ODU Athletics

Minium: James Fagan is Not Only a Walk-on Starter, He Also Serves with an Artillery Unit in The Army National Guard

November 08, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

NORFOLK

The sun was setting on a hot summer day 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 the door, found his way to Whitcomb and politely but boldly asked if he could walk on without a scholarship and play football for the Monarchs.

Whitcomb said he looked up and up and up some more before he saw Fagan's face on top of his 6-foot-6, 308-pound body. Fagan was not only tall, he was muscular and fairly lean and appeared disciplined and motivated.

He looked like a 5-star recruit.

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 mouthed “I think so” to Fagan.

Coach Bobby Wilder shakes James Fagan's hand during a game earlier this season. 

Whitcomb asked him to stay put for a few minutes, although he didn’t say why. He then called graduate assistant Eric Acciani and asked him to come over quickly.

“I wanted somebody else to see James so that when I told the coaches how big he was, they would know I was telling the truth,” Whitcomb said.

Fagan turned out to be the real deal. He passed his interview with head coach Bobby Wilder and tried out for and made the team last summer. He played sparingly last season as a tight end before being moved to offensive tackle in the spring.

Earlier this season, Wilder said, “it was difficult to play James. He just had too much to learn.”

But he’s flourished under coaches Brian Scott and Bryan Stinespring. He started and played well last week at left tackle at FIU and expects to start Saturday when the Monarchs host Texas-San Antonio.

It will be military appreciation day and ODU will also celebrate the 70th anniversary of NATO. And that’s an appropriate game for Fagan to make his first home start this season.

Fagan is a member of the National Guard. He went to boot camp for eight months in Oklahoma and has since 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.

At any time, he knows he could be called to active duty to fight for his country.

Asked if he’s ready to serve, his face grew serious when he replied: “Always. Being a soldier is second nature to me.”

Not your typical experience for a college football player.

Fagan did a presentation for the team last season in which he showed 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.

“When I first met James, I wasn’t optimistic that this was going to work. But as we talked, I realized that he had that discipline, that structure in his life that might make this work.

“He’s one of those kids who had to fight for everything in life. Nothing’s been easy for him, nothing has been given to him. So he knows nothing different other than giving a great effort in everything he does.”

Fagan was raised in Southside Richmond in a middle-class neighborhood, with two supportive parents. 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. My stepson, Eric Brinker, taught there for a few years, so I know the kids there truly get military discipline.

Eric was called “Captain Brinker” by his students.

Fagan played football at Huguenot High School, close to where he lives, but didn’t get any recruiting interest. He then walked on at Virginia Union, a Division II school in Richmond, and made the team but didn’t play.

His father instead encouraged him to transfer to ODU, which has an outstanding ROTC program.

Which 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.  

“My unit loves me,” he said. “I’m so grateful.”

James Fagan gave me advice before I shot a howitzer before ODU's game against East Carolina. 

A Norfolk-based National Guard unit brings a howitzer to most ODU home games, and I was privileged to be the first person to shoot one at the renovated S.B. Ballard Stadium when the Monarchs hosted East Carolina. It’s difficult to express how awesome that experience was, so I’ll let James tell you.

“It’s intense,” he said. “It shakes your body. It gets you excited and motivated.

“It makes you want to do it again,” he said, adding: “I’ll bet you want to do it again, don’t you?”

Absolutely.

Fagan is a junior and he’s only started one game at left tackle, and that doesn’t sound like a resume for someone to play in the NFL. 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 then brought up the story of Matthew Mulligan, who didn’t play football in high school and was playing basketball for tiny Husson University in Maine. He was persuaded to walk on to the football team at Husson and made the team, then transferred to the University of Maine, where Wilder was the offensive coordinator.

Mulligan starred for the Black Bears and played eight seasons in the NFL for nearly half a dozen teams.

Wilder said Fagan is far away from where he needs to be to get a sniff from the NFL.

“It’s going to take a massive undertaking, of work on the field and in the weight room,” Wilder said.

“But he’s got the attitude.”

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.

“Matthew had the same mindset as James. Whatever James decides to do in life, he will be successful."

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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