WVU football: Katrina changed Garrison
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Dustin Garrison's senior year statistics in Class 5A in Texas look like a typo.
In 16 games, he rushed for 2,827 yards and 46 touchdowns ... in the top classification in what is arguably the country's best state for high school football ... for the undefeated state champion.
Yet they only tell part of Garrison's story, a story that's better told by two other numbers: 0 and 29.
Despite all he did for Pearland High, Garrison walked off the field at Cowboys Stadium Dec. 18 with a state championship and more than a mile-and-a-half of yardage to his name, but no Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offers.
"That had to be the toughest time for me," Garrison said. "I wasn't sure what I had to do. All along my mom kept telling me to be patient, but after the state game, I expected a lot more phone calls and none came in. I figured if nothing else, I'd probably go to a smaller school."
Things changed, and today Garrison will sign and send a National Letter of Intent to play football at West Virginia. He is one of 17 players who were committed to WVUs 2011 recruiting class Tuesday night.
Five others - including one walk-on - signed and enrolled last month and don't count toward the 2011 class.
When Garrison arrives during the summer, he'll try to get No. 29 on his jersey.
No one on WVU's current roster wears it and the number is deeply significant for Garrison.
"It comes from the hurricane," Garrison said. "Katrina hit New Orleans Aug. 29."
It changed Garrison's life forever and, in his mind, for the better.
"I think about that all the time and I get asked that all the time," he said.
"I don't think this could have happened at any other place. If we went back to New Orleans, there's a chance I'd get a scholarship and go to college. But when I got to Texas and I learned about Texas football, I realized this was something I could do."
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GARRISON GREW up in New Orleans on the West Bank and was a 12-year-old enjoying the summer of 2005. Then came the warning: Hurricane Katrina would be a dangerous and devastating storm.
His parents, Daryl and Nina, packed the family and left the city Aug. 28 and headed west toward Houston.
"I was able to grab just some clothes, but I wasn't really expecting anything to get destroyed," Garrison said. "We'd seen hurricanes come through New Orleans all the time. We expected it to be a regular old hurricane. Grab some clothes, spend a couple nights in the hotel and come right back home."
They endured hours of traffic to get out of town and encountered full hotels at every stop until they ended up in Pearland, a suburb southeast of Houston.
A day later, television told the story.
"I remember watching the news and seeing the horrible flooding," Garrison said. "It had never been that bad before. Homes were just destroyed. Things like that they showed on the news showed it was a lot worse than what we expected. I kind of knew we wouldn't be going back."
Nina and Daryl enrolled Dustin, his younger brother, Dillan, and younger sister, Da'Maya, in Pearland's schools. Dustin was about to begin seventh grade. The Garrisons made friends in Dave and Mignon Dejohn, who lived in Pearland and wanted to help.
"They came to our hotel one day and threw my sister a birthday party - it was her birthday that day," Dustin said. "They offered to let us stay with them for a while until my parents got back on their feet."
The Garrisons returned to New Orleans briefly and saw their house was severely damaged. Dustin's uncle has since made the repairs and loves there now. Within a few months, the family was living on its own in Pearland. A year later, Dustin had a new baby sister, Destiny.
"It was a stressful time," Dustin said. "We were staying at the hotel for weeks not knowing what was going to happen next and then once the door opened and the Dejohns took us in and we got into schools and I got to playing football again, it was great. After all that, you couldn't ask for much more."
* * *
GARRISON STARTED playing football in seventh grade and was on the Pearland varsity team when he was a sophomore.
He could run and catch and do a lot of things to make him a good football player.
He just couldn't grow. Garrison is 5 feet 8, 160 pounds, and realizes that, as much as anything else, cost him recognition during the recruiting process.
"I definitely think that's what it is," he said. "It's always going to be about size. I'm not the biggest guy out there. I've learned through this experience that a lot of college coaches don't look at numbers as much as height and weight.
"They look at those a lot and those are things I can't change. It's something I'm stuck with and something I had to learn to work my around."
Garrison dedicated himself to the game and his frame between his junior and senior seasons.
He focused on his legs and tried to get faster and stronger. He said he was timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash last year and "I know I can run faster than that now." He was squatting about 300 pounds and is up to 465 pounds.
"I think my legs show in my explosiveness," he said. "Guys always tell me I run bigger than I am. I feel like I'm a lot stronger than I look."
Garrison was the All-Greater Houston and Touchdown Club of Houston offensive player of the year and the key to a spread offense that totaled more than 7,100 yards and 86 touchdowns.
He rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns in the state championship game, but also batted down a fourth-down pass on the final play inside the Pearland 5-yard line to beat Euless Trinity, which was the top-ranked team in the state and the country.
And still, no scholarship offers from schools not named Sam Houston, Southeastern Louisiana, Northwestern State and Montana until a few days before Christmas.
"I wasn't happy, but I couldn't show my frustrations," he said. "I had a great senior year and worked really hard in the offseason after my junior year and all that showed on the field. I was waiting for something to pop up and nothing did until I got a call from Coach Gillespie."
* * *
WVU HIRED Dana Holgorsen away from Oklahoma State in December and when Holgorsen hired three assistant coaches last month, he included Robert Gillespie, who had been the running backs at Oklahoma State.
Garrison said Gillespie called him a few days before Christmas.
"He let me know there was a coaching change going on and he wanted me to come with him," Garrison said.
"He wouldn't let me know where he was going. He just said, 'Watch our bowl game and see for yourself.'"
Garrison hadn't considered Oklahoma State for college and wasn't familiar with the offense. He watched OkState's Alamo Bowl win against Arizona and was impressed.
"It was the same thing we do at Pearland - one or two backs, shotgun, four receivers," he said. "So I liked that."
It completed one part of the puzzle.
"Then I saw it was him and a few other guys going to West Virginia," Garrison said. "So he called me back and said, 'Did you figure out where we're going?' I said, 'West Virginia,' he said, 'Exactly, and I want you to come with me."
Gillespie and Holgorsen visited Garrison's home and Garrison visited WVU soon thereafter last month. About the same time, Washington State called and offered a scholarship, but Garrison was hooked on the Mountaineers.
"I like everything about it," he said. "My family is excited and everyone around Pearland is excited. I think it's a great situation. It's a great place and a great opportunity.
"They're looking for guys who have speed and make plays and they said I fit that. I feel like it's all worked out and it's up to me now to make it all work."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142.