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MISSOULA — Raeshawn Roland was ready to be an FBS football player.

The cornerback had a full-ride scholarship to play for Wyoming and was eager to show his playmaking ability. However, academic issues kept him from signing with the Cowboys during his senior year of high school in 2016-17.

So the California native inked with Division II Dixie State in the spring of 2017. The move down a level didn’t sit well with Roland. He knew he had the potential to play high-level football and recognized he needed to get his academics in order if that would ever be a reality.

“It made me even hungrier,” Roland said. “It made me want to grind even harder in the classroom. We know school’s not for everybody. But it’s not hard either. It just showed me like, man, it’s either you got to get over this hump or no more football. And I can’t go out like that.”

Roland spent the next two seasons at a pair of California junior colleges. There, he found the stability he sought to become better on the field and in the classroom.

Now, Roland will again have a shot to play Division I football. He signed with Montana earlier this month and will report in August for the start of fall camp with a scholarship and a renewed sense of the importance of academics.

“That’s No. 1 to me,” Roland said. “That’s the biggest lesson is actually being able to go to class and get the grades. They reward you in situations like that when you grind in the classroom and it’s noticed. It’s not how I started; I want to finish strong, too. I felt that was just as big as the offer, if not bigger. School comes first, because without that, there’s nothing else.”

Finding his focus

On the field, Roland has two seasons of eligibility left and will add much-needed depth to the Grizzlies’ cornerbacks group.

He stands at 5-foot-11, or as he says, 6 feet in cleats. Coming in at 160 pounds, Roland knows he has to get bigger, especially if he wants to continue playing the physical style at the line of scrimmage that he prefers.

“He’s first and foremost a top-notch athlete,” said James Wheeler, who was Roland’s position coach at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California. “He can return punts. He has good speed, good technique. He’s an excellent cover corner, man corner and some zone coverage.”

A two-year starter, Roland began at East Los Angeles College in 2017, posting two interceptions, eight tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss in a free-flowing defense.

He moved to College of the Canyons in 2018 and had to adapt to a more structured system and learn to play zone coverage. Roland didn’t play until the third quarter of the second game, had a pick-6 on his first drive and ended up leading the team with four interceptions while playing in a defense where five corners were rotated every two series.

Roland earned all-state honors on the Region III All-California Community College Football Team and was a unanimous first-team selection by the Southern California Football Association National Division, Northern League.

“Physically, he was ready to play coming in but not mentally,” Wheeler said. “It hit him after that first game, and he came to be more focused and have a better attitude.”

Chasing his dreams

FBS interest in Roland, a 2-star recruit out of high school, remained while he played in junior college.

Wyoming offered after his freshman season, but he couldn’t leave after one semester because of his academics coming out of high school. By the time he’d qualify to transfer, Wyoming had given the scholarship away, he said.

Roland had interest from Hawaii, Oregon State, Arkansas and others, according to Wheeler. But they never offered because he wasn’t graduating until the summer and couldn’t transfer early to start offseason training.

“It wasn’t like he didn’t have the skills go to D-I,” Wheeler said. “He had the skill level. He had to put the work into the classroom. Once he started getting more attention with schools talking to him, I think it started clicking with him. I hammered him with that: It doesn’t matter how good you are if you don’t have the grades. I think he took it pretty well.”

Academics weren’t always a foremost interest to Roland, although he didn’t despise them either. He just tried to get through them while growing up in Pasadena, California, where he said temptations away from the field were rampant.

When Roland was denied the opportunity to play Division I football coming out of Arcadia High School, he took a hard look at the importance of academics.

“I wanted to take a chance and come back and give it a second chance of going after my dreams,” he said.

Roland hit the books harder than he had before and produced in the classroom. He has a 3.03 grade-point average, was named to the scholar-athlete team of the Southern California Football Association and soon will have his associate’s degree.

Roland already has his next step in mind. He wants to major in business and run a family-owned business in his city.

“I want people to know that you can make it no matter where you come from,” Roland said. “Just got to keep your head in the ground and grind it out. That’s what kind of made me change was I kept my head in the ground and I didn’t look back.”

Second chance at D-I

The Division I offers for Roland were still there after two seasons, just at the FCS level.

Idaho extended an offer, as did UT Martin, Morehead State and Mississippi Valley State.

Then there was Montana. Roland knew of the Griz because a family friend went to school there. When he found out that it was the college team of one of his favorite NFL players, Trumaine Johnson, he thought it would be the right place to go.

But Roland was sold on Montana by cornerbacks coach C.J. Cox. He developed a quick bond with the Grizzly recruiter because of the refreshing honesty he heard from him and what the coaching staff thought he could provide.

“I want to bring that leadership, and I just want to bring my game to the table,” Roland said. “I’m going to bring everything I got. I want to make the next person play better. I want to be able to contribute and be the best teammate and player in the town.”

Montana wasn't the destination Roland had in mind as a high school senior. And the route he took to Division I football wasn’t the one he wanted. But it was the one he needed.

“It just showed me how to be more of man and be more hands on with life,” Roland said. “It wasn’t just all about football. It was education and things like that. It humbled me and got my head in the right place.

“Now I’m prepared mentally and I’m ready to bring Montana to try to be one of the best and be the best I can ever be out of my whole career. I want to do that at Montana. I want to be able to show people my story one day because my story is crazy.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.

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