It took Wade Hawkins about three days to run head-on into one of the harsh, eye-opening realities of college football something that happens at nearly every school, every level.
The former Waterford High quarterback decided to attend Menlo College in Atherton for various reasons. The football reason was a promise from the coaching staff that he'd be able to compete for the quarterback job.
In his first week of practice in 2011, Hawkins was redshirted and moved to safety.
Moving forward two seasons, Hawkins not only is getting his chance to be behind center, but has moved into the starting role for the Oaks, now coached by former San Jose SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb.
Hawkins enjoyed his best-ever afternoon on the field last week, completing 21 of 29 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns as the Oaks defeated Lindenwood-Belleville (Ill.) 30-22.
That trip to suburban St. Louis is typical for Menlo, which plays as an NAIA Division 2 independent. As the only small college in Northern California playing football, Menlo (3-3) has to travel the country to find competition. It next plays Oct. 26 at Wesley College of Dover, Del., followed by a trip to Wichita Falls, Texas, for a game against Midwestern State.
Play football, see the world.
"We've played NAIA schools this year and we've also played games against NCAA Division 3 and Division 2 teams," Grieb said. "Our schedule cuts across a few levels of college football, and that's one of the toughest things about being an NAIA independent it requires us to play a wide range of programs."
That's far from the only thing unique about Menlo football. The Oaks represent a private business school with an enrollment of 735, or only 143 students more than attend Waterford High.
There are 93 players in the football program, or roughly one in every 3.5 males on campus. The school boasts that more than 50 percent of its students compete in intercollegiate athletics, making sports an integral part of everyday life at Menlo.
"The way the football season goes, the success or failure of the team, becomes the atmosphere on campus," said Hawkins, a third-year student in entrepreneurial business, but a sophomore in athletic eligibility. "So many of the guys are involved in football that it seems like we are the majority on campus. The teachers and coaches are so friendly here, to the players and to each other. It means that the coaches always know who is in class and who isn't."
Or, almost like Hawkins never left Waterford, where if a kid acts up in class his parents know about it before he gets home.
Hawkins had a standout senior season at Waterford, leading the 2010 Wildcats under coach Todd Sevick to an 8-3 record and a tie for second in the Southern League. Hawkins completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,145 yards and 16 touchdowns with only one interception.
"I never thought that I wouldn't play college football," Hawkins said. "It always was a dream of mine, and I went to Menlo based on the chance to play quarterback. I already knew I wanted to major in business, and the small-town feel of the school made me feel right at home."
Possibly because of the small-college atmosphere, Menlo has become a popular spot for athletes from the Stanislaus District. Hawkins is one of seven locals on the roster, joining juniors Mitchell Young (a lineman from Central Catholic) and Garrett Bock (quarterback, Calaveras,) sophomores Bryce Howard (lineman, Los Banos) and Michael Whiteside (receiver, Hughson,) and freshmen Gabriel Deol (defensive back, Livingston) and Austin Holt (lineman, Downey.)
"It's interesting to be at a small school like this," said Grieb, a San Jose native who played at UC Davis. "Your presence is felt on campus and everything you do as a student-athlete is under a microscope.
"You have to be aware of that as a coach and how you hold the players accountable. You have to be especially aware of how your leaders carry themselves. That part is no different than it is at a big school, it's just magnified at a small school. It's a tight community and the parents are close and involved because they have to be."
This is Grieb's third coaching tenure at Menlo, but his first as a head coach, and he's the reason Hawkins was moved back to the offensive side of the ball.
Grieb was an offensive assistant when Hawkins arrived on campus in 2011.
"My defensive coach in that first year saw me throwing the ball one day and he said I should approach Grieb about going to offense," Hawkins said. "I did, and he was interested, but he ended up leaving Menlo and I thought that would be my last chance to play quarterback."
Hawkins, at 6-feet, 183 pounds, saw action at safety in seven games in his second year at Menlo and was credited with 33 tackles, including a sack, and intercepted a pass in the home opener, a win over Occidental.
But there was a coaching change after the Oaks' 4-6 season and Grieb was back in the program this time as its leader.
"I reintroduced myself and said I'd like to have a chance to play quarterback and we went from there," Hawkins said. "I was about sixth of six on the depth chart in the spring, but it helped that it was a new system.
"I knew I could give myself a leg-up if I studied hard and worked hard. But with six guys on the depth chart and only two weeks of spring ball I didn't get a lot of reps. Still, it was my dream to play quarterback and no dream can be realized until you put in a significant amount of work."
Grieb said he liked the way Hawkins commanded the respect of teammates in practice, but he withheld judgment until seeing Hawkins in game action.
That came Aug. 31, in the season opener in Cheney, Wash., against nationally ranked Carroll College of Montana. The Oaks were getting blown out and would eventually lose 51-7, but Hawkins got into the game and completed one pass while scrambling once for seven yards.
Even in limited action, Grieb saw enough to make a switch. Hawkins stepped into the role and led Menlo to a 35-6 home win over Pomona-Pitzer.
"It took me awhile to evaluate Wade," Grieb said. "When we put him in the game late against Carroll it became obvious to me that that he's a good practice player who elevates in the game. He's also a good person who is very easy to work with."
Statistically, Hawkins is putting up numbers that mirror what he did at Waterford. Through six games he's completed 56 percent of his passes for 746 yards and 10 touchdowns against only one interception.
And because he didn't play as a freshman, he will have the option to play two more seasons at Menlo. That's a decision for down the road, Hawkins said. For now, he's just living the dream of the small-town kid playing college football.
"It's good to have so many Valley kids on the team, because we outwork everybody else," Hawkins said.
"If you're playing at a small high school and want to play college football, make a plan and have a goal. Don't think you can't do something because of the reputation of your league. There's no reason a player from the Southern League can't achieve anything he wants."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek