For J.C. Agen, guts came before glory.
Long before he was a starting linebacker at Eastern Washington, Agen was a walk-on.
That meant he was free to try out for the team, and free to fail. Everything else would cost, including tuition, books and even team meals.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder, that’s for sure,” Agen said. “All these other kids came in on scholarship, so you have to prove yourself.”
Agen has done that and more, despite the added burdens of a position change and a brutal injury last year that cost him almost a season’s worth of starts.
Was it worth it?
“Definitely,” said Agen, who will line up Saturday at Toledo.
In the fall of 2008, Agen was a standout safety for coach Rick Giampietri at Central Valley High School. He stood out enough to gain the attention of Central Washington and some other Division II programs, but not enough to earn a scholarship to a Division I school.
Eastern Washington defensive coordinator John Graham visited Central Valley and told Agen that the Eagles wanted him as a preferred walk-on. Agen’s visit revealed what many recruits have seen, before and since: a family atmosphere, one that Agen likened to his own in Spokane Valley with parents Steve and Linda, an older sister and a younger brother.
“I took the opportunity and had to make the best of it,” said the soft-spoken Agen, who was immediately moved from safety to weakside linebacker. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds: Agen played in a defensive scheme at CV in which “I was almost an outside ’backer, so I was used to it.”
For most walk-ons in any sport, the term itself is a misnomer. To prove themselves, walk-ons must move faster, hit harder and play smarter in order to impress coaches who have $100,000 invested in scholarship players but none in a walk-on.
But even as a redshirt walk-on in 2009, Agen felt appreciated, as coaches and players “showed me all the little things: how to practice, how to watch film, and how the game is really won during the week during practice.”
The next season, Agen played in all 15 games en route to the FCS championship, mostly on special teams. He recovered a fumble on a Montana punt return that led to a 36-27 win in the first game on the new red-turf field, and had an interception in a first-round playoff game against Southeast Missouri State.
Agen, a technology major, was named to the Big Sky Conference All-Academic team.
The hard work paid off in the form of a partial scholarship, which became a full ride after he started four games and saw extensive action in 2011. Agen started four games after starter Zach Johnson was lost for the season with a knee injury.
“He’s done a great job not only at linebacker, but also special teams,” Eagles linebackers coach Josh Fetter said.
“He’s been the ultimate team player.”
Through it all, Agen said, his parents “were really supportive of me and helped me get through it.”
More adversity followed in 2012. Agen partially tore a pectoral muscle on the bench press, missed the first two games of the season, and tore it completely against Weber State.
“I tried to take on a block,” Agen recalled, “and the muscle completely ripped off the bone.”
The healing process was long, almost nine months, which cost Agen the chance at spring ball. “A lot of people don’t think of a pec as being that much of a major muscle,” Agen said. “Until you don’t have one.”
By fall camp, the physical healing was complete, and Agen finally felt 100 percent when he made tackles that stressed the pectorals … and nothing happened.
“That definitely felt great,” he said.
Two games into the season, Agen is a fixture at weakside linebacker. He has 14 tackles and the experience of starting in the Eagles’ 49-46 win at Oregon State.
“That was such an awesome win,” Agen said.
Just as important, Agen values the chance to pass the torch to a new group of linebackers, including his backup Miquiyah Zamora – another converted safety. “They’re picking it up really well,” Agen said.
After the season, Agen – who’s working on his third All-Big Sky Academic award – will complete his technology degree in March and work in construction management.