For many, it’s known as the “JUCO Struggle.” It’s the less glamorous side of college football — and Atascadero High School graduate Karson Block lived it.
Playing football at Saddleback, a junior college in Mission Viejo, without the structure of a Division 1 program and the financial help afforded to junior college players in many other states, Block watched his teammates grapple with more than just opposing teams.
“Out of 94 guys on the team, 12 guys were homeless,” Block said in a phone interview Monday. “You are worried about more than just football. Guys are struggling to survive.”
Block was lucky. He was able to get a job at a sushi restaurant near campus and poured everything else into football and school. He excelled during his freshman season for the Gauchos in 2015. But Block’s struggle would come later.
After being named Defensive Player of the Week four times during his sophomore season, the linebacker landed scholarship offers from Troy, Fresno State, Eastern Michigan and New Mexico.
It was a big shift for Block, who wasn’t heavily recruited as a four-sport athlete coming out of Atascadero. But after adding 30 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame and dropping his 40-yard dash time, he was suddenly a hot commodity.
Until he wasn’t.
One by one the offers faded, Block said. One school dropped its offer when Block didn’t want to visit during the summer. Then Fresno State cleared out its coaching staff, and his chance to play for the Bulldogs dissipated. Before long, the only team left was New Mexico, so Block committed in November after a 14-tackle performance against Riverside in his final game at Saddleback.
Following his commitment, the First-Team All-State Junior College selection and team tackle leader said he didn’t hear from anyone on the Lobos coaching staff for three weeks.
“Finally, the New Mexico coach called me back and said they didn’t know if they would be using a scholarship on me,” Block said. “I talked to the Saddleback coaches, and they said they have never seen anything like this.”
A short time later, Block found out New Mexico had pulled the offer, so he reopened his recruiting Dec. 14.
“It was a rough time,” Block said. “It was getting down to the end, and I didn’t know if I was going to play. It kills your desire.”
Block was scrambling to find a backup plan when UTEP stepped in with an offer. But to Block’s dismay, it was to play fullback, not linebacker. Finally, in the 11th hour, he got a call from Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns offered Block a full scholarship to play linebacker.
“They called me the day of their bowl game, and I said yes,” said Block, who is still getting settled on the Lafayette campus.
Block knows it won’t get any easier entering his junior season just because he has joined the FBS ranks. He will have to fight for playing time and, if he makes the field, will go up against some of the best teams in the nation next season, including Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Alabama.
But looking back, Block said he came out of the difficult experience with long-lasting friendships and an increased level of maturity.
“All in all, I feel like it made me a better person,” Block said. “Going through hard times, it’s an inspiration. If you can make it through the JUCO struggle, you can make it through anything.”
Former JUCO players in the NFL
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Kyle Long, Chicago Bears
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings
Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers