Oct. 12, 2000
He may have taken a different road to get here, but senior defensive tackle Melvin Camarena is ready for his final year in the Palouse.
Born in Panama, he immigrated to the United States at 13, learned a new language, learned a new sport, and now 10 years and two colleges later, Camarena is looking to wrap up his career with a bowl game.
"Our goal is the Rose Bowl," the 6-2 senior said. "Every team on our schedule is beatable. If we play both sides of the ball, offense and defense, I think we can play with anybody in the Pac-10."
At 13, Camarena, his mom and four of his seven sisters left Panama for California. His dad and three other sisters stayed behind and still live in Panama. Camarena will be visiting them this summer.
When he came to the states, Camarena was a soccer player, he didn't even know the game of football. At 5-9, 160, why would he? As a sophomore at Carlmont High in East Palo Alto, Calif., Camarena captained the soccer team, as a junior it was the track team and as a senior he devoted his entire focus to the football team as captain and MVP.
"I was actually a soccer player and I was like 5-9, 160. I went to high school and my freshman year I was maybe 5-10, 200 pounds. Then that summer I went up from about 5-10 to like 6-2, 240," Camarena said, explaining the progression that led his high school football coaches to seek him out. "So I stopped playing soccer and picked up football. I've been playing ever since."
But it wasn't just football Camarena had to learn in his assimilation into a new culture, he also had English to pick up along the way.
"I didn't speak English at all," Camarena said with almost no accent. "I learned pretty fast, but at first it was hard because a lot of the kids would make fun of me because obviously I looked like I could speak English, but I couldn't."
Camarena is bilingual, both Spanish and English are spoken in his home.
"That was kind of hard at first, but looking back I wouldn't change anything. I did learn English eventually. I still have an accent. The guys in the locker room always make fun of me for it, but they just do it in good nature, so I joke back with them."
There may be joking in the locker room, but on the field Camarena has earned respect.
"He stayed here the whole summer and he really worked hard," quarterback and roommate Jason Gesser said. "He's just a real good guy to have on the field and to know he's out there on the defensive side of the ball."
After playing tackle in junior college, he switched to end last year, and back to tackle this year, where he has found a spot in the starting lineup. In three games this season he has already made eight tackles, including two for loss.
"He's a go-getter. Mel comes to practice ready to play every day," defensive line coach Mike Walker said. "He's a leader by example. He's quick off the line and that makes a hard target to block. He's our smaller version at the tackle, so when we get him in there we like to make the lineman try to block him, get him moving and make things happen."
After a tough loss to Idaho, Camarena is ready to step it up and surge forward in the team's quest for a bowl game.
"It's all about this year. No one can have a good game every game. You're going to have some bad games, but if you learn from it then that's what matters and I think we learned from the Idaho game and we're going to step it up," Camarena said. "It was more of a wake up call and I'm glad it happened so early in the season so we know we're not the super d-line. They were hyping us up in the beginning and we did have a bad game, but I think we're going to pick it up big time."
Before he began wearing the Crimson and Gray, Camarena tried on a couple other jerseys. Straight out of high school with recruiting offers from Idaho and St. Mary's, the social science major decided to stay close to home choosing St. Mary's in Moraga, Calif. As a freshman he redshirted, although he did travel with the team.
"We came to Idaho and played Idaho and I traveled and I never thought I'd be here in the Palouse, but I'm here now," Camarena said.
But after a semester at St. Mary's College, Camarena decided he wanted more.
"I was good and I realized that I could be a lot better than that and I wasn't really challenging myself there," Camarena said about playing for the Division I-AA team. "I guess in high school I was a little bit lazy, so I got recruited by Idaho and St. Mary's, and I chose to stay home, but I'm glad I'm not at Idaho."
After St. Mary's Camarena transferred to San Francisco Community College where he tuned up his skills on a national championship team, collecting 33 sacks in two years.
"From J.C., the main difference is the speed factor and a lot of the discipline. When I first got here I always used to do things the J.C. way, being late for meetings, so I got into a lot of 6 a.m.'s.," Camarena said. "In J.C. I was more of the star and here it's a lot more competitive, and it's the Pac-10 so you have to step it up a notch. But I expected it."
Camarena, who recently joined Phi Beta Sigma, a fraternity on campus, is beginning to look beyond his final seven football games. No plans are firm yet, but the 275-pound defender is planning on continuing his education, just not right away.
"I want to work with kids, either a sports program or just in general, anything that has to do with kids. I think that's where you can make a difference," Camarena said.
Camarena is focusing on sociology and human development with his social science degree at WSU and plans to get his master's degree in sociology or anything that will lead to him to a career with kids. But first he wants to get some work experience, and expects that to happen in either California or Seattle.
But that will be a new road for Camarena to take. First he must complete the path that has brought him to Pullman now.
"I just took a different route and I never expected to be here, but I'm here now," Camarena said. "I'm happy that I'm here and that I was given the opportunity to play here."