Vernon Adams wants to explain his actions: the high-stepping, the gyrating, the sudden change of direction.
In other words, his dance steps during warmups before every Eastern Washington football game, when the Eagle quarterback sometimes wears headphones instead of a helmet and seemingly marches to his own playbook.
Is it immaturity? Overconfidence?
Even in Cheney, some fans shake their heads. Last year in Missoula, a few Montana fans shook their fingers.
“Some people think I’m being immature, but that’s my way to get into the zone,” Adams explained. “The field is my sanctuary, no matter what’s going on at home.”
With that, he offered a look at how the ups and downs of life have nurtured a maturity in Adams that fans don’t see: a tough childhood in southern California, his parents’ divorce, an uncertain future on and off the field, sudden fame, and, most recently, fatherhood.
Vernon Kash Adams III was born on June 22, five weeks premature, but now he’s as healthy as his father’s perspective on life.
“You can’t be all serious all the time, but you’ve got to be mature,” Adams said.
A winning attitude
Eastern Washington enters Saturday’s season opener against Sam Houston State as the No. 1 team in the nation, partly because Adams can make those same fancy dance steps to evade an onrushing lineman, then fire a touchdown pass against a bewildered defense.
Last year he threw for 4,994 yards and 55 touchdowns – both school records – and finished second in the balloting for the Walter Payton Award given to the outstanding player in FCS.
“I’m blessed to be doing this, and I love my job,” Adams said.
And Eastern fans love the way Adams is doing it. Since he burst on to the scene early in the 2012 season, the Eagles have gone 20-4 overall won two straight Big Sky Conference titles, earned a landmark win at Oregon State and put themselves near the peak of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“The game has slowed down for him,” coach Beau Baldwin said.
Meanwhile the pace of life has picked up for Adams, who in the last five years has gone from an undersized, underrecruited quarterback to a larger-than-life personality, celebrated with billboards and a website – bigplayva.com.
“That wouldn’t be happening at USC,” acknowledged Adams, who at 6-feet-0 didn’t measure up to Pac-12 recruiting standards and so took an unlikely route out of a tough neighborhood in Pasadena in the fall of 2011.
“You don’t understand how grateful I am, because not that many people like me make it out of there,” Adams said.
He seized the opportunity as a true freshman, when he was honored as EWU’s offensive scout player of the year, then saw it being snatched away when Kyle Padron transferred from Southern Methodist in the summer of 2012.
“I thought I might not get to play at all,” Adams said.
But Adams competed hard through fall camp, and his mobility helped earn the starting spot three weeks into the season. In his first home start, he capped an improbable comeback by rolling left, then hitting Ashton Clark for a 20-yard touchdown pass in a 32-26 win over Montana.
Later that year, he endured a slump that cost him the starting sport. In a nightmarish game at Montana State, Adams was repeately flushed out of the pocket, went 12 for 29 and threw two interceptions.
“The fans were yelling, their guys were talking smack, and I threw a pick early in the game,” said Adams, who was rescued by two late Eastern scores on defense and special teams.
A year later, in a high-stakes game against MSU, Adams played the most complete game of his career, going 16 for 18 for four touchdowns and running for another 82 yards in a 54-29 Eagle win that all but clinched the Big Sky title.
Said Baldwin, “People want to look at the big plays and those are great, but we have a player with guts to take shots and go for it.
“If he gets a pick or two, so be it. But he has the guts to go win games and stand in there,” Baldwin said.
More than a game
After the Eagles lost in the FCS semifinals last year, Adams obsessively watched the film, especially the crucial play. On fourth and 2 at the Towson 29, with a minute and 40 seconds left, he barely overthrew receiver Cooper Kupp; the visitors took over and took the ball downfield for the winning score.
“He was so wide open, I was so excited, and I had so much time – I just overthew it,” Adams said, his voice trailing off.
“But it’s not a one-person game.”
With that, Adams credits his teammates and coaches, past and present.
From Bo Levi Mitchell he learned the ability to learn the playbook, make the right reads. From Padron, he says he became “a better person, to not be cocky.”
And from Baldwin and assistant Zak Hill, the maturity and discipline to put it all together. This summer, that meant off-season conditioning and voluntary drills with his receivers and backs, plus the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood.
Adams lives with his girlfriend, fellow student Cheyenne Merritt of Selah, Washington, who’s taking online classes toward her degree. “During double days she lets me get my sleep, but I come home during breaks and help out, then at night we hang out,” Adams said.
Another sign of maturity: Adams’ grades. He almost made the dean’s list in spring term, and his grade-point average is hovering around a 3.0. He expects to graduate in June, then return next fall before chasing the dream of professional ball.
“Those are my two goals: to be a Scholar Athlete of the Month and win a national championship,” said Adams, whose 22nd birthday falls on Jan. 3, 2015 – the day of this year’s FCS title game in Frisco, Texas.
On the field, he feels the eyes of the younger players. Said freshman quarterback Reilly Hennessey, “There’s a purpose to every single move he makes.”
Even the dance moves.