Earlier this season, Boise State nickelbacker Winston Venable captured the football world’s attention with his spectacular hit on Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn in the 4th quarter of the game (forward to the 3:00 mark). The 5-foot-11, 223 lb. junior turned his body into a human projectile missile, when he soared through the air headfirst to evade a block and hit Colburn from his blindside as he was attempting a pass. Venable also had a pick-6 for 30 yards on the third play of the game. It was a breakout game for him in front of his family and friends in the stands, as he returned for the first time to play in his home state of California since becoming a Bronco.
While Venable’s defensive heroics in mid-September catapulted him into the national spotlight overnight, his meteoric rise to the top has been accompanied by a long journey of perseverance.
Venable arrived at Boise State with 3 years of post-high school experience. He extended his high school career an extra year by attending prep school and then spent two years in the junior college ranks before he had the opportunity to play Division I football.
After playing three seasons at San Rafael High School in Marin, California, Venable transferred to St. Thomas More Prep in Oakdale, Connecticut, where he completed two more years of secondary education. Even though he had flourished at San Rafael as an All-Conference quarterback his junior year, he decided to transfer because he felt the school wasn’t the best fit for him.
"The transfer really was just a decision for myself and my family, and for my future. I just wanted to see a brighter future for myself. Things were going okay at San Rafael, but I didn’t see my future as being where I wanted it to be. My grades were kind of slipping. So I needed change. I took a look at some of the prep school deals and I ended liking St. Thomas More a lot and thought it was the best for me for my future academically and athletically."
In exploring his options, he solicited the advice of his older brother Will Venable (4.5 years older), a distinguished two-sport college athlete who played baseball and basketball for Princeton University from 2001 to 2005 and is now a Major League outfielder for the San Diego Padres. After learning that his brother had a friend who went through the prep school system and experienced tremendous success, he was sold and the rest is history.
Venable described his decision to transfer as one of the best decisions he has ever made in his life, as it gave him the opportunity to mature, concentrate on academics, and develop as an athlete. “It straightened me out," he says. "I got a lot of structure and discipline.”
The three-sport athlete, who also played basketball and baseball, was particularly pleased that he was put in a school, where the main focus was school and sports. This allowed him to improve his grades and concentrate on studying for the SAT, as well as advance his football career. “I really got to focus down on what’s important and I didn’t have many distractions.”
Venable was quick to share the benefits of attending prep school, but acknowledged that it can be challenging and may not be the best option for some younger players.
"It’s not necessarily for everybody. It’s a sacrifice. I was out there in the middle of nowhere. It was 200 students, all guys. Suit and tie everyday. You have to know that in the long-run it’s going to help you out. It’s hard to go through that system there—what I went through—but if you have a good attitude about it, it definitely will lead to something positive in the future. It is a good step for some people to take, but it’s not actually for everybody. You really got to look into it before you make those types of decisions. But for me, it was a good deal. It happened to work real well for me personally, for what I had going on."
After graduating from St. Thomas More Prep, Venable attended Glendale Community College. He was getting lightly recruited out of prep school and talked to his brother Will again about whether he should consider attending one of the universities that had been recruiting him. Venable went on a couple of official visits, but didn’t think any of the schools were the right fit. He felt like if he wound up committing to one of those universities, he would end up transferring. “My brother told me, ‘you don’t want to do that. You want to graduate from junior college and transfer when you have to transfer.’”
In looking at a few junior colleges, it came down to San Francisco City College and Glendale Community College. Venable felt like if he attended San Francisco, he would be putting himself right back into the high school scene he had already left. In order to avoid the distractions that could lead him astray, he opted for Glendale. “I really liked it when I went on a visit there, especially the coaching staff. I felt like it was a good spot to be.”
Venable thrived at Glendale Community College, receiving First Team All-America honors as a defensive back and First Team All-Western State Football League as a punter.
He recommends junior college for players that need more time to develop and who like him, may not have been heavily recruited out of high school and could use the exposure.
"There are some players who don’t get heavily recruited or recruited at all and they call it quits after high school. Other guys might not have the grades out of high school, so the junior college route is the best route to playing some football. I feel like if you have a passion for the game, try to play as long as you can. The junior college route was a great route. Glendale was great for me. If you got the passion for the game and you don’t have somewhere to play, junior college is a good option. And even if you do have somewhere to play and you’re not necessarily happy with it, find a good junior college. I think it’s a great way to go."
Similar to his experience in the prep school system, Venable stressed that selecting the junior college route is a sacrifice. "It’s a little risky going the junior college route just because it’s such a need-basis you’re not really getting recruited like you would out of high school because the University wants you to come in and play right away," said Venable.
Lucky for Venable, Boise State needed someone to fill the nickelback position (a hybrid between a safety and a linebacker).
Winston Venable was their guy.
“I was fortunate for them to have that need and was able to get picked up,” he said of Boise State, who had been recruiting him since is first year at Glendale. They came by to watch him play his first season and took his film, but they didn’t really have a need at that time for a nickelback position.
Little did he know, the seed was planted…
Venable would return to Glendale for another season after head coach Mickey Bell convinced him that he needed to gain more experience after he received a small amount of interest from Division I colleges following his first year. “My coach told me, ‘come next year and we'll throw you at free safety, so that you’re a little more versatile and you can play different spots." Versatility was never an issue for the former standout high school quarterback and All-American junior college punter.
As Venable was hard-at-work diversifying his portfolio, Boise State came knocking again. This time, it was to tell him and Coach Bell that they changed to 4-2-5 defense and they needed a nickelback for the 2009 season to fill the void left by senior Ellis Powers.
“Things definitely fell into place,” said Venable. “They hadn't really created that defense yet and sure enough, I come back [for] my second year, and Boise State all the sudden comes knocking on the door talking about their changing to their permanent 4-2-5 defense and they need a nickel dime. They remembered me from the year before, so things worked out good with that.”
In hindsight, Venable was grateful for Coach Bell’s guidance along the way and glad that he decided to take him up on the offer to return for a second year. “When Boise came the first year, Coach Bell let them know that I was a good player,” said Venable. “He had my back during the whole recruiting process. So, I was just fortunate that I had help from him.”
After visiting Boise State, Venable had made up his mind and closed the recruiting process. There were a few other big-time schools in the mix, but Boise had the perfect position with Venable's name on it and their recruiting style resonated with him.
"They really recruited me differently than any other school. The coaching staff would get the one phone call a week, but they were real persistent for me to call them as much as I could. I really built a good relationship with them prior to my visit, unlike a couple other schools that were recruiting me. I just felt a strong connection right off the bat when I was getting recruited. I had spoken with all of their coaches plenty of times and I really liked what they had to say. Along with me liking the coaches and having that relationship, that nickelback position really fit me. They told me to watch Ellis Powers, the player that played [at the nickelback position] last year. They told me to watch him and I was like 'man, that's very similar to what I do here at Glendale.' I thought it was a good fit and I could see myself playing there. I came on my trip and really liked the town... I liked the players. I already had a good relationship with the coaches and I got to meet them face-to-face. It just worked out."
Venable had finally arrived at the place that he had worked tirelessly to be a part of for years. In fact, he had been eager to play college football since his freshman year in high school. Whereas most top players jump directly from high school to their school of choice, and might opt to prolong it for maybe one year by redshirting, Venable took the long way.
“You know I got ancy there,” said Venable. “It was definitely a long road traveled, so it was gratifying to finally know that I’m going to get somewhere I like and somewhere I think I’ll have some fun. A big program… That’s what I had been dreaming of. So, it was definitely gratifying to finally get here.”
He would finally get his chance to showcase the talents he had been honing all along.
It didn’t take him long to make his presence known. Venable has started all 9 games for the Broncos this season, amassing 38 tackles (26 solo) and emerging as the team’s second leading tackler. He also has recorded 4.5 tackles for loss and one interception return.
It was that September 18 game against Fresno State—his third game as a Bronco and the team's second nationally televised game—that ushered in Venable’s coming-out party. In creating a highlight reel of defensive plays and leading his team to a 51-34 victory over Fresno, his contributions on the field quickly distinguished him as one of the most promising defensive players in the country. Only two weeks earlier, Venable had burst onto the college football scene in his Bronco debut against the Oregon Ducks—in what has been called the biggest home game in Boise State history—leading his team with five tackles and being named The Bronco Athlete of the Week.
“That was great man,” said Venable. “It was a big TV game, so you know everybody is going to be watching. I had the family there from back in California. So, it was definitely a coming out party. It was fun to be able to start the game off like that. Get the confidence going early. Anytime you got the TV on, the family and friends there, and you just put on a good performance, it’s lovely. I was real happy that I was able to start it off with a big bang.”
When I asked Venable about how he was handling the national attention after the Fresno game, he was reluctant to talk about himself and redirected the attention to the team. “It’s always nice playing on TV, but Boise State gets more publicity than I do personally,” said Venable modestly. He downplayed the situation and dismissed any notion that he was basking in the limelight. “It’s not too big of a deal for me,” said Venable. “We don’t really get caught up in all the media stuff too much over here as a team. We got to be humble. I’m low key with it and don’t even pay much attention to that stuff.”
Venable is much more interested in focusing on his craft and perfecting his play as the nickelbacker. While he came to Boise with a good feeling for the position—having played the “dog safety” position (a mix between an outside linebacker and a safety) in his first year at Glendale and playing a free safety look in his second year there—he readily acknowledges the challenges of the position. “It’s not an easy position,” said Venable. “You kind of have to play like a safety sometimes and you have to have good feet, and you also have to beef up and play like a linebacker sometimes. You have some dual responsibilities, but it’s a great position.”
Venable points out the demanding schedule at the Division I level and endless hours of preparation required where the stakes are so much higher.
"I tell people that junior college is much more relaxing [in terms of] the schedule. … We are putting in a lot of hours out here. It’s stressful at times, but that’s the price you pay for playing football, playing the sport you love. We have to study a lot of film and break down all these games. Each week, it gets harder, as the next opponent has played more and more games. It’s easy the first couple of weeks, because there’s only about 2 games to watch and then by week 7, you’re breaking down 6 different films."
In talking with him, you get the sense that he is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed at this level and advance his football career. He is also quick to reject any talk about leaving for the NFL at the end of the season should the opportunity present itself. Rather, he conveys an undying hunger to improve at this level and master his hybrid position before even contemplating the decision to play at the next level.
"For now, I’m a Bronco man. I really have a lot of work to do out here... a lot of learning. I’m just 6 games [now 9] into my Division I career. I just spoke to coach today, and he asked how I was doing, and I told him I realize how much of a learning process it is playing at this level. I have 20 things to work on and I can always get better. I’m not thinking about anything except for this next week against Hawaii really and just focusing on the mistakes I made last game. Just got to get better and keep learning out here."
While Venable seems to have made the transition fairly quickly, he makes comments from time-to-time that remind you that he is a newcomer and still somewhat awestruck by the allure of playing big-time football. “You’re always watching big games on TV, you see the crowd, and you wonder how it is playing there,” said Venable. “You imagine it would be crazy, but it’s a little crazier than I expected.”
His track record demonstrates that he has learned to go outside his comfort zone, adapt to a new set of circumstances, and succeed no matter where he is. Aside from his quiet confidence and steadfast commitment to succeed regardless of the obstacles in his way, Venable has had the luxury of leaning on a family full of prolific athletes for guidance and support. In addition to his brother Will, Venable's dad, Max Venable, played in the Major Leagues for 12 seasons for the Expos, Reds, Giants, and Angels. He is now the batting coach for the AAA Portland Beavers, an affiliate of the San Diego Padres organization.
“Just having those two guys right there has been a big influence,” said Venable, who recognizes that he is fortunate to have such a unique support network. “I can talk to them about things and they were in the big spotlight before and they know how to deal with being an athlete at a high level. I can talk to them about the ups and downs—the work, the stress load, and things like that. They’ve been through that type of stuff. I can always talk to them about managing myself and getting through the hard times. Just being able to talk to them about certain situations is great.”
While he recognizes the value of having access to such a great resource right at his fingertips, he is also determined to carve out his own legacy in the family tree. “I can try to do what they’ve done and try to live up to what they do,” said Venable. “I’m also trying to create my own identity, but it’s nice knowing I got to do my part in the family as well.”
Venable is off to a great start. Only 9 games into his Division I career at Boise State, he has become a key contributor to the Broncos.
Even if the critics continue to accuse Boise State of being overrated and playing a weak schedule, Venable’s only concern is keeping the Broncos undefeated and in line to receive a BCS bowl game invitation.
"We can get beat by anyone on our schedule. We just have to play our game every week. The end result will be the end result. We have no control over what goes on. We’re not worried about it. We play some tough football teams."
Sixth-ranked Boise State faces two difficult opponents remaining on its schedule, starting with Idaho today at Bronco Stadium on ESPN U. Idaho (7-3, 4-2 WAC) is off to its best start since 1999 and will be a tough match. In late November, Boise will be tested again when they play Nevada (6-3, 5-0) in what looks to be a battle for first place in the WAC standings.
You can rest assured that Winston Venable will be ready to make sure his team remains unbeaten and stays in the hunt for a BCS bowl berth. He’ll leave the rest up to the media and fans to debate.
On behalf of Access Athletes, we would like to thank Winston Venable for taking time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with The Real Athlete Blog. If you have any questions for Winston, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll pass them along.