When Stars Align
A trio of alumni rise to the highest levels of pro sports while giving an entire region reason to believe
by Eddie Hughes
Somewhere along the way, while pages fell off the calendar and hopes began anew, the little University that could became the major University that will. A blossoming community at the heart of the Central Valley grew in aspiration as quickly as it grew in size. And it didn’t take long for that University and that community to come together as one — producing an educated workforce to drive the economy while unifying residents behind the excitement of Fresno State.
The Red Wave was born.
A fan base with a game day wardrobe featuring only one color and traveling from city to city to cheer on its Bulldogs soon spawned a new generation of believers and raised them to ask “why not us?” while daring to dream instead of settling for average.
It’s the Fresno State of mind. It means not settling for average but striving to measure yourself against the best. It sounds like a bold way of thinking, and that’s exactly the way University President Joseph I. Castro likes it.
Don’t tell Fresno State students or alumni they’re not supposed to be great. They’ve probably heard it all their lives while taking the brunt of jokes from Hollywood or fighting to overcome the true challenges that exist in the Central Valley. But overcoming those challenges makes the reward that much sweeter.
This is what it means to be Fresno State material. It’s a fabric that never fades under the scorching sun while working in the fields or training on them. It’s made of threads that bind together in good times and bad, each one relying on the other to prevent the whole thing from unraveling. And it’s a fabric that comes in many colors, shapes and sizes.
Feeling pride for the hometown school yet?
As the New York Times said this past September, Fresno has been described as the state’s truest college town. The Valley loves its University and it loves its stars. They serve as points of pride for a region long determined to get the chip off its shoulder and show the world it’s willing to settle things on the field. Just give ’em the opportunity. Remember the mantra “anyone, anytime, anywhere?”
Right now, because of a handful of superstar alumni athletes, the Fresno State brand is flashing in front of everyone, all the time, everywhere.
It’s nothing new for Fresno State to have alumni playing pro ball, but never before in its history has Fresno State had three stars who are this super all at once in each of the three most major professional sports.
Paul George. Derek Carr. Aaron Judge.
In the past year alone, Paul George, 27, won an Olympic gold medal with the USA basketball team, made his fourth straight NBA all-star appearance, graced the cover of the NBA’s most popular video game and released his own signature New Era Bulldogs cap and Nike shoe (including the “PG1 University” option in Bulldog red). This past offseason, George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a blockbuster deal with the Indiana Pacers.
At the same time, Derek Carr, 26, signed a five-year, $125 million deal with the Oakland Raiders, becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player ever at the time while coming off his second straight NFL Pro Bowl selection, leading the Raiders to a 12-win season for the first time since 2000 and being featured with his brother, David, on ESPN’s E:60. At Fresno State’s 2017 season opener, Carr’s jersey No. 4 was retired at a packed Bulldog Stadium.
Then there’s Aaron Judge, 25, the New York Yankees’ 6-foot-7, 280-pound rookie outfielder who burst into stardom by hitting home runs at a pace only the greats like Babe Ruth and Roger Maris could contend with. Judge starred in a viral skit on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, won his first Major League Home Run Derby en route to breaking Mark McGwire’s all-time rookie record for home runs and was named American League Rookie of the Year.
There is likely not another university in America with three active superstars as high profile as these in the three sports.
And making it even more special, according to popular opinion, they are all-around good people — exactly the type of alumni who make a university proud.
“All three of them are really genuine people who had great parents, and I don’t think that’s an accident,” says Paul Loeffler, the voice of the Bulldogs for 940 ESPN radio. “All three had people who were very involved in their lives.”
By George, He’s Done It
When George signed with Fresno State in 2009 out of Knight High School in Palmdale, his parents, Paul and Paulette, moved to Kingsburg so they’d be close enough to watch his games. “You saw the kind of person he was, the perspective he had and how he treated other people,” Loeffler says.
By George’s sophomore year, he had grown to 6-foot-9, led the team in scoring and was drafted 10th overall by the Pacers — the highest a Bulldogs basketball player had ever been chosen. The Bulldogs finished just 15-18 that season under former coach Steve Cleveland, but the bevy of NBA scouts showing up to the Save Mart Center each game was a surefire sign that George was a special prospect. It didn’t take long for Pacers general manager Larry Bird to find out he had made a great pick.
George’s NBA scoring totals climbed each year, except for 2014-15 when he was recovering from a broken leg, and plateaued this past season when he averaged 23.7 points before being traded to the Thunder in the offseason with one year left on his contract. George, who has become known for his work ethic and choosing one area of his game to improve each offseason, has fans in Oklahoma City so excited that hundreds showed up to greet him at the airport the day he joined the team.
“Paul has always stayed humble, he’s understood what it’s taken for him to get to the point he’s at right now, and he’s never forgotten that,” says Fresno State basketball coach Rodney Terry. “I saw him early in the summer, and there were no days off for him. He’s working, he’s trying to get better, he’s trying to continue to be one of the best players in the world.”
A Fabulous New Carr
The Carr family has been Fresno famous since 2001, when David Carr led the Bulldogs as high as No. 8 in the national rankings and became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft.
Eight years later, along came the youngest Carr brother, Derek, one of the highest rated quarterback prospects in the nation out of Bakersfield Christian High School. And he only wanted to play for one school — the school he’d been rooting for since he was 5 years old watching his big brother play alongside his parents, Rodger and Sheryl, and middle brother, Darren.
“You see that same enthusiasm and hopefulness now that he had as a kid,” Loeffler says. “He talks so openly about loving everybody and his faith, and he never has a critical word to say about anyone. He shows great leadership.”
Then-coach Pat Hill was ecstatic to have this new Carr. But he didn’t start Carr right away. Carr redshirted and developed (just like David). And whenhis turn came, it was a full-time job for someone to update the record books. In three years as the starter, including his final two seasons under former coach Tim DeRuyter, Carr became an All-American, athletically and academically, and earned two straight Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors. He set new records for the most passing yards (12,842) and touchdowns (113) in school history.
He was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders and earned the starting job before the opening game of his rookie season, leading a franchise turnaround in the process.
“I’ve known him since he was 5 years old. He was built to be a quarterback,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford says. “He’s amazing, really. He’s got it all going for him. He can throw every ball on the field. He’s so prepared and so smart about what he’s doing. He’s at a different level.”
All Rise for the Honorable Judge
Fresno State baseball coach Mike Batesole grins as wide as the brim of his cap when telling the story of how Judge, a Linden High School product, ended up on campus. Judge’s parents, recently retired school teachers Wayne and Patty, both Fresno State alumni themselves, reached out to get him into Fresno State’s select prospect camp. Each year, a few of the standouts at the camp receive scholarship offers to join the program. “It didn’t take 10 minutes, and I said, ‘OK, let’s go into my office and talk a little bit,’” Batesole says of his first glimpse of Judge on the field.
Judge went on to an All-American career at Fresno State, helping the Bulldogs to two conference championships. As a junior, he was drafted in the first round, 32nd overall, by the New York Yankees. Known for his infectious smile and fierce loyalty to his teammates while playing in the biggest media market in the world, Judge appears almost shy when it comes to talking about his own accomplishments — however historic they are.
“His character off the field is as good as it is on the field,” says former Yankees manager Joe Girardi. “He really understands what you need to do when you’re in the spotlight. You always know he’s going to act the right way and do the right thing. I give his family a lot of credit for the way he’s been raised. He just does things the right way.”
In April 1992, the day after he was born, Judge was adopted by Wayne and Patty. He credits them for putting him in position to be where he’s at now — and after he broke the all-time Major League Baseball rookie home run record, he said he would give the game ball to his parents.
“You could see physically how gifted he was,” Loeffler says. “He was destined for greatness, and he had the discipline to stay humble.”
Future of Fresno State
Turn on the TV, open a newspaper or click on a sports website, and there’s a strong chance a story about Carr, Judge or George will be featured. But what does it all mean for their alma mater, Fresno State?
There are obvious recruiting benefits — showing future Bulldogs what’s possible when they attend Fresno State. And University President Castro, who has been preaching academics and athletics rising together since his first day on the job, believes the excitement generated by these three could impact student applications as well. But the real opportunity for Fresno State — the one that could pay dividends in the coming years — is how the stature and visibility of celebrity alumni like these translate into building their former programs and others at the University?
“For an athletic department like Fresno State, having three guys like that could be a game changer if they’re able to parlay that into recruiting,” says ESPN reporter Arash Markazi, who also teaches journalism at the University of Southern California. “I’ve noticed a lot of kids aren’t into history. If a school’s last championship was in the 1980s, that doesn’t hold a lot of weight with them. But these three are young players in the prime of their careers playing for signature teams. It changes things.”
Batesole, Terry and Tedford are all leveraging their notable alumni in recruiting. Other sports are too, men’s and women’s. Batesole said he’s already seeing youngsters wearing jersey No. 99 like Judge. Terry is seeing youngsters wearing George’s Nike shoes. And Carr’s Raiders jersey is one of the top sellers in the NFL.
“We’re living in the moment right now with these guys,” Terry says. “These guys are current superstars in each of their fields. You always talk about staying relevant — Fresno State is as relevant as you can get right now with those guys performing on the main stage.”
The fact these alumni are also fan favorites for what they do off the field and court provides teaching material for Fresno State coaches.
“I tell our players, ‘You always have little ears, you have little eyes always watching. You guys are role models,’” Terry says. “People are always watching you and everything you do and the way you carry yourself. Those guys have done
a great job of doing that, not only in their collegiate careers, but they’re doing it at the professional level as well in terms of the way they carry themselves.”
So where will Fresno State athletics be positioned five years from now? And beyond that, what does it mean for the University and community as a whole?
“We’ve had talented student-athletes in all different sports forever, men and women distinguishing themselves,” Castro says. “This is a very special time when all three of these Bulldogs are playing at the highest levels in their sports, and it exemplifies what’s possible here at Fresno State. Most of our students are going to be great leaders outside of sports and this level of distinction inspires them to reach for excellence.”
George posted a photo of himself in the first row at Yankee Stadium this summer, wearing a Judge jersey and cheering his fellow Bulldog. George also returned to campus Sept. 2 to see his buddy Carr have his jersey retired.
“We were the only school to have a Pro Bowler, an all-star in baseball and an all-star in basketball in one season this past year,” Carr says as if he rattles off those talking points each day. “If you ask any of my Raiders teammates, they know that stat. Fresno State is a special place with special people. The same things that are said about David and myself can be said about Paul George and Aaron Judge. They are good people. We’re not just all right at what we do, these are good people, and they come from a great place.”
It’s a place that will forever be proud of them and inspired by them. And, perhaps, somewhere in the Valley right now, there’s a kid dreaming about becoming an astronaut or doctor or playing pro sports. And maybe others are telling that kid to be more realistic. But that child can point to at least three reasons why dreaming big dreams and working hard make anything possible. Sometimes, the stars align. That inspiration is a piece of the legacy these alumni left behind.
“It’s incredible, it’s an honor, I’m proud to be a former Bulldog,” Judge says, breaking into his trademark smile. “All of us, we’re just a big family. Bulldog born, Bulldog bred.”
Other ’Dogs in the Pros
National Basketball Association
Tyler Johnson (2010-14), guard,
National Football League
Davante Adams (2011-13), wide receiver,
Green Bay Packers
Chris Carter (2007-10), linebacker,
Tyeler Davison (2010-14), defensive line,
New Orleans Saints
Bryce Harris (2007-11), offensive line,
New Orleans Saints
Ben Jacobs (2006-10), linebacker,
Curtis Riley (2013-14), cornerback,
Derron Smith (2010-14), safety,
Charles Washington (2011-15), safety,
Kenny Wiggins (2006-10), offensive line,
Los Angeles Chargers
National Pro Fastpitch
Jill Compton (2013-16), pitcher,
Brenna Moss (2012-15), outfield,
Major League Baseball
Doug Fister (2005-06), pitcher,
Boston Red Sox
Matt Garza (2003-05), pitcher,
Jordan Luplow (2012-14), outfielder,
Justin Wilson (2006-08), pitcher,
Professional Golf Association
Nick Watney (2000-03)
— Eddie Hughes is senior editor for Fresno State Magazine.