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COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE cAMERON gARDNER: a wALK-oN sTORY

Vince Lombardi once said, “the quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”

For sophomore walk-on wide receiver Cameron Gardner, that commitment to excellence has been his driving force from a young age. The Danville, Calif., native started playing football at the age of seven, and even though his first year wasn’t what he had imagined, he quickly found his passion for the sport.

“Truth be told, I never thought I’d play football longer than a year because I played right guard my first year, and I wasn’t very big,” Gardner said. “I hated every day of that first year of football. My second year I moved positions to running back though, and that’s when I fell in love with the game.”

Growing up in Danville and the Bay Area, Gardner got the best of both worlds, living close to Oakland and San Francisco, but also still having a sense of comfort with his community.

“There was a “bubble” type feel,” he said. “Everyone knew everyone. You’d see your neighbor at the grocery store and your coach very well could have also been the pastor at your local church.”

Gardner, who is the middle child between his older brother and younger sister, played every sport he could growing up. Between football, basketball, baseball, water polo, swimming, lacrosse and soccer, Gardner and his family stayed busy on the weekends

It was easy for Gardner to make friends because of his active and positive personality, something his parents, Brian and Pam, love about him. For Gardner though, coming from an interracial family with his father being black and his mother being white, he experienced problematic comments made toward the color of his skin.

“Growing up, I experienced racism, but I never really pieced it all together until just recently,” he said. “The comments like ‘I wish I was tan like you,’ ‘you’re an oreo,’ ‘of course you are fast,’ really just came across to me as a joke and I never really looked too deep into it. Looking back on it, those comments could be classified as systematic racism, I was just too young to comprehend the meaning behind it."

"In terms of dealing with it now, it is all about educating others. People don’t know what they don’t know, and it is important to educate so that systematic racism does not continue to be so prevalent.”

Gardner’s closeness to his family has always been an important part of his life and as he grew up, he realized the positive impact they were making on his life – especially his mother, Pam.

“I would definitely say I take after my mother,” he said. “In the way that we talk, joke around, and interact with other people. We are just so similar.”

With the support of his family behind him, Gardner grew as a man and as a football player, realizing that he wanted to pursue his favorite sport at the next level. Gardner played at Mater Dei High School, known for pumping out constant Division I talent while dominating the state of California with over 10 state championships, with Gardner getting to be a part of that history.

“From the environment, the work ethic expected, the fans, the coaching and the publicity, it was a great experience to have at a younger age. I feel like it prepared me for college both on and off the field.”

Gardner was a part of two state championships during his time at Mater Dei, catching a 27-yard touchdown pass in their championship victory in 2018. Gardner’s speed and versatility as an offensive weapon caught the attention of several college programs including UNLV, Cal Poly and Columbia, giving him some decisions to make during his recruiting process.

“My dream growing up was always to play college football, so making the decision to continue to pursue my dream was a no brainer,” he said. “The two factors that went into making the decision were, will it challenge me athletically and will it challenge me academically.”

When it came down to making the decision, Gardner had the full support of his family as they made “pros and cons” lists for his options. With signing day looming, Gardner received word from the three Division I programs that had offered him were pulling their offers.

He was left scrambling – until he got a phone call from Freddie Whittingham and the Utes to be a preferred walk-on.

“That was one of the hardest times for me, but to this day I continue to thank God for putting me in an environment like the University of Utah. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else."

Gardner came to campus in the fall of 2019, and like most newcomers, started the season and waited for his name to be called. Through hard work and determination, his name was called against Idaho State as he played in his first collegiate game, finishing the year seeing action in seven total games that included playing as a reserve wide receiver in three.

“Obviously playing in my first game and hitting the field for the first time was exciting, but to be able to compete and play with a team that produced nine NFL players was just an amazing experience all together,” he said.

“"We were fortunate to have Cam choose to join the Utes," Freddie Whittingham said. "He turned down other D1 offers because he knew Utah is where he wanted to pursue his education and play football. He is a talented player who works hard and does everything right on and off the field. Having made the travel squad as a true freshman and seeing time as a special teams starter is a big accomplishment. His future is bright at Utah and we're glad he joined the family.”

Being able to contribute as a freshman is the goal of most student-athletes entering their first year of college, but it was no surprise to his teammates. Gardner was accustomed to a strong support system through his family, but he gained a whole new one when he came to Utah.

“The team chemistry is great here,” he said. “The support system we have as players is a blessing for sure. The University of Utah does not separate the scholarship guys from the walk-ons. Everyone is treated equally and receives the same amount of support and help.”

“Cameron is a joy to coach. He has a high football IQ and unbelievable work ethic. He shows up every day and is the same person each time. He has great character and is an outstanding person and teammate.”

– Guy Holliday, Utah Wide Receivers Coach

"Cam is one of the hardest working guys I know, and he is the definition of a great teammate," Cam Rising said. "He always strives for greatness and inspires me daily. I'm proud to call him my friend and brother."

There are a lot of unknowns in the college athletics world as the Utes start the 2020 semester next week and Gardner enters his sophomore year in school. There is an eagerness in the air to get back on the field and compete, but for Gardner, it isn’t just the time he spends on the field that counts.

“My favorite part about being on the Utah football team is the relationships I’ve created and the memories I’ve made,” he said. “Football only lasts so long, but the experiences and the friendships I’ve made so far will last a lifetime.”

“Cam means a lot to the program. He brings a lot of energy and he honestly is a true Ute.” – Jordan Wilmore, Utah Running Back