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A Long Road to Monmouth: Western Oregon's Cody VonAppen finds success after personal adversity

As Cody VonAppen spins and shifts, churning his legs for a first down, he doesn't slide, doesn't try to avoid the hit he's about to take. The hits are probably the last thing the signal-caller from Kailua, Hawaii (Oahu), thinks about. That's because Cody VonAppen has taken plenty of hits in his life.

Western Oregon University senior quarterback Cody VonAppen's success has come full-circle at WOU.

Photo by Nicole Watkins

Western Oregon University senior quarterback Cody VonAppen's success has come full-circle at WOU.

October 24, 2012

THE CODY VONAPPEN FILE

Schools: Western Oregon University (2011-12); Eastern Arizona College (2009-10); University of Montana (2008); Kalaheo High School, Kailua, Hawaii (2004-07).

Positon: Quarterback.

Height: 5-foot-10.

Weight: 200 pounds.

Major: Exercise Science.

As Cody VonAppen spins and shifts, churning his legs for a first down, he doesn't slide, doesn't try to avoid the hit he's about to take.

At 5-foot-10, he's a bit small to be a quarterback.

But then again, that's nothing new for the Western Oregon University senior.

"He's always been kind of undersized for what most people are looking for, in terms of measurables for quarterbacks," his father and former longtime college and NFL coach, Fred VonAppen, said.

"But he's always been intensely competitive."

The hits are probably the last thing the signal-caller from Kailua, Hawaii (Oahu), thinks about.

That's because Cody VonAppen has taken plenty of hits in his life.

One of them -- by his own actions, stupid and youthful -- could have ended his football career.

Instead, he's become the undeniable leader for a Wolves team -- riding high on a five-game winning streak -- that started the 2012 campaign 0-3 and appeared bound for disaster.

--

His story began as a feel-good one.

As a senior at Kalaheo High School, VonAppen led the football program to a complete turnaround.

"We moved up divisions my junior year, and we lost all of our games," VonAppen recalled. "The next year, we made the playoffs."

It was a welcome change for the VonAppen name in a state where his father -- a 38-year coaching veteran -- failed in his lone head-coaching gig, a three-year stint with the University of Hawaii (1996-98).

The Warriors went 0-12 in his final season.

The year prior, the VonAppen's and the Hawaii football program experienced more pain than the winless season could have ever produced: the drowning of Hawaii place-kicker Shannon Smith.

Cody VonAppen was there that day, enjoying the usually friendly waterfalls at the natural wonder Slippery Slide at Waipahee, on the island of Kauai, with his family and several Hawaii football players. When the waters turned deadly, sucking then 6-year-old Cody under, Smith was the one who lifted the boy to safety.

He died, at age 20, saving Cody.

"Yeah, I still think about it," VonAppen said last week while sitting in a WOU football office conference room, book bag on the table, after seven hours of classes.

"I tatted on my leg, got Shannon Smith across my leg here," he said, pointing at the scripted name, tattooed on his calf, just below his knee. "I'm just thankful for what he did for me."

Ten years later, VonAppen -- with his father since retired and living in Montana -- succeeded on the football field, and accomplished the dream of so many high school athletes.

He earned a college scholarship to play the sport he loved.

--

VonAppen's college career began in the fall of 2008, as a redshirt freshman defensive back for the University of Montana, a NCAA Division I FCS member.

His time with the Grizzlies ended before the then-18-year-old ever played a down.

"Think about whether you want to spend the rest of your life in jail or if you want to go out and make a name for yourself," a judge told a solemn VonAppen in his Nov. 10, 2008, court appearance.

The charge?

VonAppen and two other Montana redshirt football players were charged with felonies in connection with a Sept. 19, 2008, assault of another student on campus.

VonAppen later pleaded no contest to felony criminal endangerment and was given a three-year deferred sentence and forced to serve 21 days in jail.

"I learned a lot from it," VonAppen said of the fight and ensuing punishment.

"I got my scholarship pulled and everything like that, so I had to go the hard road, went to junior college and started from scratch.

"... It was really tough. I didn't know if I'd ever play football again."

His father, who went on to coach in the NFL as an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings (2000) and New York Giants (2001) and spent a year assisting at Montana (2003) before retiring, called it a "lapse in judgment."

"I hate the term `wake-up call', but it sobered him to the realities of things and he had to go the long way around to get back on track," Fred VonAppen said. "He left the University of Montana, where he was flattered to go, and when that came apart, he had to retool and go to community college."

WOU senior quarterback Cody VonAppen evades a Grand Valley State defender in the Wolves’ opener Sept. 1. VonAppen’s success has come full-circle at WOU.

Photo by Nicole Watkins

WOU senior quarterback Cody VonAppen evades a Grand Valley State defender in the Wolves’ opener Sept. 1. VonAppen’s success has come full-circle at WOU.

The younger VonAppen found his way to Eastern Arizona College, located in Thatcher, Ariz., returned to the quarterback position and stayed out of trouble.

"We were pretty good -- we ran the option," VonAppen said of his time in Arizona.

He led the squad to 16 wins in his two seasons, capping the final year with a junior college bowl game appearance.

But after all that, he still needed another place to play.

--

"I liked him as an athlete," Brian Harris, Western Oregon offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said of his first look at VonAppen, via game tape.

"He was a little on the shorter side, so he wasn't at the top of our list for quarterbacks. But we just gave him an invitation to come -- we didn't offer him a scholarship."

VonAppen said he had never even heard of WOU, despite the origins of his father, who was born in Eugene and played and coached at Linfield College in McMinnville in the 1960s.

His main tie to the school? Childhood friend and WOU junior wide receiver Lucas Gonsalves, who attended high school at St. Louis High, just 15 miles from VonAppen's Kalaheo High.

"I just told my coaches that he's a good guy," Gonsalves said. "He's just looking for a spot to bounce back, and his whole life changed after that stuff happened to him in Montana. He's a good guy, everybody messes up once in a while.

"And I just told (Cody), `Come out here, you know, good things will happen for you.' And good things are happening for him right now."

The idea of a second chance is not a new concept in the realm of Division II football.

"You run into that quite a bit," Harris said of student-athlete off-the-field mistakes.

"We believe, like a lot of coaches believe, in giving players second chances. Most of the time, it works out and there are a few times when it doesn't.

"It's an issue where we knew about it, we talked to him about it and we're very proud of him for growing up and getting back on the right path."

So far, VonAppen has made the most of his new opportunity.

--

Sensing a weakness in the Dixie State defense, VonAppen barked out an audible to his offense.

Ball snapped, he dropped back in the pocket, launched a deep pass, and hit a streaking Tyrell Williams 71 yards downfield for an easy touchdown on just the second play of scrimmage in Western's 66-20 drubbing of Dixie State Oct. 13.

Tyrell Williams

Tyrell Williams

"We just came up and I guess he saw something in the defense, because he changed the call when we got up there. That was all him -- and he just told me what route to run," Williams said of VonAppen later.

VonAppen would go on to have his best outing of the season, completing 16 of 27 passes for 424 yards and four touchdowns. It was one of the most efficient games in Great Northwest Athletic Conference history by a quarterback, as he averaged a league record 26.5 yards per completion.

The season didn't begin so perfectly.

In his first three starts as the Western quarterback - he spent last season as the backup, used primarily in option packages -- VonAppen, along with the rest of the Wolves' offense, struggled.

He threw eight interceptions in the first three losses - Grand Valley State, Dixie State and an overtime heartbreaker to rival Central Washington -- and the Wolves were suddenly 0-3.

Then, sparked by a slim 20-16 victory over Simon Fraser Sept. 22, something clicked.

VonAppen completed passes, threw for touchdowns, ran for more with his legs and WOU started to win -- again at Azusa Pacific and then in a more shocking manner, a 42-14 upset at then-No. 10 Humboldt State.

After taking care of Dixie State in the teams' rematch Oct. 13, WOU's fifth-straight victory came via Saturday's 20-17 decision at Simon Fraser, though VonAppen left the game with a shoulder injury early in the second quarters.

He's still waiting to be evaluated to determine his status for Saturday's home contest against Azusa Pacific.

In five games, the once-maligned VonAppen hasn't thrown an interception. More importantly, he's thrown 12 touchdowns and run for five more. He leads the team in rushing (458 yards) and passing (1,558 yards) and averages nearly 300 yards a game in total offense.

"A year ago, I wouldn't have imagined him throwing for 400 yards in a 66-point win," WOU head coach Arne Ferguson said. "But with his work ethic and believing in himself, he's done it."

--

VonAppen doesn't talk much about his own success.

Not even to his father.

"He doesn't ask for my advice," Fred VonAppen said with a chuckle. "I've coached for 38 years, but he doesn't need my critiques. But he knows I expect the quarterback to protect the ball."

His coaches said he just needed some time to slow down.

"Cody is his own worst enemy -- he's very hard on himself," Ferguson said. "He's also a very emotional player, so we needed to take some time to calm him down."

Added Harris: "He's just such a competitive person and a fiery person that he plays extremely fast. We want him to play fast when he's running the ball, but when he's throwing the ball we just needed to slow him down so he could process things."

Cody VonAppen, ever the competitor, just knew he didn't want to lose.

"It's not fun," he said bluntly.

Has he always been so focused on winning?

"I think so, yeah," he said. "I think when I was a little kid, crying after losses, stuff like that."

So far, whatever he's fixed, it's working.

Focused on football, focused on school, focused on where his life has taken him, VonAppen is winning again.

"He's really enjoying the guys and the experience and the staff that are at Western," Fred VonAppen said. "It's a great place for him.

"And he's probably not going to be the No. 1 draft choice for the Buffalo Bills after this season. So this is kind of his `swan song,' and he wants to help the team.

"He's taking the education end of it very seriously."

Cody VonAppen summarized the experience simply.

"I'm just trying to focus on this season before it's gone."

CODY VONAPPEN BY THE NUMBERS

2,016 -- VonAppen's total offensive yards this season - 1,558 passing and 458 rushing - ranking him second in the GNAC total offense category.

17 -- Number of touchdowns VonAppen has accounted for in eight games - five rushing and 12 passing.

26.5 -- Yards per completion VonAppen tallied in WOU's 66-20 win over Dixie State Oct. 15. VonAppen completed 16 of 27 passes for 424 yards and four TDs. His yards per completion mark was a conference record.