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SRJC football player dies in drive-by shooting in Sacramento

If this were a normal year, Rashaun Harris would have been in Santa Rosa on May 29, finishing up finals at SRJC and reflecting upon the end of spring football practice. Instead, with the coronavirus pandemic shuttering classrooms and putting an end to spring sports activities, he and his teammates went their various ways.

Harris had joined his family in Sacramento, and on May 29 they all went out to dinner. Harris again told them of his dreams.

“He said, ‘Once I make it, I’m gonna get my mom out of the ’hood, my siblings,’?” recounted his older sister, Dajonnae Harris. “All he cared about was playing ball. He loved his family and his nieces and nephews. He had never been in police trouble.”

Rashaun will never get a chance to make good on his promise. As he sat in his car across the street from the family home in Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood at about 10 that night, someone in a passing car shot at Harris and killed him. Dajonnae is certain it was a case of mistaken identity.

It was a tragedy wholly its own, as distinct and personal as any senseless murder. But it was also a reminder of the unique place a junior college, and a sports program, can play in the life of a young man. And it was reminder of the complicated ways this pandemic has changed the world.

“Those kids are like your kids,” SRJC football coach Lenny Wagner said. “When they go away for breaks, I think you worry about them. I wouldn’t say ‘scared,’ but you do fear their life will be complicated in some way when they go home.”

Harris wasn’t the first Bear Cub to run into trouble outside the cocoon of campus. Last fall semester, one of his fellow cornerbacks, Eric Wilson, was shot during a trip home to Baltimore during a holiday break. Wilson’s father, who directed him to Santa Rosa immediately after high school to get his son away from a high-risk neighborhood, hadn’t wanted him to come back home for visits.

Wilson survived, but the shooting was one factor in his decision not to return to SRJC.

Harris had grown up in Vallejo, but most of his family had moved to Sacramento a few years ago. He joined them there recently and got a job for Amazon. After dinner on May 29, he had remained in his car for a few minutes of alone time, as was his habit.

“I was the first one on the scene, because I ran outside when I heard the shots,” Dajonnae Harris said.

Sacramento Police Department officers responded to the gunfire, and paramedics followed shortly thereafter, according to a police press release. They pronounced Rashaun Harris dead at the scene.

Two weeks earlier, he and his twin sister, Esme, had celebrated their 23rd birthdays together. Wagner described Harris as “very thankful and appreciative of things.” Wagner had expected him to start at cornerback in 2020, and to earn an offer to a four-year university.

“This is a hard pill to swallow,” Dajonnae Harris said. “Out of all 10 of us, he was the one gonna make it.”

A shooting in Meadowview? It makes Diamond Weaver sad to hear, but it doesn’t surprise him.

“I actually grew up in that neighborhood,” Weaver said. “It’s known as a Blood neighborhood. But also, one of the biggest Crip gangs is not too far away. So you’re dealing with that dynamic.”

Weaver, now 33, is a shining example of the junior college model. He came to Santa Rosa JC, as he puts it, “a little rough around the edges.” Wagner describes it a bit differently.

“When we got him, he was a trainwreck,” Wagner said. “We almost kicked him off the team about 10 times.”

Weaver grew up in Sacramento, but moved to Mobile, Alabama, to live with a relative when he was 16. It was pretty much a survival move.

The drugs and gang activity were closing in on him, and he and his mother feared he would be overtaken. Weaver fell in love with football in Mobile, but he was rebellious, and his grades were in tatters.

“My mom didn’t graduate high school. My father wasn’t present,” he said. “There wasn’t an importance on education. She stressed that I have to get my diploma, but the path to get there and the advice and tools to make that happen wasn’t a place she could speak from.”

A four-year university was out of the question, so Weaver looked at community colleges. An uncle suggested California, where there are no JC entrance requirements and Weaver might be able to re-establish residency. He visited Santa Rosa on a whim, and fell in love with the program, the school and the city.

He has never fully left. Though Weaver has moved around for a football coaching career, he maintains strong ties to Santa Rosa. He’s currently sheltering here with his girlfriend.

Not that it was easy for Weaver at SRJC. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment with five other roommates near campus. They pooled money to cobble together dinner.

But Weaver learned to negotiate the demands of classes, grades and football playbooks. He left after three years on such solid footing that his athletic counselor at the University of Akron called him the best-prepared JC transfer he’d ever seen. Weaver got a degree in communications and is currently cornerbacks coach at Stony Brook University, a DI football program on Long Island.

For every Diamond Weaver, though, there are a couple dozen young men who don’t make a successful transition from high school to college.

“All the kids that come to us have gaps in their life,” Wagner said. “Sometimes the gap is academic, sometimes it’s social. Our job is to fill those gaps and get them to a four-year college.”

A lot of the “gaps” that make a prospect undesirable for four-year programs could be lumped into one category: The kid didn’t have enough support or stability to take advantage of an opportunity.

“I’ve had kids tell me their moms were prostitutes and the dads were their pimps,” Wagner said. “I’ve had kids call me right after being shot. I’ve had them call me when someone is expecting them to shoot someone, and they don’t want to, because they’re scared. It’s tragic, man.”

Even when it isn’t that extreme, the odds can be stacked against a young person attempting to lift himself up. Take Rashaun Harris. When he was trying to register at SRJC, the big holdup was getting his official transcript from Sacramento City College, which he had briefly attended. The school wouldn’t release it, because he owed money. Wagner wondered how much the guy owed. Hundreds? Even thousands? After two weeks of give-and-take, he finally asked. Harris’ answer: $20.

“Twenty bucks,” Wagner said. “It was two weeks. You’re wondering how he eats.”

The coach knows about the challenges of adjusting to college, because he lived them. He was sort of a wild child growing up in Placentia and Fullerton, in Orange County, the son of a single mother who worked seven days a week in a bar. Lenny and his friends partied. A lot.

Wagner was young for his grade, too. He was 13 when he started high school and didn’t turn 17 until just after his senior football season. When he arrived at Fullerton Junior College, he was a boy among men, emotionally and physically. It was an eye-opener. But he learned stability, and a lot of other things, from legendary coach Hal Sherbeck, who would retire in 1992 with 240 victories (at the time, a record for community colleges) and three national titles.

Wagner once asked Sherbeck why he never accepted a job offer at a four-year university, and Wagner never forgot his mentor’s answer: He chose junior college because it’s the highest level of football where every decision you make as a coach can be based upon the interests of the student.

“The reality is when you’re tenured faculty at a junior college, it’s rare you get fired for losing,” Wagner said. “Situations come up, and you have to make an ethical decision. Is this in the best interest of the kid? Me? The school? Is this an injury situation where you’re gonna push him to play? Those decisions come up a lot.”

Sherbeck’s words were still ringing in Wagner’s head years later, in 1998, when he was finishing his master’s degree in kinesiology at Sonoma State. He had been working for Nordby Construction, and the company offered him a six-figure position. At the same time, Wagner was offered the head coaching job at Mendocino College, for $17,000 per year. He was about to get married. He chose coaching.

His mission has never changed since then - to shepherd eager boys toward adulthood.

Santa Rosa JC does what it can to support the players. The athletic department’s student-athlete center, funded largely by the DeBenedetti family, is a place for players to hang out, use laptops. The center offers regular tutorials on things such as time management, financial aid applications, opening a bank account - all the intricacies of life away from home.

The needs can run deeper, like getting enough to eat. By California Community College Athletic Association rules, SRJC cannot regularly feed its players. Many of the out-of-town kids are eligible for EBT cards; the department helps them sign up, and directs them to campus services and food banks if necessary. The football program usually holds an annual fundraiser. Last year’s raised $100,000. About $40,000 went toward food for the players.

“Not having that fundraiser this year is gonna hurt,” Wagner said.

It’s a terrible year for charities. Another thing that has been impacted by the coronavirus: admissions.

With universities staying online this fall and finances becoming paramount, many four-year students are opting for a cheaper semester at the local community college. Wagner said SRJC’s summer classes are completely full already.

“We worked to get priority registration for our athletes,” he said. “If they follow all the instructions, they’ll most likely get the classes they want. The challenge is, with all the uncertainty with class and football, people are wanting to wait before they register. We’re trying to convince them they need to register now.”

The most fundamental need, of course, is safety. Wagner isn’t Superman. He can’t fully shield his players even when they’re in Santa Rosa. But he knows some of them stand a better chance here than in the neighborhoods they worked so hard to leave. He knows that what happened to Rashaun Harris and Eric Wilson is a constant threat.

“Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of those calls over the years,” Wagner said. “They don’t get any easier.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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