Trey Dorfner wasn’t even in uniform. He watched River Ridge High School’s football games from the sideline — no helmet, no pads, no chance of seeing playing time.
He knew that would be the case on the first day he turned out last season as a junior, but he went to practice anyway. He played on scout teams and impressed coaches and teammates with his aggression and athleticism.
“Every practice was a game to me,” Dorfner said. “That’s how I looked at it.”
When Dorfner was a sophomore, he abruptly transferred to River Ridge midway through the school year. His grades dropped low enough by the end of the school year that he lost academic eligibility.
By Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules, he was suspended from playing football for the first five weeks of his junior season.
“For us, with Trey, it would be really cool if he made it, but we just can’t vest any time, or energy, or even hope on those guys because it’s such a tough haul,” River Ridge coach Steve Schultz said. “It’s not just five weeks, it’s five games.”
Schultz said it’s a rarity for a player who is ineligible to make it as long as Dorfner did in River Ridge’s football program.
Dorfner went to practice anyway. He continued to cheer on the Hawks to five consecutive wins from the sideline, he applied himself in the classroom, and he made big plays on weekdays.
“That raised the level of play and intensity in practice, which is so tough to do,” Schultz said. “Just by that, he made us better. He helped us.”
Dorfner suited up when River Ridge travelled north to play Washington in the sixth game. He started at running back and capped his first touchdown drive as a varsity player with a 4-yard jaunt into the end zone — untouched. He exploded for another 86-yard touchdown run later in the game, finishing with 232 yards on 24 carries.
“I was really happy,” said River Ridge linebacker Thomas Engel, who has known Dorfner since elementary school. “In my head I was like, ‘He’s killing it. He’s a monster. He’s just so fast that nobody can get him when he gets into open field.’ ”
The Hawks went on to win the Class 2A South Puget Sound League title and advanced to the first round of the state playoffs with Dorfner in the backfield. He finished his short season with 156 carries for 1,157 yards and 11 touchdowns — averaging nearly 193 yards per game.
“Overcoming something is something I’ve had to do most of my life, with the situations I’ve been through,” Dorfner said.
From school to school
Dorfner rattled off the different elementary schools he’d attended but got tripped up trying to count — it’s about five or six, in California, Louisiana and Washington.
“We moved around everywhere,” he said.
His mother’s family is from Philadelphia — the projects — he said. He’s visited several times, and has family that still lives there. He said it’s the type of place where you see “dead people in the streets and drugs everywhere.”
“You’d think of it as a movie, I guess you could say,” Dorfner said. “That’s not the best way to describe it, but that’s the best way I can get you to understand.”
Dorfner’s mother’s family moved to the northwest for reasons he couldn’t fully explain. He was born in Tacoma, and following several moves with his mother and stepfather, he lived with his mother in Parkland. When he was 10, his mother was booked on suspicion of second-degree assault of a child by Pierce County sheriff’s deputies.
She was never charged, but Dorfner said he lived with his father after her arrest.
“I can’t do anything but pray about the situation,” he said.
Dorfner moved with his father and stepmother to Lacey and enrolled at Meadows Elementary School. He played basketball at recess with Zach Carter, now a linebacker at River Ridge, and quickly developed a friendship with Engel. They noticed his athleticism right away.
“Playing street basketball, or football, he was always going hard, no matter what,” Carter said. “It’s just his competitiveness.”
“It’s anger I have,” Dorfner said. “My childhood was not the best. I have built-up anger most of the time.”
Dorfner didn’t want to leave Timberline. He said a conflict with his family prompted his sudden transfer to River Ridge.
“Moving from Timberline to River Ridge was tough, because I didn’t want to be here at all,” Dorfner said. “When it happened, I took it for granted. I came in and didn’t do anything.”
His grades faltered, eventually leading to his academic ineligibility. But, when the fresh school year started, Dorfner refocused.
“I came into the school year and I just applied myself like I should have at the beginning, and I just practiced as hard as I could, 100 percent every play, no matter what,” he said.
Following the football season, he played on River Ridge’s basketball team, which finished fourth at the 2A state tournament in Yakima, and after some coaxing by coaches, decided to run track.
He has struggled with stability — at one point he stayed with his aunt and thought he might transfer to Curtis — but has rechanneled any negativity into athletics.
“It builds a certain fire in you that you want,” Dorfner said. “People telling you, ‘You’re not good enough.’ … There’s always a bad side to what you’re doing, and I’ve always had that in my ear. That’s something that has pushed me to do what I need to do.”
Through seven games this year, as a senior, Dorfner has racked up 996 yards on 123 carries and 19 touchdowns.
“He has high expectations of himself — through the roof,” Schultz said.
Kelle Sanders made a game out of it. Every time the subject came up, he toyed with Dorfner, giving him nondescript clues.
“You’re next,” Sanders would say as he walked down the high school’s hallways.
Dorfner asked what he meant, but Sanders wouldn’t respond.
“I would just leave him in suspense and walk away,” Sanders said.
Sanders — a Washington State University commit and Dorfner’s teammate at River Ridge — received his first college football offer from Wyoming in April. Dofner’s name was a part of that conversation.
“When Kelle first got his offer from Wyoming, my name was brought up,” Dorfner said. “He was like, ‘They’re talking about you.’
“I’m not the type of guy to be optimistic. I’m not the type of guy to get really jumpy about a situation. But, getting told that, it’s like, ‘OK. Well, maybe I’ve got a shot at something.’ ”
Wyoming, which plays in the Mountain West Conference and has won 15 conference titles, offered Dorfner in May — his first and only Division I offer to date.
“That was probably one of the best feelings ever,” Dorfner said. “I was really excited.”
Wyoming called on the final day of the track and field state championships — the same day Dorfner anchored River Ridge’s 4x100 relay team to a sixth-place finish at Mount Tahoma High School.
He announced his offer on Twitter later that night.
“Most of our family doesn’t go places,” Dorfner said. “To be in that situation is something I feel like I should take advantage of.”
Carter, Engel and Sanders all noticed a shift in Dorfner’s behavior. Carter said he was suddenly on a mission. Engel said he seemed grateful. Sanders said he took the stage and used it.
“He seemed more focused at school,” Sanders said. “He just seemed happier as a person. On the football field, he was more of a leader.”
Dorfner’s newfound purpose carried over. Though he hasn’t committed to a college football program yet, Carter said the chance for a fresh start in a new state, with different people, has helped Dorfner remain on track.
“I think he became a lot more mature, making sure he was eligible this year,” Carter said. “He came in and worked hard. He’s been dedicated even with things going on outside of school.”
Dorfner has found brothers on the football field. They line up next to him on a worn, muddy football field every day.
He’s been staying with Carter for nearly a week. He’s not sure if that’s a permanent situation. He’s taking it a day at a time, he said.
“Anytime he needs anything, I’m there,” Carter said. “Anytime I need anything, he’s there. It’s family. He’s my brother.”
That type of bond seems to circulate throughout River Ridge’s roster.
“Everyone has something going on outside of football,” Carter said. “We’re open about it as a team. Need a ride? Food? Money problems? We’re open about it.”
Every week, the team gathers outside of practice — to watch film, eat, whatever it is. Carter said that extra support has created a bond that is unique.
Dorfner has grown as a player — he’s on pace for a second consecutive season rushing for more than 1,000 yards — and is still aggressive, but has taken on other roles.
“Last year, he had the same mentality, but he was looking out for himself,” Carter said. “This year, I’ve really seen him grow as a team player, and a captain, and look out for everybody.”
Said Schultz: “He’s a focused guy. He goes to work every day in practice. He hasn’t changed now that he’s our starting running back. He’s still enthusiastic. He’s got all of those qualities about him.”
The Hawks, again, play for a Class 2A South Puget Sound League title at 7 p.m. Friday at South Sound Stadium. A win over No. 10 Franklin Pierce (7-1) would give third-ranked River Ridge (7-0) a second consecutive undefeated league title.
“We know what we’ve done, we know where we could be, we know how to produce,” Dorfner said. “We’re going to use that to our advantage, for sure.”