Originally published Friday, June 29, 2018 at 05:59a.m.

MESA – Offensive lineman Brandon Pertile took a roundabout route to professional football. The 21-year-old from Clearwater, Florida, started college at Georgia State before he decided to travel nearly 2,000 miles west to Mesa Community College for a year of junior college football.

“I only had one scholarship out of high school, so I had to go to Georgia State,” Pertile said. “I dreamed of playing big-time college football, and the only way to do it was with JUCO.”

Pertile played a year with the Mesa Thunderbirds in 2014, which took the team to the Western State Football League final against Pima Community College. The Thunderbirds won 34-17.

From there, Pertile received a full scholarship from Oklahoma State. As a redshirt junior, he made the decision to transfer to the University of Virginia in February 2017. In April 2018, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Oakland Raiders and was invited to rookie camp.

Pertile recently signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

“I would never have this opportunity if I never went to Mesa,” Pertile said.

But that opportunity for advancement will soon disappear as the Maricopa County Community College District announced in February 2018 that they would be eliminating the four college football programs in the county after the 2018 season.

In the district’s February announcement, they pointed to financial constraints as a main reason for eliminating the program along with the football program being the lowest-performing sport against “key student metrics.”

“Although this is a disappointment to our student athletes, coaching staff, and football fans, it is ultimately the right decision for the district and the long-term success of students,” district spokesman Matt Hasson said in a statement.

Mesa Community College’s football program, under the direction of Ryan Felker who will be entering his seventh season as head coach, has seen noticeable success in Division I transfers.

Since Felker began his time as head coach in fall 2012, 71 student-athletes have transferred to Division I schools, according to the school’s website.

The 2017 roster is still being placed though already all four starting secondary players have received Division I scholarships: Will Jackson (Nebraska), Cameron Prewitt (Campbell), Gleson Sprewell (Houston) and Isaac Steele (Liberty). According to Felker, 11 starters from 2017 have received Division I scholarships.

Most notably, defensive back Damarious Randall played in Felker’s first season as head coach. He went on to play at Arizona State and was a first round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers. He currently plays for the Cleveland Browns.

“My program’s philosophy is to transfer all of our players to four year college or universities,” Felker said. “Everything I do, everything we do is to prepare our players and students for that next level.”

“The opportunity that they’re stripping away from kids is unbelievable,” Pertile said.

Offensive guard Andrew Erbes, who recently signed with the Montreal Alouettes, played with the Mesa Thunderbirds in 2014 alongside Pertile. After walking-on at Arizona State, he came to Mesa Community College to get the skills needed for a Division I scholarship.

“The coaches make the biggest difference honestly,” Erbes said. “I just think they do a great job of putting guys where they belong talent-wise after junior college.”

After his time at Mesa, Erbes was able to graduate from University of Nevada-Las Vegas with a master’s of higher education and sports administration.

“If I hadn’t gone to Mesa in the beginning, that probably wouldn’t happen,” he said.

Despite his Division I football connections, Erbes said he knows more guys that played in the NFL from his time in Mesa compared to DI schools. Getting rid of the program, he said, would be like getting rid of the Pac-12. It eliminates options for football in the state of Arizona.

“That’s just such a staple of football in Arizona. It’s been around forever and honestly they’re the best program,” he said.

Mesa boasts 23 conference and regional championships throughout the history of the program. Felker’s recent success stems from the familial atmosphere between players and coaches.

“They do a great job of turning boys into men,” Pertile said.

Pertile reminisced on defensive coordinator Chenelle Jones inviting him to his house for dinner and making sure he had groceries.

“That mentorship and leadership and guidance to take them off the streets, to keep them out of trouble, to put them on a path to success in life,” Felker said. “That’s something that is being overlooked. That story is not being considered.”

For players like Pertile and Erbes, junior college jump started their path to professional football.

“You take away JUCO; you take away a lot of talented kids’ dreams,” Pertile said.

The four Maricopa County junior college football programs – Mesa, Phoenix, Glendale and Scottsdale – will begin their last season in fall 2018.