Running back Quinton Ganther makes the most of his chance with the Redskins

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; D01

Because mothers don't forget such things easily, Brenda Ganther still recalls the day her son was arrested. Quinton Ganther was a teenager getting swallowed whole by the ravenous street cracks of Richmond, Calif., when he was busted for selling marijuana. Brenda Ganther knew what path her son was on. Her own footprints, in fact, were still quite visible on that very path.

"I called my pastor and said, 'I'm losing him. I need help,' " Brenda Ganther said. "I was determined to fight for my son. I refused to lose him to those streets. I knew that if God could change me, He could change my son."

It's easier to talk about now. Brenda Ganther says she has been clean since 1996. And Henry Ganther says he has been clean since 1998. But Brenda Ganther still cries when she sees her son in a football uniform -- doesn't matter if it's a photo from Fairfield High or a burgundy-and-gold Washington Redskins jersey. When she looks back over what Ganther came from and what he has overcome, she's reminded of her own past.

"I was there physically, but I wasn't there mentally or emotionally," Brenda Ganther says now.

Crack was the drug of choice in Richmond, Calif., and its ardent devotees spent every waking hour either high or trying to get high. That meant Brenda and Henry Ganther, parents of four children, were in and out of trouble, in and out of jail, and in Henry's case, in and out of prison.

By the age of 7, Quinton Ganther was cooking and caring for himself and his younger sister. With no one to watch over him, he'd come and go as he pleased, taking his cues from the wrong neighborhood influences.

Before he was even a teenager, Ganther had a reputation as a kid best avoided. Gerald Montgomery jokes that when he first spotted an 11-year-old Ganther at a park near his home, other kids were lining up to tie Ganther's shoes.

"I was a bit of a bully," Ganther says today with a slight grin.

But Montgomery saw something beyond the tough exterior. With a middle-class family and a modest home, Montgomery and his wife, Shannon, already had eight children of their own. But with an open bunk bed, they invited Ganther into their lives.

With his father usually locked up, Ganther spent his adolescent years shuttling between his mother's lawless home and the Montgomery's, where discipline and love greeted visitors at the front door.

By the time Ganther entered high school, Gerald Montgomery had managed to enroll the neighborhood bully in youth sports, where Ganther thrived. Still, a young Ganther kept a foot in the streets.

"I think because he never really had a childhood -- it was taken from him because of my actions and his father's actions," Brenda Ganther said, "he became a teenager and suddenly wanted to catch up on lost time and act irresponsibly."

'Still young and immature'

Richmond is a city that digs its claws into its young. Both of Ganther's parents were born and raised there. So was Montgomery, an educator and high school coach.

"If you live to 18 in Richmond, you're an old man," said Montgomery.

As Henry Ganther says, "it's easy to make bad choices in Richmond," and as he had when he was younger, Henry Ganther's son indulged in several.

A city of barely 100,000, Richmond was and still can be a dangerous place to live, a place where drugs and drug money prop up the street economy. Local police seized $1.6 million worth of drugs last year alone, according to the Richmond Police Department, and the city had seen 45 murders through October of this year. According to the FBI's semiannual crime report, through the first half of 2009, Richmond had a higher per capita murder rate than Oakland, Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In high school, Ganther juggled school, football and marijuana.

"My mother was on drugs, didn't care what I was doing, my father wasn't there, so it was just me," Ganther said. "I was just roaming the streets, doing bad things, selling weed, smoking weed, cutting school. It didn't matter."

After one year, his mother moved him out of Richmond to Fairfield High, hoping a new environment would straighten out Ganther. Instead, he brought his Richmond influences to his new school. He smoked seven to eight blunts a day, he said, and quickly cornered the school's drug market.

"If any drug transaction was going through my school, I wanted a piece of it," Ganther said. "If I wasn't getting a piece of it, no one was selling nothing. I felt, this is my school. I was still young and immature."

His reputation as a tough guy was good for business, and though the school's administrators frequently kept company with Ganther, the school's star athlete was a varsity kingpin of sorts.

"It was all perception, I believe," said Mike Dailey, the athletics director at Fairfield High. "Kids on campus were afraid of him; they wouldn't mess with him. But I don't really recall him ever having any kind of altercation. When I saw him, he'd be in his usual place during passing periods, and he always had a smile on his face."

Midway through high school, his father was released from prison. Henry Ganther promised his son he'd never use drugs again, and about the same time, Quinton's mother stopped using, too. But Ganther liked getting high and even more, liked having money in his pocket.

"I would say, please don't go down the road that me and your dad went down," Brenda Ganther said. "That's the road to destruction. I would try to get him to remember what I was like and how it made him feel. Now the shoe was on the other foot. I remember there were nights, every time I heard a siren, you jump up and say, 'Lord, please don't be my son.' Every phone call late at night, 'Please don't let this be about Quinton.' "

Getting out of town

As Ganther sees it, "I have two sets of parents."

"They both play equal roles. I don't love one more than the other," he said. "I don't turn to one more than the other."

He calls the Montgomerys his godparents because he feels they were put in his life for a reason. Shannon Montgomery preached discipline and Gerald Montgomery coached Ganther until he reached high school. During that time, sports served as his refuge.

"Football was my everything," Ganther said. "It was the only constant thing I had. My parents weren't there. I didn't have my godparents when I was real young. But football was always there."

Paradoxically, in high school, when he couldn't play football, he got into trouble; and when he got into trouble, he couldn't play football. He missed several games because of suspensions. In fact, Ganther couldn't suit up for the first three games of his senior season.

When Fairfield played Benicia High, in October 2000, Ganther's name wasn't even listed in the game program. Coaches for the opposing school had heard rumors the Fairfield running back was in jail. Truth be told, they didn't mind the idea at all.

But Ganther was there and on the game's opening play, he broke free for a 62-yard run. He carried only 10 times that night but had 166 yards and two touchdowns. On defense, he sacked the quarterback twice.

"It seemed as if he preferred finding bodies to run through, rather than around," says Mark Kessler, the opposing coach that night.

As the season wound down, colleges were asking about Ganther, but it soon became apparent that he didn't have the core classes to qualify for a Division I scholarship. All the while, the Montgomerys kept stressing the importance of school, and they knew keeping him involved in sports was key.

"That's what saved him," Montgomery said. "He wouldn't even be alive otherwise; Richmond would've gobbled him up."

Ganther doesn't disagree. He had a baby girl before his senior season and despite the added responsibilities, he showed few signs of maturing. Following his final football season, he was caught selling drugs, arrested and hauled off to the juvenile detention center.

"That was a rude awakening," Ganther said. "They got me behind those doors, I heard them lock on me and I realized couldn't go anywhere. I knew that was no place for me."

With the Montgomerys in one ear and his birth parents in the other, Ganther finished high school back in Richmond and faced an important crossroads: Stay in Richmond and follow in the footsteps of so many lost souls before him or get out.

"I really think God was with him," says his mother. "He didn't wind up in a grave, didn't wind up looking at prison bars. Had he stayed, I believe with all my heart that's what life would've been like for him."

Long route to Utah

Kevin Emerson hadn't heard of Quinton Ganther, but the head coach at Citrus College had recently hired an assistant from the Bay Area who vouched for the tough-looking tailback.

"He kind of just walked in off the street to us," said Emerson, now the coach at San Bernardino Valley College.

Ganther had never left the Bay Area. Never even been on a plane. Life at the small junior college, located outside of Los Angeles, was a difficult adjustment. He'd call the Montgomerys at night in tears, begging to come home.

They knew the consequences of returning to Richmond and wouldn't allow it. Ganther earned the starting running back job during Citrus's first scrimmage and slowly began to appreciate the structure of college life.

His second season there, a smooth-talking coach from Utah came to visit Citrus. Ganther knew of John Stockton and Karl Malone, but he couldn't spot Utah on a map. "And it was actually right next door," he says with a laugh now.

Ganther was also being heavily recruited to Washington State, but he liked what he heard from Urban Meyer, the Utah coach who's now at Florida.

"He's a firecracker. He makes you want to play for him," Ganther said. "He has you thinking you can run through the wall. He just gets you excited."

In Ganther's junior year, the Utes went 12-0 and became the first non-BCS team to play in a BCS bowl game. Meyer left and Kyle Whittingham, the new head coach, brought in a new staff that was immediately impressed with its returning backfield.

"We do a lot of things in the weight room, competitive things against each other, against other position groups. And Quinton was a guy who never lost," said Dave Schramm, the Utes' former running backs coach and current offensive coordinator. "Didn't matter what the drill was, what the competition was -- speed test, strength test, skill test -- he won every time. He always found a way to win. Losing just wasn't an option he considered."

As a senior, Ganther rushed for 1,120 yards, averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and impressed NFL scouts. The Tennessee Titans selected him in the seventh round of the 2006 draft.

Released at the right time

Ganther is in his fourth year in the NFL, but in many ways, he's fresh to the league. He spent three seasons in Tennessee learning and growing -- but not really playing.

In his first two seasons, he didn't have a single carry and was active for just four games. He had a spot on the Titans' roster but not in their offense.

Tennessee has drafted eight running backs in its past seven drafts, including Chris Johnson in the first round of the 2008 draft, Chris Henry in the second round of 2007 and LenDale White in the second round of 2006.

It took Ganther a while to understand his role, and when he realized it, he began to question his future in the sport.

"After two years, as strange as it may sound, I didn't even focus on playing running back. I didn't think about the running back position at all," he said. "I knew the business, I knew how things worked. The draft picks were going to play, so I focused on special teams."

"I felt like I was hid for so long. I start thinking to myself, 'Am I good enough? Can I really play in this league?' You don't want to get to that point where you're asking yourself those types of questions. I'd be lying if I said I always knew I'd be a starter in the NFL. But all I ever wanted was an opportunity."

In 2008, Ganther was active for 13 games for the Titans, playing mostly on special teams. He carved a niche and expected to play a similar role this season. But in Tennessee's final preseason game, Ganther tore a calf muscle, and the Titans couldn't afford to give a roster spot to a special teams guy who wouldn't play for at least a month. They reached an injury settlement and released Ganther.

At 25, Ganther returned home to California, underwent physical therapy twice a day and hoped when he was healthy, some team might need his services.

"Sundays would eat me up inside," he said. "I'm supposed to be out there on the field."

Finally, in mid-October, Ganther picked up the phone and called Sherman Smith, a former assistant in Tennessee and current offensive coordinator for the Redskins. Before he hung up, Ganther had a flight booked to Washington for a tryout.

He signed a contract on Oct. 20 but didn't see any action until after running back Clinton Portis suffered a season-ending concussion on Nov. 8. As fate would have it, two weeks later, on Nov. 22, Portis's backup, Ladell Betts, would tear two ligaments in his knee and was placed on the injured-reserve list.

The Redskins started Rock Cartwright for two games before turning to Ganther, who had never started an NFL game and had only nine carries in his previous three seasons. He became the team's fourth starting running back in an increasingly tumultuous season.

After just two starts, Ganther already has rushed his way into a tie as the team's second-leading scorer on offense. He had two touchdowns at Oakland and a third against the New York Giants on "Monday Night Football." He enters Sunday night's game against Dallas with 159 yards on 43 carries.

Looking back to the uncertainty and hurt that followed his release from Tennessee, Ganther can only smile.

"God works in mysterious ways, and I think he was really working in my favor," he said. "If I stayed there, I would've been playing special teams every game. Here, I have an actual chance to play running back. That's all I ever wanted really."

'He didn't give up'

Ganther acknowledges there were times he thought about quitting. In high school. In junior college. In the NFL.

"I couldn't do it," he said. "I had too many people looking up to me, too many people counting on me."

His first NFL start came in front of 250 friends and family members who drove to Oakland from nearby Richmond, faces of his past and his present dotting the crowd.

There was Henry Ganther, a Bay Area plumber who still regrets missing his son's Pop Warner games because he was in the penitentiary. "A lot of people will say to me, you must be proud of your son," he said. "I'm happy about the fact that he's made it to this point. But the thing that makes me proud is that he didn't give up along the way. Because it would've been easy to give up."

And Brenda Ganther, who works in a probation office and sees so much inspiration in her son. "He's had to fight daily," she said. "It was all about survival for him. But he was determined that where his life began, that's not where it had to end."

And the Montgomery family, who Ganther's birth parents thank for keeping their son on track when he needed it most. "Richmond can take the most talented kid in the world and eat him alive," Gerald Montgomery said. "Quinton was headed in a bad direction for a minute. But he was never a bad kid."

Ganther says he's never asked for much. Just an opportunity, he says, and he's found a huge one in Washington.

"I've done nothing in this league that deserves any praise or any credit," he said. "I'm still working. I'm not where I want to be and not where I need to be. I've come a long ways, and I know that now that I finally have this opportunity, I need to make the most of it."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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