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Football can sometimes appear easy for Jager Gardner, whose rare combination of size, speed and athleticism made his game seem effortless during his record-breaking career at Owen High School. 

However, as the senior running back prepares to take the field for Temple University, which begins its 2019 campaign at 3 p.m, Saturday, Aug. 31 in Lincoln Financial Field, the road to his final collegiate season has proven to be anything but smooth.

Gardner was a force for the Warhorses during his varsity career, in which he amassed 6,955 yards on his way to becoming Western North Carolina’s all-time leading rusher. (The record was broken by Mountain Heritage quarterback Trey Robinson in 2017.) He led the Warhorses to a 12-1 record and a Western Highlands Conference championship in 2014. 

“He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known,” said Kenny Ford, who won 230 games in his 29-year head coaching career at Owen. “He did everything he had to do to help his team win and achieve the goals he set for himself.”

The Swannanoa native was productive as a freshman and sophomore and began leaving an impression on football fans throughout the Valley, according to longtime Voice of the Warhorses Carl Bartlett. 

“That sophomore year was really when he came onto my radar,” said Bartlett, who has been following football at Owen since the school was formed in 1955. “He really came on strong toward the end of that season and I think people knew he could be special.”

That year would prove to be a pivotal one for reasons unrelated to the sport, according to Ford. 

“The classroom wasn’t as important to him as it is now during his sophomore year,” he said of Gardner. “We were having a meeting with his guidance counselor one morning and Jager was looking down and mumbling and I kind of went off on him a little. I told him to sit up and look people in the eyes when he was talking to them, and I think that lit a spark in him. He made the decision he was going to work hard as a sophomore.”

It was around that time Gardner began to think that a college football career was an achievable goal, he said in an interview 10 days before the Owls’ season opener, which will be televised on ESPN3. 

“I knew from a young age that hard work was important,” he said. “My grandfather worked at Beacon Manufacturing for 40 years and my mother worked multiple jobs while putting herself through school, so that was instilled in me as a child. I thought ‘if they’re doing all this, then how can I complain?’ I just needed to focus on the things that were important and control what I could control.”

Over the next two seasons, Gardner was firmly in control on the football field, where he eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 24 of Owen’s 25 games, including a career-high 459 yards and 5 touchdowns against Avery in 2013. He followed that up with 301 yards on 15 carries against Mitchell the following week. As a junior he rushed for 1,894 yards in 7 conference games. 

Gardner went on to tally 2,578 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns for the Warhorses, who finished the season 9-3. 

While those numbers were impressive, he bested them with 2,776 yards and 36 rushing touchdowns during his senior year at Owen, which defeated rival Reynolds, 30-21, for the first time in nearly a decade. 

Gardner pulled in 3 touchdown receptions in 2014, as the team finished the regular season undefeated. His 91-yard kickoff return in the Warhorses’ 88-32 victory at home to open the playoffs was one of four during the campaign. 

“He just stood out,” Bartlett said. “It wasn’t just that he was big or strong or fast, he was all of those things. If Jager got two steps on you, he was gone. I never saw anyone catch him.”

Gardner’s work ethic and attitude elevated the players around him, according to Bartlett. 

“There isn’t a lazy bone in his body,” he said. “He had a great attitude and really believed his team could win. He motivated players around him to play above their skill levels.”

The star athlete remained humble despite his success on the field, Ford said. 

“He had a great relationship with his teammates,” he said. “Those guys had been close for years and they were a great group. Jager always made sure to give credit to the players around him.”

Fans also found him endearing, said Bartlett, who has been the Voice of the Warhorses for decades and watched nearly every Owen home game from the press box for 43 years. 

“He really touched off a spark in the Valley,” he said. “I don’t think there has ever been a more beloved athlete to leave Owen. We’ve had a lot of really good athletes and great people, but everyone really loved Jager during his time here because he was so well-respected in the community.”

Several colleges expressed interest in Gardner as he was coming out of high school. 

“Temple showed me that they really cared about me as a person and not just a football player and that meant so much to me,” Gardner said. “The Valley prepared me to get to college and coming to Philadelphia changed my life forever. I’ve met so many people from all kinds of backgrounds here, it’s really helped me become a more well-rounded man.”

Gardner made his debut for the Owls in 2015, and started against Southern Methodist University in week 9 of the season. He responded with a 94-yard rushing touchdown, the longest in Temple history. 

Adjusting to the college experience, however, was a challenge. 

“When I first got here I thought it would be like high school,” Garden said. “But it was nothing like I thought it would be. You have to learn how to take care of yourself, make time for school work, make time for football and get to know as many people as you can. Learning the discipline necessary to be successful was the hardest part.”

Gardner played in all 11 games for the Owls as a sophomore and scored a pair of touchdowns. He appeared in games as a junior before suffering a season-ending injury to his medial collateral ligament against University of South Florida. 

He was granted a medical redshirt for his junior season. 

“The injury was tougher for me mentally than it was physically,” he said. “I knew that if I worked hard I would get the opportunity to get back out there, but an injury like that can shake your confidence when you’re running or changing directions and things like that.”

He returned to the field in 2018, appearing in 10 games for the Owls and finishing the season with 253 yards and a touchdown. He’s been eagerly awaiting his senior season since. 

“This year is the biggest year of my life,” said Gardner, who is poised to take over the starting role for Temple after earning a degree in adult and organizational development in the spring. 

“Getting a college degree has always been a dream for me,” he said. “I’m only the second person in my family to have completed college and I’m excited for the opportunities that a college education will bring me. You can’t play football forever, and this school has helped prepare me for life after football.”

But Gardner, who will be playing this season for his third head coach in five years, has unfinished business on the field. 

“I’ve bulked up a little heading into this season,” he said. “I feel great and I’m moving really well. I think I’ll be able to do everything I’ve always been able to do on the field this year, but I’ll be a little stronger and more durable.”

His focus, he continued, is on helping his team improve on last season’s 8-5 record. 

“We want to go out there and win the first game,” he said. “It’s my goal to do whatever I have to do to make that happen.”

Ford is excited to see what his former player will accomplish in 2019. 

“Jager has worked so hard for so long to get to this point in his career, and he’s done everything he’s supposed to do,” he said. “I could tell from watching him last year that he’s gotten smoother and he understands the game so well now. I think this is going to be a big year for him.”

Gardner is ready for whatever the season will bring. 

“I feel like every day is a test,” he said. “Not in the literal sense, but emotionally and mentally. Life and the game of football will test you, and it takes maturity and understanding to respond to those tests. All of these experiences I’ve had so far have helped me prepare for this moment in my life.”

That commitment to growth is part of what makes Gardner special, according to his high school coach.

“He had goals, and he’s accomplished so many of them already,” Ford said. “He’s just the kind of man who doesn’t make excuses when he sets his mind to do something. I’m already so proud of Jager because nothing has been easy for him, but whether it’s school, football or anything else, he never complains; he just does whatever needs to be done.”

While Gardner’s focus is currently on picking up a win against Bucknell to open the season, he believes the long-term goal of playing in the NFL is within reach. 

“I don’t like to compare myself to other players,” he said. “But I look at what I know I’m capable of on the field and see former teammates and opponents playing in the NFL and feel like I also have something to offer at that level. But if I just go out there and have a great year and help this team win, everything else will take care of itself.”

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