The legend was thrown for a loop. Something that seldom happened to El Camino High coach Herb Meyer.
“We were pretty desperate,’’ Noel Prefontaine said.
Meyer was in a pickle. His top two quarterbacks were no-shows at a summer passing league tournament in the late 1980s. So Meyer threw up his hands, turned to Prefontaine and gave him a faint endorsement.
“We don’t really have any other choice,’’ Meyer said. “Just do the best you can.’’
Prefontaine won all five games that day and Meyer’s dilemma disappeared.
“You’re my quarterback now,’’ Meyer told him.
Prefontaine went 22-1 as a two-year starter his at El Camino, winning a pair of CIF titles and a state championship in 1991. That would propel him to a storied collegiate career, one that has landed him in the San Diego State Hall of Fame.
The kicker is he goes in Friday as a punter. And how he got to Montezuma Mesa is as unlikely as him becoming El Camino’s quarterback.
“Everything happens for a reason I guess,’’ Prefontaine said. “But I wanted to be an Aztec out of high school. Unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards for me.’’
He matriculated at Cal State Fullerton and was solid. Too bad the program was on shaky ground and it disbanded after Prefontaine’s lone season in which he was California’s top collegiate punter.
Prefontaine had every major college seeking his powerful right leg, but instead he chose Arizona State, even with SDSU now among his suitors.
“I was young and dumb then and I had felt slighted by SDSU,’’ Prefontaine admitted. “And I didn’t do a lot of growing over those following six months.’’
He was a Sun Devil but he couldn’t escape a black cloud. The fit wasn’t right in Tempe, Ariz., so he chucked his scholarship and walked on at SDSU.
Prefontaine had to sit out a season, but it was one that gave him great joy. He was running the scout team as quarterback, reverting to his El Camino glory days.
“It was fantastic,’’ said Prefontaine, who considered himself a football player and not just a punter. “It was kind of boring going back to kicking the next year.’’
But a refocused Prefontaine was keen. In his two SDSU seasons, he set the school’s single-season (46.5 yards) and career (44.7) punting standards. An All-American in 1996, Prefontaine also established the SDSU standard with an 82-yard punt.
That led to a 16-year career in the Canadian Football League where Prefontaine won two Grey Cups with the Toronto Argonauts.
Prefontaine’s father was French-Canadian and his mother, Vietnamese. They met during the Vietnam War, which led to Prefontaine being born on Camp Pendleton.
“I was a Marine brat,’’ he said.
He’s just as proud of becoming part of SDSU lore.
“When you are growing up as a kid you want to play professionally, you want to play in college,’’ Prefontaine said. “Going into a Hall of Fame isn’t something that is necessarily a goal, but it is something that is a tremendous honor and I’m extremely grateful.’’
It’s the same feeling Prefontaine felt when Meyer anointed him quarterback many years ago.
“We had a lot of success so winning was definitely fun,’’ Prefontaine said. “And to learn the game from coach Meyer and those guys on his staff. They were on a different level and it was just a great experience.’’
That is most of it, anyway.
“Even with 16 years in the pros and throughout college,’’ Prefontaine said, “those practices under coach Meyer were the hardest I ever went through.’’
Follower Jay Paris on Twitter at jparis_sports. Read his new book “Game of My Life Chargers.”
Sportswriter Jay Paris has written his “Sports Talk” column since joining the Coast News in 2013.
Paris, a Cardiff resident, is a longtime Southern California writer, getting his start with the Orange County Register before coming to San Diego in 1992 to cover the Chargers.
He had the Chargers beat for more than two decades with Oceanside Blade-Citizen, the North County Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, before being named a sports columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Paris has won numerous awards voted on by his peers in the Pro Football Writers of America. He has also been a staple on countless media platforms, everything from the KPBS to MLB Network and various radio outlets.
Paris is also the author of three books, with his latest one being, “Shohei Ohtani: The Amazing Story Of Baseball’s Two-Way Japanese Superstar.” He has also written “Game Of My Life Chargers” and “Game Of My Life Rams.”
He currently covers the NFL in Los Angeles for Forbes. com and is a contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow Jay on Twitter @jparis_sports