Karson Block knows it sounds weird. But back in his junior-college days in California, he played scared. So did his teammates.
“But not in the sense of being afraid to play,” the Washington State defensive lineman said a few weeks ago, sitting in the bleachers at Lincoln Middle School here after volunteering at a youth football camp.
No, the members of the Saddleback College football team were scared to let one another down. That’s how tight they were. That’s how daunting some of their individual struggles seemed to their friends.
Block described their mindset:
“I’m going to do everything I can to help my friend get a scholarship. I don’t want to mess up and have to look him in the eyes and tell him I was the reason you didn’t get out.”
It was a revelation to him that such bonds could exist, and he places this lesson in the context of others that followed — from other teammates, other schools.
After Saddleback, he landed a scholarship at Louisiana-Lafayette, relinquished it because it suddenly seemed wrong, then enrolled at Washington State as a walk-on. Complicating his quest incalculably, he was diagnosed with an immune condition that sometimes saps his energy.
But teammates describe Block as resiliently upbeat, and there seemed an element of will involved when his situation brightened during the past year. In June, the Cougars placed him on scholarship, and last week he made his first career start, at defensive end, as the Cougars defeated New Mexico State 58-7. It was no minor accomplishment for a 6-foot-2, 253-pound lineman who gives up dozens of pounds to opponents and repeatedly has been told he couldn’t play NCAA Division I ball.
“He’s been grinding,” former Saddleback cornerback Darryl Wyrick, a close friend, said by phone this week. “The next thing you know, a scholly at Wazzu. Then he starts a game. I love it.”
The three-way friendship between Block, Wyrick and running back Marvin Marshall is, in Block’s mind, a product of their hardships at Saddleback.
All junior-college football players face obstacles, as viewers of the Netflix series “Last Chance U” have learned. California JCs up the ante by offering no athletic scholarships (as opposed to other types of financial help), as prominent Cougars like quarterback Anthony Gordon and receiver Easop Winston Jr. can attest.
In the case of Saddleback, in Mission Viejo, Calif., there’s an X factor: the surrounding affluence of Orange County. Rents are high and, as with most community colleges, on-campus housing isn’t available.
Block, Wyrick and Marshall lived in a two-bedroom apartment that housed six or seven primary tenants and, at various times, perhaps eight or nine others, mostly teammates. They slept wherever they could carve out a space. Sometimes they skipped a meal or two so they could pay a more pressing expense. Wyrick said the rent was almost $2,000 and Block was instrumental in “stabilizing the payments” and making the situation work.
“Karson looks out for you,” he said. “We were pretty much homeless, Marvin and me, and he welcomed us with open arms.”
Theirs might seem an unlikely friendship. Wyrick and Marshall experienced the harsh urban realities of Dallas and Orlando, Fla., respectively, while Block grew up in the sedate rural town of Atascadero, Calif., where his father works in sports-themed advertising and his mother is an accountant.
But Block said their bond was typical of the Saddleback football milieu.
“You get a mix of people from different areas, different backgrounds, different life experiences — you get us all together and put us on a team, you become really close with them,” he said. “The people I met at Saddleback are people that will be my lifelong friends.”
Block made a team-high 55 tackles as a sophomore at Saddleback, was named to the first unit of a JC All-America team and earned a scholarhip from Louisiana-Lafayette. There, too, he formed important bonds. But he didn’t stay long.
“I miss those guys, but it wasn’t a good fit,” he said. “There were multiple things that added up to me leaving. A big one was one of the coaches told me he didn’t think I was good enough to play Division I football and that I would never play for him. That wasn’t the first time I’d heard that. That added a little fuel to my fire. It just means I get to prove something.
“People don’t know you. They can see what’s on the outside, but they can’t really see what’s inside you, and how bad you want something — your desire, your heart. Every time somebody says that to me, I just kind of smile. I almost enjoy it.”
Finding Washington State more congenial, he accepted a walk-on offer at the behest of coaches like Darcel McBath, who works with a different position group, cornerbacks, but impressed Block with his passion and genuineness.
While serving his one-year NCAA transfer exile at WSU in 2017, Block began feeling ill and, after about a week, consulted a doctor. The diagnosis blindsided him: He had a chronic immune disease. To this day, he takes daily medication and “you have your good days and your bad days,” he said.
None of this is detectable in his spirited play on the field. Block saw backup action last season for the Cougars, appearing in 12 games and getting a sack against Arizona. He also made the second unit of the Pac-12 All-Academic team, focusing on criminal-justice studies that might or might not apply to his eventual work. He talks about possibly becoming a rancher.
“Great energy, tireless worker,” WSU coach Mike Leach said this week of Block, “and he’s gotten better and better as his work’s paid off for him.”
During the past year, Block also has taken a baton from former WSU teammate Logan Tago in mentoring a young football enthusiast from Anatone, Markus Hauck, now that Tago is pursuing a career in the NFL. On this July day at the middle school, Block had persuaded two teammates, Winston and cornerback Marcus Strong, to help him coach Hauck and his friends in a youth camp.
“I remember the dudes that came back and did those types of things when I was young,” Block said. “It made me want to play college football. It made me love the game.”
Even to close friends, Block doesn’t talk much about his illlness. He tries not to think about it either.
“I don’t really like to complain about things,” he said. “My view of the world is, no matter how bad things are in your life, somebody else has always got it worse. I don’t have the right to feel bad for myself. Anytime I was maybe in my own head about it, like, ‘Man, this sucks — why do I have to take the medicine?’ It was easy for me to snap out of it.”
In developing this philosophy, Block has taken inspiration from various sources, including former Navy Seals such as David Goggins. He cited a Goggins maxim that’s particularly useful in football: “When your mind is telling you that you’re done, that you’re exhausted, that you cannot possibly go any further, you’re only actually 40 percent done.”
Other sources of inspiration are more personal — like those two Saddleback friends, Wyrick and Marshall.
“They gave me more knowledge about life,” Block said, “than I could ever give them.”
Dale Grummert may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.