Some nights, Clay Cordasco and the two teammates he shared a bedroom with would stay up late into the night talking, wondering if this was where their dreams would die.
“We would be like, ‘We’re never going to get out of here. We’re never going to get offers,’” Cordasco said.
“Here” was the two-room apartment Cordasco shared with seven teammates during his sophomore year at Los Angeles Valley College. There weren’t nearly enough beds to go around, so each night Cordasco and his roommates slept on air mattresses that were filled with holes. Around 4:30 a.m., they would wake up on cue to re-inflate their beds and steal a few more hours of sleep.
“I had a job at a gym in Calabasas,” Cordasco said. “On game days, I would have to wake up at 6:30 and go in and clean the gym. Then go back home, take a nap, get ready and drive to school. It was hard, but it was fun, you know?”
In a less literal sense, “here” was what players fondly refer to as the JUCO struggle; the tantalizing opportunity to showcase your talent in a college football hotbed and the juxtapositioned fear that if you don’t make it there, you are never going to make it anywhere.
Cordasco made it. After a journey that brought him to Corvallis from the other side of the country — with stops at two different junior colleges along the way — the Oregon State senior is ready for one last ride as he prepares to take on a larger role with the Beavers this fall.
After playing in nine games with the Beavers last season, Cordasco is in the mix for a starting spot this season on an offensive line that hopes to be much improved after allowing more sacks per-game than any team in the nation last season.
“Clay is great in that he’s a physical, tough guy,” Oregon State offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. “You like that attitude that he brings to the group. He’s really worked hard to improve his understanding of the game; the nuances of the game, understanding defenses and putting his body in the right position.
Five years ago, a starting spot along a Pac-12 offensive line seemed unimaginable to Cordasco. After concluding his senior year at Kennett High in New Hampshire — he played the previous three seasons in his hometown, Cornish, Maine — he hoped to play collegiately somewhere. But his grades weren’t good enough to get him into a Division II school, and playing in New England didn't exactly put him on the map for college scouts.
So come the following fall, he was left without a team and, for the first time, thought his football career might be over. He took a job with a friend sealcoating driveways and stayed in shape just in case a school came calling.
“It was depressing,” Cordasco said. “It’s just mentally hard. It just came to a point where I was like, ‘I’m probably not going to be able to play anymore.’ I just came to the realization that I’m going to have to get a job and keep working.”
His opportunity finally came the following July, when his uncle in Calabasas, California, convinced Cordasco’s father to send him across the country and play for nearby Pierce Community College, where he had played in the 1980’s.
It was the first time Cordasco had ever been on a plane, and when he touched down he felt like he was on a different planet.
“My hometown is 1,400 people,” Cordasco said. “You go to LA it feels like 38 million.”
After Cordasco completed his first season at Pierce, the school’s head coach departed and Cordasco did not know if the incoming staff would have a roster spot for him. So he followed his friend and Pierce teammate German Valenzuela 10 miles up Burbank Blvd. to Los Angeles Valley College, where he immediately formed a bond with the school’s offensive line coach, Tanner Farwell.
Farewell had grown accustomed to working with undersized linemen during his first three seasons at LA Valley, and couldn’t believe what he was seeing the first time the 6-foot-5, 315 pound Cordasco walked into his office.
“German brought him over and my mouth kind of dropped,” Farwell said. “I was like, ‘Man, this kid is big!’ The first thing I told him to do was take a deep knee squat. He squatted down and his heels stayed on the floor. I told him, ‘You have Division 1 potential if you really want this thing.’”
But even if everything went according to plan on the field, Cordasco still had to succeed academically and navigate the pitfalls that derail so many other talented JUCO players.
As part of the California Community College Athletics Association, LA Valley and its neighboring schools are not permitted to provide scholarships, and students are not permitted to receive financial assistance of any kind as compensation for athletic participation — including housing or meal plans.
That means players, and in many cases, their parents, are responsible for paying their way through school completely out of pocket.
“We can’t give anything,” Farwell said. “These kids are paying $246 a unit — with 12 units to be eligible. To get your degree is 65 units to transfer. You’re talking about an investment of money. You’re talking about $10,000-$15,000 a year just to come out here to do this. And a lot of kids that I do this with, some of them end up in debt because they can’t pass classes.”
So over the next year, as Farwell helped Cordasco improve his technique and football IQ, he also helped him believe that he could succeed in the classroom.
“He just lived in the tutor center,” Farwell said. “He was always at the tutor center.”
During Cordasco’s lone season at LA Valley he finished up his Associates Degree and earned all-conference honors for a Monarchs squad that went 11-0. It didn’t take long for the scholarship offers to come pouring in, and shortly after the season, Oregon State delivered a dream offer.
Now, with his Bachelor’s Degree completed, Cordasco’s 2019 season will be the light at the end of the tunnel that every JUCO players hopes to reach. He knows how differently his story could have played out and knows that all those sleepless nights on an apartment floor and hours in the tutor center could have been for nothing.
But he also knows without all of that, he wouldn’t be the player or person he is today.
“You come all that way and it’s such an unknown time in your life,” Cordasco said. “Everything is up in the air. Nothing is stable. JUCO made me really mature as a person. It really made me be thankful for what you earn in your life. It was hard — it was really hard. Would I do it again? I don’t know. But I’m thankful for those two years.”