin said. “He just wills himself to do things and find a way to get it done.”
Indeed, before coming to Eastern, Minnerly was part of a record-breaking basketball team at Ferris that won back-to-back big school titles in 2007 and 2008 and went undefeated in the process, going a stupefying 58-0. In between, he quarterbacked the Saxons to the state semifinals, the first of four straight for the school.
His basketball teammates included Jerry Karstetter, Shawn Stockton, Erick Cheadle, Beau Brett and DeAngelo Casto; all went on to play college sports.
“I still talk to those guys,” Minnerly said. “Last Memorial Day, most of us went to Lake Chelan. We try to stay in touch.”
The 58-0 run, the longest in Washington big-school history, was hard to grasp at the time.
“Looking back now, it’s a pretty big deal,” Minnerly said. “People come up to you and say they remember. It makes you realize how special it is.”
Doubly so because of all the support, starting “more than anyone,” Minnerly says, with his parents, Jeff and Kathleen, both Eastern alums.
“They’ve always been there to support me,” he said.
Minnerly also credits his youth coaches, including Jerry Karstetter, Tim Tonani, Dan Murphy, Steve Stockton and Rick Seefried.
Despite the success, Minnerly said he “didn’t really get a lot of looks for either sport, to be honest.”
Baldwin, the head coach at Central Washington during Minnerly’s last football season at Ferris, showed interest.
After Baldwin took over from Paul Wulff at Eastern, he offered Minnerly a roster sport and some financial aid, which eventually led to a full scholarship. After redshirting in 2008, Minnerly saw some action at quarterback the following year and was ready to compete for the starting spot.
The quarterback job at EWU was open in the spring of 2010, but just briefly, as SMU transfer Bo Levi Mitchell won the starting job early in camp.
Suddenly, Minnerly’s future was on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“We saw some things as coaches,” Baldwin said, “that he could bring something to the table in the secondary.”
Minnerly wasn’t so sure.
“It was very tough, especially since it had been about six years since I’d tackled anybody,” he said. “But it wasn’t as much physical as it was mental, to get myself to believe I could do those things.”
He improved his fundamentals under secondary coach Jeff Schmedding, who in turn cites Minnerly’s ability to see coverages from the eye of the quarterback.
“He’s very bright,” Schmedding said, “and he can really see where the play is going.”
In the national title game against Delaware, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Minnerly made the first of several big plays, saving a touchdown by knocking a receiver out of bounds.
“That 19-0 lead would have been even bigger …” Schmedding said, not wanting to finish the thought.
EWU went on to win, 20-19.
In the semifinals against Villanova, Minnerly remembered his homework, foresaw the route coming and made a crucial interception in a game the Eagles won 41-31.
In fact, Minnerly always remembers his homework. He carries a 3.78 grade-point average while double-majoring in finance and electrical engineering. Last year he was a repeat selection to the Academic All-District VIII team.
By the end of next year, he figures to have a bachelor’s degree in finance along with minors in physics and math, and finish a few classes shy of the B.S. in electrical engineering.
“It’s a tough balance,” Minnerly said. “Sometimes you get behind, but you have to find a way. Not that football comes first, but sometimes you have to take it with you on road trips.”
This year, Minnerly and the Eagles are ready to stop hitting each other and get on with the season, even as he knows it will be his last.
“We’re really amped,” he said.
Said Schmedding, “I think he’s had a great offseason, and I want to see him play fast and to his full potential. You want him to have his best year.”
And when it’s over?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Minnerly, 22, said. “It’s gone by a lot faster than I thought. All the older guys tell you it goes by fast. Sure enough I’m here and telling the young guys how fast it goes.
“Right now, I’m focused on the last year of football, give it everything and attack school. Then maybe I’ll coach football or get a job in the finance sector. I’ll figure it out.”
And what about the hair, still growing after a running, two-year bet with linebacker Ronnie Hamlin?
“I’m getting close to dropping out,” he admitted, hoping Hamlin doesn’t read the newspaper.
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