HILMAR — Bryan Millan’s first days as a football player were uncomfortable and overwhelming. His teammates and coaches seemingly spoke a different language, and the lifelong soccer player didn’t know where to line up or run.
About the only football-related task Millan grasped was kicking.
Whether round or oblong, kicking a ball for distance and accuracy was something Millan, an all-conference striker, could do in his sleep.
“My first year, I was made fun of for not knowing the rules and not knowing what to do,” said Millan, a catalyst in the Yellowjackets’ back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section championship runs. “I didn’t know anything.”
So why football?
Simply: Peer pressure.
Raised in the game of soccer, Millan finally caved to his friends’ requests to join them on the football field when soccer was moved from the fall to the winter. Three years later, Millan is one of the most versatile talents in the southern half of the section and a big reason why Hilmar will play in a CIF State Northern California bowl for the second straight season.
The Yellowjackets (11-2) will host Northern Section champion East Nicolaus (13-0) in the Division VI-AA bowl on Friday at Atwater High. The game was moved from McSweeney Field to Falcon Field because of seating capacity, the artificial surface and concerns about inclement weather.
“We’re better on turf than we are on grass,” Hilmar coach Frank Marques said. “With our team speed, a fast track is an advantage for us.”
It played out that way in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI final at Turlock High’s Joe Debely Stadium, where lightning-and-thunder running back tandem Isaac Sharp and Justin Rentfro took turns gashing the Ripon Christian defense.
In the days after the game, though, Marques praised Millan as an “unsung hero,” because of his impact in every phase of the game. After a scoreless first quarter, which featured more fumbles (three) than first downs (none), Millan jumpstarted the offense with a 34-yard sweep. He also had two catches for 31 yards, converted all eight point-after kicks, and sent four kickoffs into the end zone.
Defensively, he had a season-high seven tackles.
Not bad for a natural futbol player.
Marques marvels at the strides Millan has made since joining the football program as a wet-behind-the-ears sophomore.
“He was raw and didn’t know a thing about football,” he said. “He had zero football IQ. Even now, I don’t think he watches football on TV. He’s a huge soccer fan and can tell you anything about the European soccer leagues.
“He’s really a guy that had to learn the game from his sophomore year on. Last year, you’d say something and he’d look at you like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He’s become a complete player.”
And one of the best in the region, too, regardless of school size. Millan was No. 49 in the FrontRowPreps.com preseason player rankings because of his big foot and potential in Hilmar’s explosive Spread offense. He has 1,326 all-purpose yards, 13 touchdowns and 228 points in two varsity seasons, and he has connected on 12 of his 16 field goal attempts with a long of 44 yards.
In the rout of Ripon Christian, the 5-foot-7, 145-pound cornerback showed his defensive chops. Millan helped stymie the Knights’ formidable ground attack. At one point in the first half, Ripon Christian running back Michael Kamps sprinted toward the sideline between plays and implored the coaching staff to stay away from Millan.
Although he’s a football neophyte, Millan understands the game’s basic challenge: Raise your game or get run over.
“When it comes to my side, you know I’m going to give it my all,” he said. “I won’t fall back. Once I’m on the field, I’m a football player and I’m going to play like a football player should. I forget the fact that I’m a soccer player.”
Follow James Burns on Twitter @jburns1980, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.