STOCKTON — There was never a question about Sammy Yeager's game.
Of all the basketball players who have come through the Modesto Metro Conference, Yeager was the one kid who could do everything.
He was a powerful, 6-foot-4 guard equally adept at hitting 3-pointers or ripping down a rebound, leading his own fast break and finishing with authority at the other end, carrying Modesto High to a Sac-Joaquin Section championship game in 2007. No MMC team has come close since.
No, the only questions about Yeager came off the court. When he wasn't doing everything in his power to avoid going to class, he was a party waiting to happen willing, eager and fully loaded.
By far the most popular kid at Modesto High, his name was brought up by classmates three times during the school's 2007 graduation ceremonies, evoked by honor students going onto four-year schools across the country as someone they'd always remember from their high school days.
Each time, the mere mention of "Sammy" prompted cheers and applause from the sea of mortarboards. But Sammy wasn't there. The Modesto Bee's basketball Player of the Year did not graduate with his class.
It appeared that would be Yeager's Panther legacy. He was destined to fade into the realm of whatever-happened-to ...
Well, fast forward to right now, because this is what has happened to Sammy Yeager. He's a senior at Cal State Fullerton, averaging 15 points a game for the Titans, who play tonight at University of the Pacific.
But that's just a number, an insignificant set of digits against what's really going on here, because Sammy Yeager is on track to graduate from college this May with a BA in African-American studies.
"I'm on time to graduate," Yeager said with that ever-present quick and easy smile, then laughing at the math. Yes, if being on a six-year plan is on-time, Sammy's right there. "Well, now I'm on time. I think I've done things the hard way, and I know it's helped me to grow."
He's had no shortage of coaches along the way willing to stick out their necks to help him succeed on the court and in life.
There was Donnie Wallace at Modesto High, Paul Brogan at Modesto Junior College, and other coaches at Waterford College in Texas, as well as at Texas Christian University.
TCU was going to be Yeager's chance his shot at playing Division I college basketball. He averaged 9.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Horned Frogs in 2010-11.
"Things didn't work out at TCU," Yeager said. "I didn't have the relationship with the coach that I wanted and I really didn't get along with the players. Things went downhill there fast.
"I didn't know what was going to happen. I just was trying to find a place somewhere, anywhere. This ended up being my home."
When you have Yeager's skills, there always will be a coach willing to take a chance. That's a fact of life because every coach carries within himself a hint of Father Flanagan, a willingness to be the savior of young men.
"You get into coaching because you want to help kids," said Fullerton head coach Andy Newman. "So you see a kid like Sammy and you think you can help him.
"But it took Sammy maturing and getting to the point where he would allow people to help him. I think that's the point of his life where we got him.
"Paul and everybody along the line played a part in bringing him along, and finally it just registered with Sammy that this is it."
Yeager transferred to Fullerton to start the 2011-12 school year, knowing that it would require sitting out a full season before he would be eligible to play. Even though this would be his last chance, since failing at Fullerton would leave him with no more college basketball options, he wasn't the one taking the leap of faith.
"Bringing in a bad kid can kill a team, and I knew that coming into this," Newman said. "But I also knew the character of the kids who would be around Sammy, and I knew they would help him. Sammy was the bad element for a long time and now, wow, he's been great.
"He's articulate and he has charisma. He always was capable of doing this, of being successful in the classroom. It was just a matter of him making the choice did he want to be a positive person in life or did he want to be a positive person at tonight's party? To see him turn his life around like this is incredible."
When you ask Yeager about his life post-Panther Palace, he still answers a bit sheepishly. Four years ago, that reticence was because he knew he was living a lie. Now, it's because there is a slight hint of remorse. He knows now he could have made his own path a lot smoother.
But he also believes those wayward years have made him stronger, and he has come to appreciate the patience and confidence of the Wallaces and Brogans along the way.
"I don't know what I'd say to them other than that I'm thankful they were in my life," Yeager said. "I'd thank them for sticking with me and the person I am, and giving me the opportunities that they did."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150. Find his blog at thehive.modbee.com/thurman.