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AT AGE 30, THE LEWIS & CLARK TWO-SPORT STAR COUNTS HIS BLESSINGS



COURTESY: LEWIS & CLARK COLLEGE - C.J. Appleton has been around, in life and in athletics, and now he's settled in as a student and football and basketball player for Lewis & Clark College.Little more than three years ago, when C.J. Appleton was being released from the Multnomah County Jail after a stint for probation violation, he couldn’t have foreseen his world today.

The Central Catholic High grad is a two-sport star at Lewis & Clark College, a 3.54 student in sociology and a respected leader on the campus of one of the state’s premier academic institutions.

It’s an amazing transformation for someone at a very advanced age — 30 — for a college student-athlete.

“I consider C.J. an unbelievable person,” L&C football coach Jay Locey says. “He is one of the most enjoyable players I’ve ever coached. He has a new lease on life, and he’s living it in a big way.”

“Age and maturity and life ends up happening, and now you have this product,” says Dinari Foreman, the Pioneers’ basketball coach. “l’ll tell you, I’d trust him with everything I have, and I’m not a very trusting person.”

Appleton says he sometimes has to pinch himself.

“I’m blessed,” he says. “The only negative is, I play with a bunch of 18-year-olds who remind me all the time that I’m 30. They mess with me all the time. Sometimes when I’m alone, I think about what a unique situation I’m in.”

Last winter, Appleton was a starting forward and a second-team all-Northwest Conference selection for an L&C team that made it to the postseason tournament finals. He averaged 10.0 points and was third in the league in rebounding at 8.5 per game.

On Sept. 11, in his first football game since his senior year in high school in 2003, Appleton caught five passes for 71 yards from his tight-end position in the Pioneers’ season-opening 27-7 loss at home to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

Last week, he had seven receptions for 97 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown catch that pulled the Pioneers to within 17-14 of host Pomona-Pitzer before L&C’s eventual 20-14 loss.

“I felt rusty — still do,” Appleton says with a laugh. “I’m knocking the rust off, slowly but surely.”

There was a time when football seemed very much in Appleton’s future. He went to Oregon State on a football scholarship and redshirted his freshman season in 2004. It was the beginning of a bad period in his life.

Says Foreman: “He was a meathead in those days.”

Appleton had his priorities askew, he says.

“I decided to go to more parties than classes,” says Appleton, one of four players involved in the infamous “Headline Cafe” incident in which defensive end Joe Rudulph punched an off-duty National Guardsman and later pled guilty to fourth-degree assault. “I went through a lot of addiction.”

After one year, Appleton left school and returned to Portland with “no purpose,” drinking, using drugs, finding trouble. He wound up spending a total of about three years at Snake River (Ontario) and Shutter Creek (North Bend) correctional institutions and in the Multnomah County jail for what he says were burglary and an assortment of drug possession and probation violation charges.

Between jail stints, Appleton played the 2008-09 basketball season at Portland Community College, but he drifted after that, going homeless for awhile. His final jail term ended in August 2012.

“I didn’t follow the rules,” he says. “It’s hard to stay out of jail when you can’t pass a (urinary analysis). I was lost for a long time.”

But Appleton, who became sober in April 2012, wanted to turn his life around. He took some classes at PCC and decided to go out for the basketball team. Appleton wound up being a key force on a Panthers team that, two years after an 0-24 campaign, won the NWAACC championship. He was named the postseason tournament’s most inspirational player.

Just as important, Appleton became a serious student, earning a 4.00 grade-point average in two of his four terms at PCC to bring his accumulative average to 3.7. When Lewis & Clark came calling, Appleton was initially surprised.

“I was thinking, I’m going to Portland State,” he says. “So many people from PCC do. I had always been a mediocre student, not because of my abilities but because of my effort.

“But by what I’d done at PCC, I’d put myself in a different category. Lewis & Clark wants me? That’s a big deal.”

When he scouted during the championship season at PCC, Foreman wasn’t enamored of everything about the 6-4 Appleton, who weighed in at 270 pounds at the time.

“I saw a rumbling, stumbling, bumbling, big, agile, out-of-shape body,” the L&C coach says. “He got tired pretty quickly. But when he wasn’t tired, he moved differently than the other big guys on the floor.

“He had great hands. He caught everything. But the most important piece was, he led his teammates 100 percent of the time. You could tell he was there to play for his team, not to get numbers. He was a true team guy.”

Foreman asked PCC coaches Tony Broadous and Aaron Bell whether Appleton could qualify for L&C’s academic rigors.

“Aaron showed me the kid’s transcripts,” Foreman says. “He showed me some A’s in hard classes. He told me about C.J.’s character. He said, ‘This kid is a survivor.’”

Appleton signed with Lewis & Clark, got himself into shape and provided an impact that went beyond the numbers.

“He led,” Foreman says. “He was just a great inspiration in our locker room, in part because of his history. Guys at L&C don’t generally have his story. His voice carries a little more in our locker room. His past gives him a little more credibility. And had a 3.54 in the classroom. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Says Appleton: “Dinari has such great energy. He’s done a good job bringing in high-character kids and guys who mesh well. We have a really close team. When a program is going through growing pains, you’re either going to fight or come together. Last year, we started out slow and came together. We grew up a lot.”

Last fall, Appleton attended a few of the home games of the Pioneer football team, which went 0-9.

“It wasn’t the most impressive thing I’ve seen,” he says. “I’d told myself long ago I’d never play football again.”

Then Appleton happened by the records board outside the football locker room.

“One of the things I want to do here is leave a legacy,” he says. “I want to make it on the wall somehow. I saw it was something I could do. I want to go for the rebounding record in basketball, and for the receiving yardage record in football.”

Appleton talked to then-coach Chris Sulages about turning out for football. After Locey was hired, Appleton sought out the new coach and his offensive coordinator, Jim Nagel.

“I told Coach Locey and Coach Nagel my goals and asked them to help me out,” Appleton says, “realizing I hadn’t played football in 12 years.”

Appleton had the blessings of his basketball coach.

“I wasn’t afraid of him getting hurt in football,” Foreman says. “I was more afraid of him hurting someone else. C.J. is not built for Division III athletics. He is a Division I college football player.”

Appleton continued to work on his body, which is now a trim 240 pounds. And he re-adapted to the game of football during spring practice.

“A lot of it is feel,” he says. “The spring was real ugly. I was in the process of losing weight, and I was tired after a long basketball season.

“But I understand the game. I understand concepts. I was able to grasp the offense and what they were asking me to do. That makes everything so much easier. I can get closer to the reaction mode instead of thinking and worrying what to do.”

Locey — who was at Oregon State for eight years under Mike Riley — is thrilled to have the services of Appleton.

“He’s a very good blocker, a very good receiving tight end,” Locey says. “He has size, he has good feet, runs good routes, catches the ball — he’s a legit tight end, comparable to guys who are playing the Pac-12.

“And he’s like a coach on the field. He takes every practice with a sense of gratitude. He’s making the most out of it. There’s not any time that is wasted. He works to be his best all the time, and help others do the same.

“One day, we asked each of our players to list one teammate who has been the most encouragement to him. Out of 70 guys, C.J. was listed 10 times. And it’s authentic. He cares about people.”

Appleton wants to be the mentor he didn’t have as a youngster.

“I wish there had been somebody there to give me the message, even when I wasn’t trying to hear it,” he says. “I try to be the person I wish I had when I was young. Sometimes when I flex that leadership muscle, it’s in the wrong direction. Sometimes it’s in the right direction. It’s always intended well.

“I appreciate my coaches. They let me do that and let me know if it needs to be done differently. I’m much better at it now than I was a year ago.”

Appleton says he has great admiration for Locey and his staff.

“We all believe in what’s going on,” he says. “If we do our job, it’s going to work. The philosophy is really sound. That’s what’s different than in years past here. There are no grumblings about the coaches, which is poison to success. There is such a super positive vibe around here.”

Appleton is now 3-1/2 years into sobriety.

“The focus you gain when you get sober is the reason why I’m able to do what I’m doing today,” he says. “Without one, there would be no other. I was unable to do that before I went through that self-reflection and taking responsibility for my actions.

“It’s the reason I do my homework at the times I don’t want to. I try to be a leader even the days I don’t want to. It’s about being the person I can be on days when I don’t feel like it.”

Appleton’s plate is crammed full. He works two jobs — as an attendant in the L&C weight room and as a server at Pizza Hut — is taking 16 hours and playing football. He also finds time to attend recovery meetings and sponsor friends who are in recovery.

“It’s a lot,” he says. “I’m trying to do everything, because I feel like so many times in my past there was regret. I could have done this or that if I’d had a better attitude.

“One thing I want to do with this whole situation is when I close the chapter, my life is full. Maybe I could have gotten a different result, but I couldn’t have put in more effort.”

Appleton, a junior in eligibility in football, will play one more season each of basketball and football and earn his degree in the spring of 2017. He then hopes to get a master’s in counseling, coach football and work with young adults in life skills.

“A lot of times when you make a mistake when you’re young, you get slapped on the wrist,” he says. “After you turn 18, the world thinks you’re supposed to know. I’d like to work with adults after they’ve made a mistake.

“I wasted a lot of my 20s. I got on track when I was 27. I can help people refocus, get back on track and get motivated. I want to light that fire in them that gets them going in a positive direction.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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