PULLMAN – The Pac-12 Conference defensive backs who’ve been left dazed trying to mark him and the Washington State fans who’ve found his emergence to be a delightful surprise would mutually agree there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to Brandon Arconado.
On the other hand, Arconado’s mother, DeeDee, would contest what meets the eye has always been more than enough.
Before Arconado left for Chaffey College in 2015 to pursue college football, hoping he could parlay one solid junior college season into a career in the Football Bowl Subdivision, his mother made one final pitch to pull him away from the persistent physicality of football and into the more lucrative world of modeling.
So, just to humor his mother, the trim, dark-haired, olive-skinned receiver agreed to a preliminary interview at the Beverly Hills branch of Ford Modeling – an international agency headquartered in New York City.
“I think he’s a good-looking kid,” DeeDee said. “… They liked his unique look and I think they were going to sign him because they were serious about talking to him.”
All bets were off as soon as the questioner asked Arconado about his future.
“I’m going to Washington State to play football,” he said.
DeeDee gently kicked her son under the table.
“I was like, ‘Why did you say that?’” she recalled. “‘I could’ve got you a modeling contract with one of the biggest Beverly Hills modeling agencies.’ He said, ‘Because that’s where I’m going, mom.’
“And that’s where he ended up.”
It was a fateful decision: Arconado’s routes clearly belonged somewhere other than a runway.
The breakout star of Washington State’s offense this season is Arconado as much as it is quarterback Anthony Gordon, and the former walk-on from Chino Hills, California, has been one of the best bargains for Mike Leach since the coach arrived in Pullman eight years ago.
For starters, the Cougars didn’t have to spend a scholarship to get him to Pullman. They haven’t had to work overtime teaching him the Air Raid receiver concepts – seldom does Arconado need to hear something twice. And they didn’t need to press the panic button when starting “Y” receiver Jamire Calvin suffered a lower body injury that would shelve him for the season.
The Pac-12 doesn’t hand out “Most Improved Player” as it does in men’s and women’s basketball but it’s hard to imagine the football award would’ve gone to someone other than Arconado, who came into his redshirt senior season with four catches, 73 yards and one touchdown and squashed those numbers in six individual games this season.
His transition from one of the lesser-known pass-catchers in the conference to the one leading the conference in 100-yard games, with six, is one reason WSU (6-6) enters Friday’s Cheez-It Bowl against Air Force (10-2) scoring more than 39 points per game – second-most by a WSU offense under Leach.
“He’s a pure example of if you’re a real coachable guy and you’re at the right place at the right time, you can be incredibly successful,” Leach said of Arconado last week. “He’s open all the time and executes once the ball comes his way.
“The biggest thing is, anything you tell him route wise or release wise, he executes it. He really does a good job of always developing what he’s coached to do and it’s really elevated his game throughout his career, especially when you consider how small he came here and everything and how he’s developed here. A lot of guys are kind of built like him when they get here and it took him 2 1/2 years or so to get to that point, just growing and stuff.”
Even while missing three full games and parts of three others with injury, Arconado’s put together one of the top statistical seasons by a slot receiver under Leach, catching 63 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns. For comparison, in River Cracraft’s most productive season at WSU, the “Y” receiver had 66 catches for 775 yards and eight TDs, averaging 85.7 yards per game. Arconado’s averaged 100.9 per game in 2019.
And yet, the best thing Arconado has to offer might actually have nothing to do with his soft hands, crisp routes or game-day dependability.
At the intersection of “scholar” and “athlete” is someone who recently became WSU’s first COSIDA First-Team Academic All-American since kicker Jason Hanson in 1991. Arconado, who’s kept a 3.65 GPA while working toward a postgraduate degree in Business Administration, and Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert were the only Pac-12 representatives on a 25-person list that encompassed players from the FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III and NAIA.
“You’re looking relatively at about 59,000 football players nationwide,” Arconado’s father, Mike, said.
The odds of Arconado joining that club at one point seems as far-fetched as the wide receiver emerging as a premier playmaker in the Pac-12 after arriving in Pullman three years ago sans scholarship.
Arconado became only the second member of his family to obtain a college diploma when he walked at WSU’s commencement ceremony earlier this month, joining sister Samantha, who attended Northern Arizona and Loma Linda University.
A four-year education wasn’t feasible for DeeDee because her grandparents grew ill, causing her parents to look after them and forcing her to care for her younger siblings. She went straight into the workforce and now bartends while working various hospitality jobs. Mike played football and basketball at Citrus College, earned an Associate of Science degree and left to work in retail.
“I would’ve loved to go to a university,” he said. “… It just wasn’t meant to be that we were able to and that was some of the things my wife and I kind of planned. If they wanted to go to school, we wanted to divert our energy as much as possible and back them to where they want to go to school.”
Hoping to improve their children’s chances of attending a four-year school, Mike and DeeDee sent all three – Josh, Amanda and Brandon – to a private Catholic school, Bishop Amat, in La Puente, California. Brandon resisted, not willing to split with his middle school friends, and he struggled with the transition initially, fighting just to earn a 2.0 GPA as a freshman.
“It was a positive influence,” Mike said, of moving his children into a better academic environment. “We were really happy we spent that time and effort to get him there.”
Once Brandon starting mingling with football and soccer teammates who sported better grades, he saw his own GPA start to climb. He also credits his girlfriend and high school sweetheart, Brianna Ortega, who’s done some impressive multitasking of her own these past few years, working on a Masters degree at Baylor University while cheerleading for the Bears.
“Later on, to be honest, it was my girlfriend,” said Brandon, who eventually began enrolling in honors and advanced placement courses and saw his GPA escalate to 4.16 by his senior year at Bishop Amat. “… I was like, I don’t want to look dumb in front of her. So I started doing good. She helped me out, too, she’s really smart.”
Arconado toted some impressive grades while juggling two sports. Some days, soccer and football practices overlapped. Other times, during Bishop Amat’s “Hell Week,” one club soccer practice was sandwiched between two football workouts.
He wasn’t introduced to football until his freshman year, when DeeDee OK’d it under the impression he’d only be kicking or punting. But when Mike visited a summer 7-on-7 workout, he watched his son haul in three toe-tap touchdowns and the rest was history.
“They said he was fast and he had hands and he was a wide receiver,” DeeDee recalled. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that is.’ He’s like, ‘I catch the ball and I make touchdowns.’”
Arconado did plenty of both at Bishop Amat, catching 53 passes for 1,010 yards and 12 touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough to warrant major college offers. He also stood just 6-feet tall and weighed – if you can even imagine – 35 pounds less than he does now. Arconado’s currently listed at 193 pounds on WSU’s roster and still considered undersized at his position.
He spent one season at Chaffey, but cautioned his parents, “Don’t buy anything from here, don’t buy a sweatshirt, don’t buy a T-shirt,” DeeDee recalled. “Because I’m not staying here.”
Without the numbers he’s posted this season at WSU, Arconado might have been playing in his final football game this Friday at Chase Field. He still won’t be considered a potential NFL draft choice, but his production has carved open the possibility of a professional career – either through the backdoor of the NFL as an undrafted free agent who could work his way into the league the same way Cracraft did, or as someone who might be able to squeeze out a few seasons in the CFL or XFL.
Arconado’s undergraduate degree in finance has prepared him for either reality. If he’s fortunate enough to play professional football, he’ll already have a few inside tips on how to manage his money. If not, his diploma will help him attain a job in bank investment – one of two careers he sees himself in after football.
The other is technology – Arconado’s logic being, “I figure (in) the future, technology will always be there, it’s always advancing,” he said. “They’re always looking for people who know how to work with technology and stuff like that. Then money’s always going to be there and I figure I want to be good with my money.”
Where will he be in five years? Ten years?
“Living it up, having a good job,” DeeDee said. “Maybe traveling the world. But who knows, that kid has big plans and he wants to make money and do big things.”
Successful, somewhere. That much seems sure.
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