This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Devontae Booker's bags were packed. His aunt was bringing toiletries by the house that he could use in his new dorm room. He was ready for college.
Fresno State. At last.
Except that morning, the Bulldogs' running backs coach called: "We have a problem." Ronnie Booker, Devontae's father, remembers his heart sinking in his chest.
"The way they did him, man," Ronnie Booker said, recalling that day five years later. "We had called them the week before, and there wasn't a problem. You're calling us 24 hours before he's supposed to go down to campus, and now you're saying there's a problem?"
The bags stayed at the house. Devontae left, only saying that he was giving up. His family didn't see him until the next day. His father never found out where he went.
That memory is burned into Booker's mind, maybe forever. He's never forgotten the feeling of betrayal he felt when the Bulldogs said he wasn't going to have a spot on the team. Though years have passed and the coaching staff has turned over in the time since, Booker doesn't really make the distinction.
"Some inside work, behind the scenes, whatever you want to call it," he said. "I just didn't end up going there. And basically it's motivation for me to go out there and play hard against them."
Booker's career is filled with academic miscues, most of which he'll acknowledge aren't anyone's fault but his own. Ronnie Booker will be the first to say his son didn't take class seriously when he first started school.
He left Washington State waiting a year for a qualifying SAT score, and they eventually gave up waiting. The Utes went through some heartburn as well with Booker, when he had to sit out a year for academic reasons before arriving in 2014.
But the incident with Fresno State hasn't been easily dismissed. The Bulldogs swept in late in the year Booker sat out after high school, and when he qualified to attend via his ACT score, they were impressed.
"Devontae worked his butt off to get that ACT up," Ronnie Booker said. "The coaches were really happy with that."
But the day before he was supposed to leave for Fresno State, an issue came up. The Bookers remember it as a missed deadline for the NCAA Clearinghouse, an issue that might've also involved a math class that Devontae didn't take at Grant High in Sacramento. Memories can be a bit touch-and-go when it comes to NCAA bureaucracy.
But the impression the family got afterward that's never left is that the Bulldogs didn't have an available scholarship for Devontae, and wanted to funnel him toward junior college and pick back up later.
"I just feel like they didn't care," he said. "The just got around to it when I tried to call them. They didn't care what type of player I was. They just moved on to the next player."
By contrast, he added, the Utes championed patience. They hung with him after an academic issue at American River College, then got him into tutoring that ultimately helped turn around his academic performance.
It's a case-by-case basis for Kyle Whittingham and his staff when recruits have academic issues. If the Utes have an immediate need at the position, they're inclined to look elsewhere. But if they have the luxury of depth at a spot, they'll wait to make it happen
"You can't make a blanket statement on how you handle that," Whittingham said. "The need is the biggest factor."
The Utes ended up needing Booker last year, as he rolled to 1,818 yards of total offense with 12 touchdowns, becoming known as one of the nation's best backs.
Ask his parents what they're most proud of last season, and the answer is simple: all conference all-academic team. He'll leave Utah with a sociology degree.
"It was always my thing to tell him to buckle down more on school," Ronnie Booker said. "He finally did that. We're very, very proud."
None of that would have been possible without a school that was willing to wait. Of the two teams that will take the field Saturday, only the Utes were.
"They stuck with me and rode it out with me," Devontae said. "And I love them for that."
Devontae Booker nearly went to Washington State and Fresno State. Although Utah is just 1-1 against those opponents in 2014, the senior back has gotten opportunities to shine against them:
Fresno State • 10 carries, 67 yards
Washington State • 24 carries, 178 yards, 1 touchdown