For Cody French, it all began in the fall of 2012 in art class at Goddard High School.
French was a junior and noticed an attractive sophomore named Courtney Villalpando. French had no idea when meeting Villalpando that they would be together today, five years later. The two hit it off immediately with them going to prom together.
French starred for the Rockets during his high school years, with the highlight being that his team went 14-0 in 2013, defeating Los Lunas, 17-14, to win the state football title his junior season, the year he met Villalpando.
French’s passion was to play football out of high school, but he didn’t get the offers from Division I schools he had hoped for after making All-State as a running back his junior and senior years. He was offered a preferred walk-on at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University. He also had a few junior colleges looking at him: Hobbs, Odessa, Midland, and Howard Payne.
In his senior year, French had several options — Odessa offered him a full-ride scholarship to play baseball, and he had an academic scholarship to Arizona State University. After talking with his parents, Rand and Terri, he decided to accept Odessa’s offer and play baseball.
“It was a tough pick,” French said. “My passion is football. I love the physicality of it. For some reason, we talked and talked, and I ended up choosing baseball.”
French excelled on the field and in the classroom during the year he was at Odessa. No matter how much success he had, he felt like something missing. He decided to quit playing sports altogether and transferred to Arizona State University to join his girlfriend Villalpando.
“I had an OK season,” French said. “Baseball was another sport I played because I was an athletic kid. I liked baseball, basketball and football. I got there, and I liked playing, but then I was questioning myself, ‘Do I want to do this for four years?’ Another reason why I left was I was in a relationship with my girlfriend.”
Villalpando was a senior at Goddard while he was a freshman at Odessa. She decided to go to Arizona State, and French decided to transfer there as well.
After sitting out two and a half years, French felt bored with his life and wanted to do something besides go to school. He got the idea to play football again and reached out to the recruiting coordinator and was told walk-on tryouts would be in February 2017.
“I went to the football games my first semester at ASU,” French said. “I thought it would be awesome to play football here. It just kept growing on me, and in the spring of 2016, I was contacting the football coaches when they told me when tryouts would be.”
Tryouts were held the last week of February. During the tryouts the players stretched, ran a 40-yard dash, did an L-drill and a shuttle run. There was no hitting, pads or weights. The coaches split the players up by position. French had told them he was a running back, but when they broke into groups, he saw there were 70 players trying out for running back and receiver.
“I played defensive back in high school,” he said. “It wasn’t as serious as what I did on the offensive side of the ball. As I was standing there, I thought to myself, I can’t go with 70 something kids, I will never get enough eyes on me, so I went to the defensive back’s position. I just went for it. I did all the defensive back drills that I never had done in my life and made the team.”
With only 15 players trying out for defensive back, French decided to target the position. There were 103 athletes trying out for the team with 16 players invited to the final tryout. Later, French received a phone call saying he was one of eight players to make the team. Prior to trying out, he had sent the coaches at highlight tape.
French said he kept the news from his parents initially.
“I kept it a secret at first, because I wanted to surprise them,” he said. “I know my dad was probably kind of frustrated with me because I gave up a full-ride baseball scholarship. I’m blessed to have my parents. I feel bad, and still do today, because it’s so much money.”
Even though he made the team during the spring, French had to try out again in the fall to make the 105-man roster. During the summer, he had to compete against 30 defensive backs. French believed in himself and felt that he was invited to try out for a reason and that the coaches must have seen something in him. And he was good enough to be there anyway.
French is now a third-team defensive back at ASU and runs the scout team each week. On the scout team, he runs the opposing team’s defense against ASU’s starting offense. He dresses for home games, but does not travel.
“After the first couple of practices, I began to believe I could play with these guys,” he said. “I realized it’s just football. Coaches tell me I’m doing well. I’ve been doing this for so long this year I don’t think about it. I just play and ball out.”
French credits his mental toughness for helping him succeed against faster athletes. He notes that Wes Welker was only 5-foot-9, and he made plays in the NFL for years. Not only is his schedule demanding on the field, but off the field as well.
A normal practice week with the team will include weights at 1 p.m. on Sundays, and they lift by groups — freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors, and then offense and defense. After they lift, they run. After they run, they watch film of the game played on Saturday by position. At 6 p.m., they eat dinner as a team.
On Mondays, the team is off. On Tuesdays, they work on the upcoming team they will play. The team will practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and if Arizona State is playing at home on Saturday, they will do a walk-through on Friday night. Tuesday and Wednesday are all-out hitting.
During their week, they have a mandatory breakfast from 6 to 7 a.m. and team meetings from 7:15 to 8 a.m. Position meetings are from 8:15 to 8:45 a.m. and they must be on the bus by 9 a.m. to go to their practice field. They will practice from 9:15 a.m. until 11:45 a.m., and afterward, the team will go back to the practice facility at noon, have lunch and then off to class by 1 p.m.
On defense, French is a hybrid linebacker in a defense they call “Spur” and in another defense ASU calls “Star,” which means he always goes to the strong side of the field. He plays a safety, but not a safety that is an outside linebacker, but not an outside linebacker. In certain situations, he must be fast enough to cover a wide receiver and physical enough to take on blockers and stop the run.
Arizona State hired Herm Edwards to be the new coach in the 2018 season. French believes he will have a chance to compete for a starting position next season. One of the biggest things is French doesn’t have to make the team. He is already on the team, which is a big leg up.
“Coach (Todd) Graham brought us together on the football field,” French said. “He talked to us and told us how things were going to be. He wanted us to keep the tradition of the things he taught us. I went into his office and told him, ‘Thank you.’”
French said he told his former coach how appreciative he was to have made the team as a walk-on.
“He just shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you,’” French said.
French is a senior in the classroom majoring in mechanical engineering. He has a 3.35 GPA. Athletically, he is a junior with another year of eligibility.
“My biggest regret in my life,” French said, “was not playing football after high school. I think I match up well with the players here. I think I could start next year and could have played this year. My position coach is always encouraging me. I feel a lot more comfortable going into year two. Not playing for a couple of years was eye-opening.”
The thing that sticks in his mind was when he told his mother, Terri, he wanted to walk on at ASU. She instantly replied, “Do It.”
French will be on the travel squad when Arizona State plays North Carolina State in the Sun Bowl at 1 p.m. on Dec. 29.