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Sparks Is Ready to Regain Form After Injuries : Football: Running back who left Montclair Prep amid controversy will resume Washington State career.

August 25, 1994|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Derek Sparks was issued a red Washington State practice jersey, you would have thought he had been handed the Heisman Trophy.

"There was a lot of hard work in getting that jersey," Sparks said. "When they gave it to me, I started getting excited. I was ready to get in there and hit. I felt strong again."

Seems like a small step for one who danced so brazenly through a four-year odyssey of a high school career. But for Sparks, a junior running back, it was a symbol.

No longer would he carry the stigma of that yellow shirt, the one injured players are required to wear. No longer would he be damaged goods. No more would he be a bundle of unfulfilled promises.

That red jersey was big. With it, returned the old Derek Sparks. After two years, three shoulder surgeries and a number of unanswered questions, he was back, talking tough and playing rough.

"I'm not hesitant at all about getting hit," Sparks said. "I'm looking forward to that first contact. I'm ready to go. I just want to get two-a-days over with and then I'll set some goals for myself."

Time passes quickly, even in Pullman, Wash. A mere four years ago, Sparks was the most-controversial high school football player in Southern California.

He was hot property long before college recruiters began circling.

Sparks attended four high schools in as many years, including one in Texas, and nearly reduced the football program at Montclair Prep in Van Nuys to rubble. He finished at Mater Dei, where he helped the Monarchs reach the Southern Section Division I semifinals.

But Sparks vanished at Washington State. He had a solid freshman season in 1991 and was being groomed to be the Cougars' workhorse. But the shoulder injury changed that.

It's tough to carry a load when you are a burden yourself. Sparks underwent two surgeries last year and missed the entire season.

"That was the worst time in my life," he said. "I had to wonder if the man upstairs was saying, 'Kid, you got to find something else.' But I kept my faith and here I am today."

Today, he's at the top of the chart. Sparks is the Cougars' starting tailback, and that's written in stone, barring further injury. Cougar coaches already know his value.

Sparks' size--5 feet 11, 228 pounds--and speed have always been an attractive package, and he delivered as a freshman.

"I've seen very few freshmen who were as ready to play college football as Derek," Cougar Coach Mike Price said. "He was mature and he was strong."

The latter was the reason Sparks gained 269 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry his first season. He spent the year as a caddie to starter Shaumbe Wright-Fair, but when asked to take the leading role, Sparks shined.

In a junior varsity game, he gained 267 yards in 18 carries and scored five touchdowns. When Wright-Fair was injured, Sparks started in a 40-27 victory over Arizona and gained 97 yards in 16 carries. He had a 45-yard touchdown nullified because of a penalty.

"I need to get the ball 16 to 20 times a game," Sparks said. "I'm not effective if I only get the ball five or six times. The more carries I get, the stronger I get."

Price plans to accommodate him.

"Derek is a load when he carries the ball," Price said. "He has speed, but he'll also plow over people. I knew he was special the first day he was here. I remember thinking, 'Notre Dame gets 25 of these guys each year.' If I had 25 Derek Sparkses, coaching would be a little easier."

At times, there did seem to be a number of Derek Sparkses running around. Almost every school seemed to have one.

Sparks' high school career was a movable feast. He started in Wharton, Tex., as a freshman, then transferred to Wilmington Banning. He gained nearly 1,394 yards for the Pilots and was selected the state sophomore player of the year by Cal-Hi Sports, but left after one year.

He spent his junior season at Montclair Prep, where he gained 1,944 yards, scored 35 touchdowns and was The Times' Valley back of the year. But Montclair Prep coaches were no better at holding onto Sparks than opponents. One game into the 1990 season, he broke free and was gone.

After playing in Montclair Prep's opener, Sparks and his cousin, Leland, transferred to Mater Dei. The move sparked plenty of finger-pointing on both sides.

The Sparkses were declared eligible by the Southern Section after two meetings, during which Montclair Prep coaches were accused of grade-tampering and recruiting.

Leland Sparks also went to Washington State to play football, but is academically ineligible.

Montclair Prep was placed on probation. Its football program was not allowed to compete in the 1991 playoffs.

"There was a lot of bad blood," Derek Sparks said. "There were things that happened that shouldn't have happened. All the chaos made it hard to focus on football."

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