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‘I’m hungry’: Ex-Washington State RB Max Borghi grateful for XFL opportunity, hopeful for another shot at NFL

Houston Roughnecks and former Washington State running back Max Borghi avoids the grasp of Orlando’s Marcus Murphy during Saturday’s 33-12 XFL win in Houston.  (Getty Images)
By Stephen Hunt For The Spokesman-Review

During his four seasons at Washington State, Max Borghi played under three head coaches: Mike Leach, Nick Rolovich and Jake Dickert, and the hard-nosed running back learned much from all three.

“I can’t even put it into words (what coach Leach means to me). He’s who kick-started my career,” said Borghi, now with the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks. “He’s the one who took a shot on me, gave me an opportunity to play in Pullman. Nothing but great memories playing for coach Leach. We love coach Leach, everyone who has played for him, been around him. We’re really running his system here (in Houston). He’s the mastermind. Just forever grateful for everything he’s done for me.”

One thing Borghi remembers most about Leach – whom he played for in 2018 and 2019 – was his ability to talk intelligently about many subjects, whether related to football or not.

“He’s a character, absolutely. He was always entertainment,” Borghi said . “He knew everything about everything. You couldn’t even get him going on a different subject because he’d talk about it for three hours straight. We’d have a 10-minute team meeting that would turn into two hours because we’d talk about pirates or something crazy for hours. Always great times with him, great memories.”

Borghi finished his time in Pullman with 41 touchdowns, tying him with running back Steve Broussard for most in school history. Borghi said he knows that were it not for the great coaching he received under Leach, Rolovich and Dickert, plus from his position coaches, he wouldn’t have departed WSU with his name atop the school record books.

“Nothing but respect for coach Rolo,” Borghi said of playing for Rolovich in 2020 and part of 2021. “We are obviously doing a little bit of stuff in the Run and Shoot like he ran. I had a great time playing for coach Rolovich.

“That whole staff, all of them, they let me do a lot of different stuff in the backfield like outside zone and stuff to let me open up a little bit more, which is always fun. Hoping nothing but the best for coach Rolo.”

He played the shortest amount of time under Dickert, who was named interim head coach in October 2021 after Rolovich was fired for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

Under Dickert, who became the full-time coach that November, the Cougars went 3-2, including a huge win over rival Washington in the Apple Cup.

“I know Dickert’s a great coach. He’s got that program in great hands,” Borghi said. “He’s a very disciplined guy and he’s obviously the right guy for it.

“It was nothing but great times winning the Apple Cup under coach Dickert at the end of that season. I’m just excited to keep watching what he’s doing with that team.”

Since his time at WSU ended, Borghi bounced around the NFL, logging time with Indianapolis, Denver and Pittsburgh before being drafted by the Roughnecks last fall.

“It wasn’t what I was hoping, what I was dreaming about, but it makes me hungry,” Borghi said of his first experiences in the NFL. “Getting a little taste of it was exciting, but I want to get back in. I’m hungry for another opportunity. I’m excited for this league here because this is the league of opportunity to show what I can do, more of what I can do to get back in and stick on a 53-man roster someday.”

The XFL is a league co-owned by former professional wrestler turned actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This is the third incarnation of the XFL after debuting in 2001 under World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon before folding after one season. In 2020, the XFL returned but folded during the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Borghi had been in training camp for about a month and enjoyed the experience of getting to know a new group of teammates and coaches.

“Yeah, it’s been real fun so far, getting to know the team, bonding with the team, connecting with the team outside the field and on the field,” he said. “We’re finally getting the chance to go to practice, work our matchups, our fundamentals together. Going into this first game, I think we’re excited and we’re well-prepared.”

On Saturday, Houston opened its season with a 33-12 win against Orlando before a home crowd of nearly 13,000 . Borghi did his part, rushing for 42 yards on eight carries, including a 27-yard scamper up the heart of the Orlando defensive line for a touchdown, a score that earned him an immediate interview from one of the ESPN sideline reporters. Borghi, who credited his offensive linemen for their great blocking on that run, also caught four passes for 32 yards.

Helping ease his transition in Houston has been a familiar face in friend Travell Harris, who played wide receiver for the Cougars from 2017 through 2021. Harris caught five passes for 48 yards in Houston’s season opener.

“Yeah, I played with Travell all four years. It’s really fun because he’s my brother,” Borghi said. “I’ve played with him forever. Playing at the next level with him is exciting.

“Honestly, there’s Cougs all over this league. I know Willie Taylor and Brandon Arconado (play for) Arlington.

“We share a hotel with them, so I’m always hanging out with them. Liam Ryan’s on D.C. It’s just been fun (to see everyone). We’ve all gone out to dinner, enjoyed each other’s company.”

If there’s an identity for this latest version of the XFL, it’s as the league of opportunity, a circuit of second chances for players who slipped through the cracks in the NFL or who await their first shot at cracking an NFL roster.

“All of us are blessed with this opportunity. Back in the day, there wasn’t a league like this,” Borghi said. “It gives so many of us jobs and the opportunity to play football again to hopefully get back into the NFL like all of us dream of. Just exciting. At the end of the day, we love football and playing.

“It’s not about the money. I just love playing the game. The longer I can play the game, spend time out here with my friends and just play ball, I’m excited.”

Another aspect of the XFL and specifically playing for Houston is being coached by Wade Phillips, a head coach for five NFL teams and one of the top defensive coordinators in league history, as evidenced by the Super Bowl ring he won in 2015 while in charge of Denver’s outstanding defensive unit.

“Coach Wade is a legend to many,” Borghi said. “It’s really cool just to have the opportunity to learn from him, grow from him and be coached by him. It’s really unique. He’s taught us a lot. Obviously, he’s had many Pro Bowlers, many all-time NFL greats. It’s pretty cool. Obviously, he has lots of connections in the NFL, which is going to help all of us in our future hopes. The opportunity to play for such a great coach, it’s tremendous.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.