ODU Football Player Also Serves in an Artillery Unit in the National Guard
November 15, 2019
The sun was setting on a hot summer day in 2018 and quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb was watching film of potential recruits in the Old Dominion University football office. Otherwise, the offices there were deserted.
That's when James Fagan, an ODU student from Richmond, walked in and politely but boldly asked if he could try out for the football team.
ODU almost never allows kids who walk into the office to actually walk-on. ODU fills all 115 summer practice slots with recruited scholarship and non-scholarship players.
But Whitcomb a guy who was 6-foot-6 and 308 pounds with a muscular but lean build. He appeared to be disciplined and motivated.
"I think so," Whitcomb said.
Fagan eventually passed an interview with head coach Bobby Wilder and made the team.
He played sparingly last season as a tight end before being moved to offensive tackle in the spring. But he played well enough to earn a scholarship.
He started and played well at left tackle Nov. 2 at Florida International and showed more improvement in a Nov. 9 home loss to Texas-San Antonio.
But there is much more to Fagan's story.
He's a member of the National Guard. He went to boot camp for eight months in Oklahoma and has served a weekend a month and six weeks every summer as a member of an artillery group based in Hanover County just outside of Richmond.
Fagan's job is to pick up the back of a howitzer, which weighs about 400 pounds, and move it to the correct aiming position. He then loads the shell into the breach and once the howitzer is shot, takes the shell out.
He knows he could be called to active duty at any time. Asked if he's ready to serve, he replied: "Always. Being a soldier is second nature to me."
Fagan showed the team a video of a howitzer shooting and talked about all that he's done in the National Guard.
"It was so quiet when James was talking," Wilder said. "Our kids were so impressed with everything James has gone through."
Wilder said discipline Fagan learned from his parents, and in the National Guard, is why he's such an unlikely success story.
"How many kids in the National Guard walk on to an FBS program and become a starter?" Wilder said.
Fagan was raised in Southside Richmond in a middle-class neighborhood, with supportive parents Kenneth Fagan and Rosemary DeVeaux. He determined at an early age that the military would be his ticket to success.
He elected to attend Franklin Military Academy, a Richmond public school that draws students from all over the city who are in search of rigorous discipline and academics
Fagan played football at Huguenot High School, close to where he lives, but didn't draw any recruiting interest. He walked on at Virginia Union, a Division II school in Richmond, and made the team but didn't play.
His father encouraged him to transfer to ODU, which has an outstanding ROTC program. That led to his meeting with Whitcomb.
Fagan missed some practice in the summer of 2018, as well as two games, because of National Guard obligations.
"That was hard," he said. "I really wanted to play. But at the end of the day, I had a job to do."
His unit commander excused him from duty this summer and fall so that he could focus on football.
Fagan is a sophomore and he's only started two games at left tackle. But Wilder says "the sky is the limit for James. He can become anything he wants to become because he's got that work ethic."
Wilder said he's gone from a guy who asked for the chance to play "to someone who has the blind side of the quarterback."
Fagan is grateful to Whitcomb and Wilder for giving him a chance.
"I've always dreamed of playing college football," he said. "At ODU, they gave me that opportunity, a chance to make my dream come true.
"I love what I'm doing, love my teammates and coaches. I'm so thankful for where I am now."