Junior Adams stopped when he saw the smoke. It was billowing out of his baby — a black Lexus GS300 that, in the summer of 2007, he considered a prized possession. He pulled to the side of US-97, suddenly stranded on a desolate stretch of highway in southern Oregon. And, because it was Sunday, all the repair shops were closed. He was towed to a tiny motel, where he could contemplate how this happened.

Of course, the car was one thing; his career was another. In May that year, coach Mike Kramer had been fired after seven seasons at Montana State. Adams — who starred as an All-Big Sky receiver under Kramer, then immediately joined his staff — was abruptly out of a job at his alma mater. And to make matters worse, it was too late to find another college gig for the coming season.

So he went home to Fremont, California, and crashed on his mother’s couch.

And, unsurprisingly, that didn’t last long. Cynthia Adams ordered her youngest son to get a job. So he called Tyler Thomas — his best friend, college roommate and quarterback — and together, they settled on a short-term solution. Adams would join Thomas on the coaching staff at his high-school alma mater. He’d find a day job, coach on the side, live with Tyler and bide his time.

So, with few possessions and limited prospects, Adams embarked on the 12-hour, 700-mile trip in August 2007.

He made it as far as the roadside motel.

And the Lexus — bless its bulky heart and blown gasket — wouldn’t make it any farther. Without sufficient money for repairs, Adams rented a truck and left his baby behind.

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Nearly 13 years later, he labels it “a low point.” He was 26, with big ambitions and “literally zero dollars.” But Adams also says, in the moment, he wasn’t angry or afraid.

He was headed to Prosser — population 5,030. To seven memorable months he didn’t know he needed. To the big time. To family.

In a way, he was headed home.

· · ·

For years, Adams didn’t know his full name, because everyone always called him Junior. But legally, he’s Alton Johnson Adams Jr. — which is fitting, of course, because his best friend was his father. Junior’s sister, Fontina Rashid, said that “for all of us in the family, we look at him now and see his dad. He’s just exactly like him.”

Alton Johnson Adams Sr. died of liver disease on Feb. 27, 2002.

If anyone else can be considered Junior’s best friend, it’s Tyler. And that’s awfully fitting, too.

“Me and Junior were living together the night his dad passed away, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through, just seeing him,” Tyler Thomas said. “Because I knew how close he was with his dad. It was tough, man. But he knew I understood him.”

They understood each other — though, unlike his dad, they were admittedly nothing alike. Tyler joked that, when they met, “he was totally opposite of me. I’m a country boy from the farmlands, and he’s from the city. But he opened up to me and I opened up to him, and it was over with.”

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Tyler and Junior threw together. They lived together. They won and lost together. After two years at Oregon State, they transferred to Montana State together.

“They’re two brothers of different colors,” said Tyler’s father, Guy Thomas.

Junior Adams and Tyler Thomas at Montana State. (Courtesy Teresa Thomas)
Junior Adams and Tyler Thomas at Montana State. (Courtesy Teresa Thomas)

Incidentally, Tyler has two actual younger brothers, and one weekend in his redshirt season at Oregon State he returned to Prosser to watch them play. Naturally, he asked Junior if he’d like to come.

He wouldn’t have to ask again.

“He went home that first time, and after that he’d ask me, ‘When are we going back to your mom and dad’s? When are we going back to your mom and dad’s?’ ” Tyler said with a laugh. “It was just nonstop. It was different for him, and he loved it.”

The appeal, of course, was not difficult to understand. Guy Thomas joked that his wife Teresa “spoils the hell out of him.” Tyler added that “you don’t have to worry about nothing. You can watch ESPN until 3 in the morning and get up and eat a piece of pie.”

But, food aside, Junior quickly became family. He was there on weekends. He was there on holidays. He was there on Easter, coloring eggs. More than two decades after they met, Teresa marvels at how — despite her insistence — Junior refuses to use her first name. She’s saved in his phone as “Mrs. Thomas.”

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And he also calls her “mom.”

“That’s my mom away from my mom and my father away from my father,” Adams explained.

It wasn’t weird, then, when Junior stayed at Tyler’s apartment for a couple months in 2007. And it was equally ordinary when he moved in with Teresa and Guy shortly thereafter to be closer to his job.

They were family, blood be damned — and Junior was determined to do his part.

“He would go to church with my mom and dad,” Tyler said. “He wasn’t Catholic, but he didn’t care. Every Sunday morning, he knew my mom and dad were getting up to go to church at 8:30, and he’d be up. He wouldn’t care if we were up. He was going to go with my mom and dad. That’s how close he was.”

Junior says on the days he didn’t feel like going, he’d hear his father in his ear. Alton Johnson Adams Sr. would whisper, “Get up. Get out of bed.” Then Cynthia Adams would say the same.

He’d listen to his parents, then go to church with his Prosser parents.

Caption: From left to right, Junior Adams, Guy Thomas, Tyler Thomas and Troy Thomas at the Thomas’ home in Prosser (Courtesy Teresa Thomas).
Caption: From left to right, Junior Adams, Guy Thomas, Tyler Thomas and Troy Thomas at the Thomas’ home in Prosser (Courtesy Teresa Thomas).

· · ·

Remember what else Cynthia said?

Junior still needed to get a job.

That’s where Prosser High School football coach Tom Moore came in. After school, Adams mentored the Mustangs’ wide receivers and kick returners. But Moore’s wife — an elementary-school principal — helped Adams earn a role as a paraprofessional at Housel Middle School as well. Every day, he worked with two students with autism — Luis and Socorro. And even now, he says they’re “some of the brightest people I’ve been around.”

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Granted, Adams also oversaw in-school suspensions at Prosser High School. But it’s the paraprofessional job that left an imprint — and intersected with his life. Adams’ sister, Fontina, is the mother of a 15-year-old boy with autism named Amir.

“She’s just so positive,” Adams said of his older sister. “I learn a lot from her. I look up to her.”

Likewise, Fontina said that Amir looks up to his Uncle Junior.

“I think with Amir, a lot of people don’t really know how to approach him,” said Fontina, who lives in Atlanta and works as a clinical psychologist. “Sometimes he will just kind of isolate himself, and I think if you know how to approach him he can be very responsive and he’ll come to you and want to spend time with you. I think Junior’s always managed to make that connection with him. They’ve had a good relationship, even though we don’t see him very often.

“We always joke that Amir’s probably the best judge of character. If he likes someone, they must be OK.”

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When they do see each other, Junior jokes that “if I’m sleeping in my room, he’ll come busting down the door and jump into bed.” Amir’s language is limited, but he loves to lean against and sit next to his uncle.

And when he’s coaching, Adams leans on his experiences with Luis, Socorro and Amir.

“Everyone has their challenges, and every day’s a process when our feet hit the ground,” said Adams, who estimates he’s worn the same light blue “Autism Speaks” wristband every day since 2008. “We’re all working toward something. It’s patience. I know I’m not going to walk into the receiver room and snap my fingers and we’re all going to be All-Americans. That’s not how this works.

“It’s a day-to-day process, and that’s one thing I understand — that I’ve learned.”

UW wide receivers coach Junior Adams (Courtesy UW)
UW wide receivers coach Junior Adams (Courtesy UW)

· · ·

Make the big time where you are.

That’s the title of a book by longtime Pacific Lutheran football coach Frosty Westering. It’s also the first thing Tom Moore references when he’s asked about Junior Adams.

“He’s at our little Prosser High School, but he treated it like he was coaching a team in the NFL,” Moore said. “He treated it like he was coaching at the University of Washington.

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“When you raise the bar and raise the expectations and demand excellence, the kids respond to that.”

That’s how Adams approached everything in Prosser. It’s why he wore pressed shirts, instead of sweats, to a paraprofessional job without a defined dress code. It’s why he took his Mustang wide receivers through pre-practice footwork drills.

Moore, meanwhile, won 21 league titles and four state championships in 24 seasons as Prosser’s head coach, before stepping down in 2009. His sons, Kellen and Kirby, both famously excelled at Boise State. Before Adams ever arrived, Moore was already a proven winner.

And yet …

“At that time I had probably been coaching for 30 years,” Moore said of Adams’ arrival, “and I think I learned more about football in six weeks from him than I did in 30 years before that.”

And if Moore learned that much, just imagine the other Mustangs.

“With the amount of knowledge he had and the way those kids just looked at him, it was crazy. They loved him. They really did,” said Tyler Thomas, who coached Prosser’s quarterbacks.

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“Coach Moore wouldn’t say it around Junior, but he’d say, ‘We’re not going to have this guy very long, but this is so cool.’ ”

Prosser’s results certainly support that assertion. Kirby Moore exploded in his junior season, setting a state record with 29 touchdown catches. Senior Cody Bruns — who went on to play at UW — added 1,443 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns as well. And, most important, Prosser went 14-0 — securing its first state title since 1999.

After the season, Adams accepted an assistant-coaching job at Tennessee-Chattanooga. But, in a seven-month sample size, his impact was evident.

“It was crazy how much that little town fell in love with him,” Tyler Thomas said. “It was absolutely insane.”

“It’s guys like Junior that make guys like myself get into coaching,” added Kirby Moore, currently the wide-receivers coach at Fresno State. “Because they have an impact on you, and it makes you want to have an impact on someone like yourself.”

Huskies wide receiver Austin Osborne jumps up for a catch in front of Junior Adams, wide receivers coach, as the University of Washington holds day five of football training camp at Husky Stadium Tuesday August 6, 2019. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Huskies wide receiver Austin Osborne jumps up for a catch in front of Junior Adams, wide receivers coach, as the University of Washington holds day five of football training camp at Husky Stadium Tuesday August 6, 2019. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

· · ·

In 2017, Adams received his first opportunity to be an offensive coordinator. But, two seasons and 16 losses later, Western Kentucky coach Mike Sanford was fired and his staff disbanded.

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It wasn’t the first time Junior Adams’ coaching career blew a proverbial gasket.

And, same as always, he knew just where to go.

“When we got let go at Western Kentucky, the first place I went was Prosser,” Adams said. “I was there all of December. It kept my mind in football but allowed me to get away.”

Added Teresa: “It was like having your kid come home.”

Adams could have afforded a hotel, but he still stayed with his Prosser parents. He slept on the couch and claimed the controller, and on Sundays, they went to church. He also frequented Richland High School, where Tom Moore is the quarterbacks coach and Tyler Thomas is the offensive coordinator. They’d shut themselves in the coaches’ office, turn on the tape and get to work.

“They helped me get on my feet, man, to be honest with you,” Junior Adams said. “I call Prosser my second home. It’s one of my favorite places to go. People are like, ‘Really? You like Prosser?’ Yeah, I do. I love Prosser.

“It’s in the country. I can get away. Mom makes really good chicken spaghetti and some apple pie. And it’s just like being at home.”

But this time, it turns out, he wasn’t home for long. On Jan. 6, 2019, Adams was hired as the wide-receivers coach at Appalachian State. And then, right after, he was considered for another opening.

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“When (then-UW coach Chris Petersen) talked to me about wide-receiver coaches, I was like, ‘There’s one guy to call. You’ve got to call June,’ ” said Tom Moore, who added that Junior is “like an uncle” to Kirby and Kellen.

Adams was announced as Washington’s wide-receivers coach on Jan. 17, 2019. Unsurprisingly, Guy and Teresa Thomas — who are also longtime UW season-ticket holders — “were all doing back-flips here.” When the Huskies hosted their annual coaching clinic, Tyler Thomas and Tom Moore stayed at Junior’s house with his wife and daughter — and Moore crashed on the couch.

“Isn’t it crazy,” Adams said, “how this thing all comes full circle?”

Nearly 13 years ago, Alton Johnson Adams Jr. spent seven months in a small town in south-central Washington. It’s a blip on his résumé, between bigger gigs. In the years since, he’s coached at Chattanooga, Eastern Washington, Boise State, Western Kentucky and the University of Washington.

But Prosser, he knows, wasn’t a bridge to the big time. It was football, and it was family. He’d already arrived.