Ask almost any football player what his passion is and he’ll say “football.” But, for sophomore wide receiver Chris Esparza, it’s also his saving grace.
Esparza was in just seventh grade when his mother abandoned him.
Ties with his father and other family members had been severed by his mom and at just 12 years old, Esparza was left to fend for himself on the streets of Tampa.
He lived with friends, but the hardships of being left at such a young age did not escape Esparza.
In his freshmen year of high school, a football coach sat him down and handed him a note with his GPA on it.
“With this GPA, you can’t play football,” he said. Esparza said that was the turning point for him.
“I couldn’t imagine not playing football,” he said, “From there on I didn’t care about anything – friends or girls or anything – I just cared about getting good grades so I could play.”
That goal is just one of many that Esparza has put his mind to and accomplished.
With a new outlook on life, the Play It Smart program came to Robinson High School in Tampa and encouraged Esparza to succeed in school and on the playing field.
“Going through everything I went though, being at the bottom and then the top, it gives me the drive to never want to be there again,” said Esparza, “To not take anything for granted.”
Play It Smart helped him work harder at school and get some attention from recruiters.
In his junior year of high school his life got even brighter. His father was released from prison and became Esparza’s biggest supporter.
“I’m really close with my dad. He works hard, really hard, and does manual labor every day just to help me pay for school costs,” Esparza said.
He also re-connected with the rest of his family as he got older.
“My mom had cut off all ties with the family before she left. I was 12, I didn’t have a cell phone or anyway of getting in contact with them,” he explained. “The rest of my family supports me 100 percent now. My aunt and uncle are like my parents.”
His family only expanded when he came to John Carroll University. At a recruiting fair, JCU was one of the schools Esparza took an interest in.
JCU Coach Andy Hoffman was responsible for getting Esparza here.
“At these recruiting fairs, there are about 600 kids looking for schools,” said Hoffman. “The Play It Smart Academic Coach Kent Wilson grabbed me and showed me Chris. He knew JCU was a place that would take care of him.”
After visiting a few schools Esparza said, “John Carroll was the best school for me. It has great traditions, a great background and the football team has become like a second family to me.”
“Chris is what JCU is about – the Jesuit ideals of reaching out and serving,” Hoffman added.
Hoffman also explained that getting Esparza to JCU wasn’t easy.
“There was a lot of difficulty with financial aid and recruiting. As a coach I didn’t want to be too involved in his personal life, but in this case I had to be.”
With a past behind him, but not forgotten, Esparza has more big goals to achieve.
He is currently pre-law and hopes to go to law school back in Tampa.
“Chris is going to be successful no matter what he does. He’s basically lived on his own his whole life,” Hoffman said, “He could have easily gone the other way if it weren’t for football. When he’s successful, he’ll give back to the school.”
His football and tough academic schedule keep him busy, but Esparza also participates in Multi-Cultural Affairs activities.
“Everything I went through has pushed me to succeed,” Esparza said about his future. “I don’t take anything for granted and I want to give my kids a better life.”