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SRJC football standouts on what’s next, tough times after teammates’ deaths

For Jake Simmons and TJ Talamoni-Marcks, Wednesday was a special day to cap a year they won’t soon forget.|

For Jake Simmons and TJ Talamoni-Marcks, Wednesday was a special day to cap a year they won’t soon forget.

The two Santa Rosa Junior College football standouts finalized their college commitments on Wednesday, the first day of the regular signing period for Division I and II football, with an intimate but boisterous ceremony in front of teammates, friends and family on SRJC’s campus.

Simmons, the Bear Cubs quarterback and a former prep star at Rancho Cotate, will be playing at Robert Morris University, an NCAA Division I program in Pittsburgh, next season. Talamoni-Marcks, a freshman linebacker and former standout at Clear Lake High School, will also be playing Division I ball at Utah’s Dixie State University.

A third Bear Cub, defensive star and 2015 Santa Rosa grad Devonte Manning, also recently committed, but he was absent Wednesday since he’s already enrolled at Harding University, a Division II powerhouse in Searcy, Arkansas.

“They were all great players,” SRJC head coach Lenny Wagner said. “They provided great leadership through some really tough times. From starting out 0-5 and then rallying back to finish the season the way we did says a lot about the leadership those guys did provide. … We’re gonna really miss that and hopefully those guys seeped into all these young guys and they can carry that forward.”

To describe what the SRJC football team has endured recently as “tough times” might be underselling the reality. Since May 2020, Wagner has had three of his players die. Rashaun “Tweet” Harris was shot and killed in May 2020. Jason “JT” Evans was in a motorcycle accident just as camp began in August and was taken off life support in September. And Jorgen “Sarge” Sarganis died in a car crash in October 2021.

“Losing Tweet, JT and Sarge, the one word to describe it is ‘crazy,’” Talamoni-Marcks recalled. “Seeing them every day at the weight room or on the field, it was a different pace when they weren’t there. They were always there to push us, make us better, it was a struggle for a minute but we just had to keep going.”

Through those hardships and others — like having their 2020 season canceled and dealing with constant COVID interruptions to open their 2021 campaign — the Bear Cubs persevered. After opening the season 0-7 with some lopsided losses, they rallied to win their final three games of the year.

For many, including Simmons and Talamoni-Marcks, this was not the first time they’ve had to overcome adversity in their lives.

Simmons said he was in a “dark place” when he transferred back to SRJC from San Jose State at the end of the 2020 season. He landed at SJSU after a stellar 2018 season at SRJC with big dreams of becoming a Division I star — but never saw game action in his two years there after the Spartans bolstered their quarterback room with several other transfers shortly after he arrived.

“When I got back here from San Jose, just being around a team atmosphere brought me out of that dark place,” Simmons said. “I’ll never forget this past year of football in my entire life. It taught me so much about myself and I’m just grateful to be sitting here where I am right now.”

For Talamoni-Marcks, signing to play Division I football helped him dispel the negative stereotypes he experienced as a kid.

“Just growing up, being Native in the community of Lake County, I was never supposed to be in these shoes,” he said. “Basically I was supposed to be a drunk, a drug addict, a father — I wasn’t supposed to be any of this. Not a lot of kids come out of Lake County, especially being D1. But I’m just glad I got the opportunity and I chose the right school to get me there.”

Even Manning had to work through a lot to end up at Harding.

He got into legal trouble at 18 and had two children over the next several years but turned his life around and became not just the Bear Cubs’ most important player this past year, but also the first member of his family to go to a four-year college.

“You know what that means, the implications of a cycle-breaker,” Wagner said. “When the norm of your family is what a lot of these guys’ norm has been, it’s like doomsday. But when you get one person to break that cycle, that becomes the new normal.”

The list of SRJC football commits likely won’t end with Talamoni-Marcks, Simmons and Manning. Wagner said a number of other players have offers and will be continuing on to the next level.

Bear Cubs add familiar faces

SRJC recently hired two alumni to join its coaching staff.

Former quarterback Greg Alexander, a star during his days at Piner, is returning to Santa Rosa to be the Bear Cubs’ quarterback coach while former standout wide receiver Lucas Triplett, a Fort Bragg grad, is back to coach wide receivers.

Alexander is arguably the greatest quarterback in SRJC history, owning most of the Bear Cubs’ all-time passing records. He went on to pass for over 3,000 yards in 13 games at the University of Hawaii before a knee injury derailed his pro prospects. He was inducted into the SRJC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2019 and since 2018 has been teaching and coaching football at Cloverdale High School.

Triplett had a stellar two-year run for the Bear Cubs when he was named NorCal MVP and earned second-team JC All-American honors, before going on to play sparingly at Sacramento State.

“We’re pumped to have both those guys,” said Wagner, who also noted how many of his former players are on his current staff.

“Right now, we have 17 coaches and 15 of them played for me, and I think 12 of those 15 played for me here and then went on and got degrees,” he said. “So, it’s pretty fun.”

You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or gus.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @JustGusPD.

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