PULLMAN – When the man in the gray sweat suit speaks, others listen.
He is engaged in conversation with an older man on the second floor of The Bookie, Washington State’s student bookstore inside the Compton Union Building.
Maybe Derek Sparks knows the guy. Maybe he doesn’t. It’s hard to tell, because Sparks, a former WSU running back turned mentor/motivator/ author, seems to speak to strangers as if they’re lifelong friends.
After a controversial high school recruitment, an injury-plagued career at WSU and a brief attempt to play in the NFL, Sparks, who was in town promoting the second edition of his book, “Lessons of the Game,” has now partnered with WSU to fund an “educational award,” as he calls it, that will be awarded to one WSU student on Super Bowl Sunday.
In every copy of his book, Sparks said, there is a code. On Feb. 3, in conjunction with the launch of his new website, mygamtimezone.com, the winning code will be announced and he will donate money toward either tuition or books for the winning student.
It’s an endeavor that spawned from Sparks’ meeting with WSU athletic department administrators at the Cougar Legends event in Coeur D’Alene during the summer.
They asked him: “What can you do to help?”
“I walked away saying, ‘you know what? That was an invitation,’ ” Sparks said. “I’m not sure I felt that in the past with the older administration.”
Sparks feels it’s his responsibility to give back to the school that took a chance on him after a high school career marked by a controversial transfer to California prep powerhouse Mater Dei.
Sparks grew up poor in Wharton, Texas, raised by a single mother. His father was not in the picture, a subject he addresses openly. He talks of food stamps and government cheese. Nothing came easy.
But when his uncle sent his highlight reel to schools in California, Sparks had his ticket out. He moved west to Banning High School. Then he transferred to Montclair Prep (which he accused of grade-altering, for which he sued and settled out of court). Then he transferred to Mater Dei as a senior.
Read the book, and you’ll learn tales that would make NCAA investigators cringe. And this was all in high school.
There was a furnished apartment, arranged for by Sparks’ uncle, Jerome. Food in the refrigerator. Tuition waivers at the prestigious private schools.
“It’s one of those stories that’s jaw-dropping.” Sparks said. “People are like, ‘this happened?’ I decided that I’m going to continue to leverage my story to make an impact.”
WSU clearly had an impact on him. When bigger schools – read: UCLA and USC – cooled on Sparks after all the transferring, former WSU coach Mike Price told Sparks he wanted him to come up to Pullman.
Sparks’ collegiate career was marred by shoulder injuries. His 234 rushing yards as a sophomore backup in 1993 hinted toward bigger things, but his shoulders never cooperated. A training-camp injury ended his NFL career before it got started.
Still, Sparks says “without the game of football, I can’t say I would be here. So I definitely have to give back to those that believed in me – coach Price and his staff and the president at that time, and to offer me that opportunity has been huge. In hindsight, right? Because now I’m older I’m able to see it. When you’re younger, no one can tell you anything.”
Sparks is proudest of his work with local youth. He’s based out of Renton now, has worked at South Kitsap High School, and plans to expand into southern California soon.
He speaks at schools. He leads motivational workshops. A press release touts his connection with “more than 200,000 youth nationwide,” as well as individual contact with more than 200 schools. And he has plans to eventually update his book and release “the college version” in the future.
Sparks’ non-profit youth outreach organization, “GAMETIME,” is supported by a for-profit sports apparel brand of the same name. When his new website launches in February, it will provide “just another avenue for a young person to brand themselves as an athlete,” he said.
It’s like MySpace, Sparks says, but geared specifically toward sports. Kids will be able to upload highlight videos, news articles and the like. Coaches, too.
“You don’t have to be an athlete,” Sparks said of the website. “But you have to be involved in sports.”
But that’s just for the website. Sparks’ other work is all-inclusive.
“The whole philosophy of “GAMETIME” is just about creating a plan for your life, no matter what it is,” Sparks said. “You don’t have to play athletics, but you have to be a student of life.”