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Game Changer

February 02, 2016

At age 30, C.J. Appleton rebounds from hardship to excel in football, basketball, and academics at Lewis & Clark.

C.J. Appleton. Photo by Robert Reynolds.C.J. Appleton. Photo by Robert Reynolds.The alarm shrieks at 4:30 a.m. C.J. Appleton climbs out of bed and shuffles across his room to shut off the clock, which he bought specifically for its shrill, not-to-be-ignored sound. His ribs are sore, his joints are stiff, his eyes are gritty from an evening shift of delivering pizzas the night before—but still he rises.

He is soon out the door of his apartment and behind the wheel of his ’99 Accord. In the cold, drizzly gloom, he drives across town to an early-morning basketball practice at Pamplin Sports Center. For two hours, he runs through a demanding sequence of drills with his teammates, most of whom are at least a decade younger. They jokingly call him “old man” for the way he sometimes hobbles across the court.

But the teasing doesn’t bother him a bit. He just laughs along, a man who understands more than most people just how sweet life can be.

At 30 years of age, Appleton is a nontraditional student at Lewis & Clark, on his way to earning a degree in sociology. But his age isn’t what makes his story extraordinary.

What makes him special is the way he approaches life after a decade of mostly self-inflicted hardship. He is taking his best shot at leading his best life—not his second chance, but his “like, 27th chance,” he says —and is determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Photo by Lewis & Clark AthleticsPhoto by Lewis & Clark Athletics

“I’m living my dream—30 years old and a student here at Lewis & Clark, playing sports again, working toward a degree,” he says. “I wake up every day recognizing that fact. It’s very hard to take the wind out of my sails.”

Dinari Foreman B.S. ’95, head men’s basketball coach, has seen that attitude in action. “C.J. is a remarkable young man. He understands the game—and life—better than your typical 18- or 19-year-old.”

Last year, in his first season, Appleton led the Pioneers in rebounds, averaging 8.5 per game, along with scoring 10 points per game as the team went all the way to the finals in the Northwest Conference championship. His teammates voted him a captain, and he earned all-conference second-team honors. As if that weren’t enough, he went on to try out for the football team after not playing a game since high school. He not only made the starting squad as a tight end, but also led the team in receiving, with 532 yards on 44 receptions. He earned conference second-team honors in football too.

He approaches academics with the same intensity, chalking up a 3.61 GPA since coming to Lewis & Clark. “C.J. is one of my favorite students,” says Maryann Bylander, assistant professor of sociology and his academic advisor. “He has such a tough schedule, but he gets it done and is always engaged.”

On the Sidelines

Appleton grew up in North Portland. His mother raised him and his sister on her own while working full time as a nurse. She sent him to private schools to distance him from some of the gang influences and drugs in his neighborhood. Sports were his lifeline from a young age. Blessed with a natural combination of size, speed, and strength, he was a standout athlete at Portland’s Central Catholic High School. His main sport was football, and he was scouted by top colleges. With his talent, a pro football career was a real possibility.

Photo by Lewis & Clark AthleticsPhoto by Lewis & Clark Athletics

During high school, however, his grand plans started to unravel. A toxic mix of hubris and intemperance led to some poor decisions that landed him in trouble with the law and wound up costing him some valuable scholarship opportunities. He got another chance with the football team at Oregon State University but didn’t bother to go to class and was soon bounced from the squad without ever playing a down. He became bitter, blaming everyone around him for his setbacks and taking no responsibility for his own choices. He believed that he was washed up at just 19.

Appleton spent the better part of a decade in a downward spiral—in and out of prison and drug rehabilitation, cut off from everyone he cared about, even homeless for stints, sleeping under bridges in downtown Portland. In August 2012, he was sitting in a cell at the Multnomah County Jail, serving time for a probation violation, when he decided that things would be different when he got out. He was 27 at the time, and he vowed to get his life on track by the time he turned 30.

I just saw a light at the end of the tunnel, and more importantly, I saw myself at the end of that tunnel. C.J. Appleton

“I just saw a light at the end of the tunnel, and more importantly, I saw myself at the end of that tunnel,” he says now. Appleton has been clean and sober ever since—more than three years now. Tattoos on his forearms spell out his guiding principles: “Redemption” and “Forgiveness.”

Back in the Game

The next spring, Appleton enrolled in classes at Portland Community College and joined the school’s basketball team. With his help, the Panthers went on to win the regional community college championship. His outstanding play on the court despite being out of shape—as well as a sterling character reference from his coach—brought him to the attention of Lewis & Clark.

“When you see a player who moves like he does and who has such great hands, you pay attention,” Foreman says. “But the thing that really stood out to me was the way he behaved on the court—constantly shouting encouragement to his teammates, high- fiving everybody.”

Photo by Robert Reynolds.Photo by Robert Reynolds.Appleton was forthright with Foreman about his struggles. “The character piece was never an issue for me,” Foreman says. “I could see that he was starting a new chapter in his life and that he was willing to do the work to succeed.” When members of Lewis & Clark’s admissions office met with Appleton and favorably reviewed his community college transcript, he was accepted. “At that point, athletics wasn’t even the main thing,” Foreman adds. “We all knew that he was the kind of student we wanted at Lewis & Clark.”

“I earned my place here—my grades were legit,” Appleton says. “Coach Dinari brought me in and said my story was pretty unique, that there had probably never been a student here like me. But he said that instead of thinking of that as a reason for them to say no, it was the reason they said yes.”

Appleton instantly made an impact upon joining the basketball team as a junior. He was vocal with teammates, and he was able to back up his talk with his gritty, inspiring play. He admits he has a “super goofy” personality, but he leads by example when it comes to hard work. During practices and games, he is constantly communicating with his teammates, making plays and directing traffic. “On the court, he’s fiery, he’s tough,” Foreman says. “He knows when a teammate needs to be calmed down or pushed harder. He’s just a natural leader.”

Markel Leonard, a 21-year-old guard who transferred to Lewis & Clark last summer, appreciated the welcome he got from Appleton. “When I came out here in the summer and didn’t know anyone, C.J. was the first to introduce himself and take me under his wing.”

Leonard considers Appleton the “big brother” he never had, sharing his advice about life on and off the court. During one particularly tight game, Appleton pulled Leonard aside during a time-out. “I was having a rough game, turning the ball over and getting really down on myself,” Leonard recalls. “And C.J. just told me to shake it off and reminded me that the team needed me to bring positive energy to the game. And then he said the thing he always saves for last— he said everything was going to be all right.”

He is intent on bringing his absolute best at all times, and that inspires everyone around him. C.J. is a no-quit guy. Jay LoceyHead Football Coach

When the 2015 football season came around, Appleton was ready to give the sport another shot. The physical demands of football made for a much tougher adjustment than basketball, but his talent was evident from the moment he stepped onto the field at Griswold Stadium.

“He’s got all the qualities you want in a player—size, agility, awareness, toughness,” says head football coach Jay Locey, noting that Appleton is the oldest player he has ever had in over three decades of college coaching. “Most of all, he’s got the most beautiful attitude you could want.”

Appleton is the kind of player who comes to practices early and stays late, and he’s a regular in the weight room, Locey says. During games, he constantly paces the sidelines, rallying the team and giving his teammates a much-needed boost.

“He has gone through some challenges these other kids have never had to face,” Locey says. “But that’s what makes him special. He is intent on bringing his absolute best at all times, and that inspires everyone around him. C.J. is a no-quit guy.”

A Standout in Class

He invites a more powerful conversation in which the other students feel they can ask questions and contribute too. He just has a way of completely changing the class dynamic. Maryann BylanderAssistant Professor of Sociology

Balancing a demanding sports schedule with academics can be difficult for any student-athlete. Yet Appleton manages to pull it off thanks to a tireless work ethic, even while holding down part-time jobs as a pizza- delivery person and as a campus weight-room attendant. He squeezes in his schoolwork whenever he can, often between classes. Because he doesn’t like to study at home, he will sometimes drive to campus in the middle of the night to work in the library. His professors rave about having him as a student because he always comes to class prepared to participate.

Professor Bylander, who has had him as a student in three courses, recalled a time when he came to class unusually tired during an especially grueling stretch of intense practices and midterm exams. Catching himself zoning out, he excused himself to get a cup of coffee and returned to the room revived and ready to go. “A lot of students wouldn’t have even shown up to class that day, but he just got on with it,” Bylander says. “I’m well aware that he has some very long days, but he is always in class, always turns in his work on time, and never complains or makes excuses.”

Photo by Robert Reynolds.Photo by Robert Reynolds.Appleton stands out in classes because of his willingness to offer opinions and ask questions that younger students might be too self-conscious to voice aloud, Bylander notes— even when the topic is something as complex as quantitative research methodology.

“C.J. already thinks like a sociologist and is really good at working through ideas to get to the point of a reading or a class discussion,” Bylander says. “Because he is willing to put himself out there and speak up, he invites a more powerful conversation in which the other students feel they can ask questions and contribute too. He just has a way of completely changing the class dynamic.”

Winning Moves

By the time this magazine goes to print, Appleton will be finished with his final basketball regular season. He has one more season of football eligibility, and then his college playing career will be done. He will have achieved his once distant goal of playing college athletics. No regrets.

At the same time, he realizes his life is just taking off. Once he earns his bachelor’s degree next year, he plans to attend graduate school—preferably at Lewis & Clark— to get a master’s degree in counseling. He wants to work with young adults. “I’m really interested in that 19 to 30 age range,” he says. “I got my life together at 27, and I keep thinking where I would be today if I’d seen that light a little earlier. If I could be in a position to help somebody else so they don’t have to lose those years in their 20s, that would be huge.”

Appleton has big plans for his future, but he has experienced enough to know he needs to appreciate every day. He constantly reminds himself that nothing can be taken for granted—not school or sports or sobriety.

“I have a good day almost every day,” he says. “If I’m having a weird day or I’m feeling tired or frustrated, I just take 30 seconds to sit back and go through everything in my life to be grateful about. And then I’m back to having an awesome day.

“I know everything is going to be all right.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

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