Like Trying to Catch a Cannonball

He's 5 foot 7, and he grew up poor. But that didn't stop Jon Volpe from becoming a local sports and business legend.

There's irony in the fact that his company is called "Nova," which in Spanish translates to "doesn't go." They've been throwing negatives at him all his life. You can't. You don't. You won't. That opportunity isn't for you; it's for someone more ... deserving.

He's fashioned a spectacular life simply by showing them what's what. Too short? Naw; low center of gravity. Too small? That's why they have weight rooms. Too poor? Nope, just focused on what's really important in this world. Life has been draping weighted vests over his shoulders since he was 5 years old, just waiting for him to ring that bell and mutter, "I quit."

But he's having none of it, because he's Jon Freakin' Volpe, the local boy who made good here, went away and made better, and is now back again, makin' great.

Some people might say that they saw it coming, that they looked into his steely blue eyes and they just knew! But exactly when would that have been? When his dad walked out on the family just after his fifth birthday? Maybe it was when his mom married a musician who dragged the "family" back and forth across the country in search of a gig. No, no, wait, it had to be when his mother (by then a full-blown alcoholic) and her new hubby split for Casa Grande and left the two boys--both of them still in high school--to fend for themselves.

As he arrives for the interview, one can't help but notice his stature. He's slightly below-average in height, but way above-average in breadth. His shoulders look like he's wearing a clothesline pole under his shirt--one covered with molded concrete. He looks like a frighteningly realistic version of those Hans and Franz characters from Saturday Night Live. You just know that he could have worked out for a couple of days in August and then gained way more yards than all of the stiffs the UA trotted out last season. It's not quite clear how he'd do in the 4 x 100 relay, but his split time would probably be similar to the amount of time he'd need to pin any wrestling opponent put in front of him. Lord knows he'd snap me like a twig. (OK, like a rotting tree trunk with way too many rings in it, but you get the idea.)

To be sure, the Volpe chronicles are the stuff of legend. Amphitheater High School football coach Vern Friedli--who has coached at the northside school for more than a quarter-century and has had future Olympians, NFLers and more than a few doctors and lawyers roll through his program--has a quick answer whenever someone asks him to name the best kid he's ever coached.

"It's Jon Volpe," he says without hesitation. "And believe me, we've had some great kids come through here, some great stories. The Bates brothers, Riki Ellison, Matt Johnson. But for sheer desire, work ethic and the entire package, Jon Volpe is the standard against which all others are measured."

WHEN TALKING ABOUT football, Friedli invokes Volpe's name more often than Al Bundy mentions scoring four touchdowns against Polk High.

Friedli, like Volpe, is somewhat short in stature, but has that something that commands respect and attention. When he talks, it's with the experience of age but the passion of youth. When he speaks to youth groups or at coaches' conventions, Volpe is often Topic No. 1. And when he's done, there's hardly a dry eye in the house.

Friedli tells the story of when Volpe's mom and Stevie Ray Gone just up and left town. All of a sudden, the Perfect Kid was living here and there and sometimes nowhere, but always showing up to school and somehow always kickin' the crap out of everybody in the classroom and on the field and the track and the wrestling mat.

For a while, he was living in a garage not far from the Amphi High campus. He'd get up early in the morning, walk to the campus and go into the locker room to shower and get ready for school. Somehow, he'd take a full slate of honors and Advanced Placement courses, and then, for good measure, make all-state or all-American in whatever sport was in season. At night, he would work to make a few bucks to put food in his stomach. He even found time to visit sick kids at the local hospital because, hell, they had it worse than he did, right?

Volpe's eyes twinkle just a little when he recalls those days.

"They were definitely hard times," he recalls, "but they helped make me what I am today. Not a whole lot of kids had to go through what I did, but there were people who were worse off than I was. One thing's for sure: I had to make up some good stories as to why I never invited any of my teammates over to my 'house.'"

Meanwhile, Volpe's brother had chosen a different path.

There's a story about two brothers whose dad was a drunk. One grows up to be an alcoholic; the other never touches the stuff, goes to college, becomes a doctor and is respected and admired by everyone with whom he comes in contact. But when the doctor and his dissolute brother are both asked why they turned out the way they did, they both begin their responses with, "Well, my dad was a drunk ..."

Volpe would go "home" to the garage after a brutal day, crack open the physics and calculus books and do his best to concentrate in the dim light as his brother smoked dope in the corner. But they were brothers, and blood is blood. That's why when Jack got out of prison recently (for the fourth time), Volpe helped get him into a good rehab program, hoping that this one will stick.

Friedli tells the story of how Volpe came up to him after a middle-school event, introduced himself, confidently shook the coach's hand and said, "I'm going to make you proud of me some day."

Volpe laughs when he hears that story, and then explains the bravado away: "I guess I was always goal oriented. A friend of mine had an older sister who was at Amphi in 1979, when (the Panthers) won the state championship in football, and she drove us to the game in Phoenix. I snuck into the locker room and listened to (Coach Friedli's) speech. I knew I had to be a part of that program. I was going to do whatever it took."

And so he did. He ran and lifted and ran some more and lifted some more (his name is still listed among the record-holders on the walls of the Amphi weight room--nearly 20 years later) and sharpened his mind and body to levels rarely seen in high school athletics. He became an all-city and all-state running back, knocking over linebackers with his ridiculously broad shoulders and causing defensive backs to miss with tendon-straining jukes. "It's like trying to catch a cannonball," said one opponent at the time. "You might do it, but it's going to hurt a lot."

His goal, since he had been a little kid, had been to become a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his formative years, he had marveled at the teams that won four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s, combining an opportunistic offense with an intimidating defense. While those Steelers had their share of studs, it seemed like the really important ones were those who had been labeled as can't-make-its, yet had enough of a screw-you attitude to fight through it and reach the pinnacle.

There was Terry Bradshaw, the Louisiana hick boy who was supposedly too dumb to be a professional quarterback. And there was linebacker Jack Lambert, who arrived from Kent State a tall, skinny kid with no real position and no front teeth; he only made the team initially because he was willing to play anywhere on scout teams. Center Mike Webster was supposedly too small and too slow to play in the NFL, and the list goes on and on. Deep down, Volpe identified with these guys because he could see it in their eyes that they had heard the words--don't, can't, won't--and had brushed right by them like they were Hare Krishnas at an airport.

Volpe smiles, knowing that all three of those misfits rose to the top of the heap four times, and that all three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And yet, there in the back of his head, is that niggling thought that Webster, despite the fame and fortune that football brought him, ended up homeless and an alcoholic, dying way too young at age 50. A person can start off mired in the muck and find the strength to swim to the surface, but that's not enough. Buoyancy and momentum might help someone get to the top, but once they're there, they have to swim harder than ever just to keep their head above water.

His junior year at Amphi, the Panther team went deep into the state playoffs and was driving for the winning score against Phoenix powerhouse St. Mary's when Amphi quarterback Steve Dowling threw an interception down by the goal line. It was even worse the next year. The Panthers had beaten Sahuaro handily in the regular season, but when the two teams met again in the state playoffs, Sahuaro came out with a gimmick offense and trick plays and pulled the upset of the year.

"That really hurt," Volpe recalls with the clarity of a former prep athlete, a clarity that is both blessing and curse. "I had worked so hard to be a champion in football, and it didn't happen. It reaffirmed the fact that you can put all your effort into something and do everything the right way and then still have it not work out. It's a tough lesson."

Things went better in his other athletic pursuits. He was all-American in wrestling. His freshman year, the coaches had him do that dreadful weight-cutting thing down to 135 pounds. But what's the big deal? It's not like he hadn't gone hungry before; at least now he was starving for a reason. By his sophomore year, he was strong enough and mean enough that they let him wrestle at 167, which at least was in the vicinity of his actual weight. He was at 191 his senior year, built like a refrigerator, and named most outstanding wrestler at the state tournament.

But the thing that sticks out in a lot of people's minds is his track career. Volpe hadn't even run track at the beginning, preferring to use the spring months to prepare for football. He might not have run at all if somebody hadn't thrown down the verbal gauntlet. You're too small. You're too white. You CAN'T run track. But who was that short white guy finishing fifth in the state in the 100 meters? Wasn't that Jon Volpe standing in the starting blocks for the state championship in the sprints, bright blond hair and pale skin, looking like the answer to the question, "What's wrong with this picture?"

The Amphi track coach at the time, Raul Nido, is now the principal at Sunnyside High School. Nido remembers that they had installed a new running surface on the track, and that Volpe ran so hard, his spikes would tear out huge chunks of the track.

"We constantly had to patch the track where he ran," Nido recalls. "He would start off the relay and his legs would churn so hard, it was amazing. We won the state championship, both in the relay and as a team, overall. I always had the feeling that if I asked him to run the mile or do the pole vault, he would have found a way to excel in those events, too. Nothing was going to stop him."

Volpe's numbers on the football stat sheet attracted a lot of long-range attention from colleges, but when the scouts learned that the 5 foot 7 on the personal info sheet wasn't a typo, they backed off.

Still, Stanford saw something, and they offered him a full ride.

IT MUST NOT HAVE BEEN ALL that difficult to leave the garage and head off to Stanford in 1987. His brother was deep into substance problems; his dad had a second family going; his mom's life was unraveling to the point where she would eventually spend three years living on the streets.

Not exactly a siren song to keep Volpe in Southern Arizona.

So off to Palo Alto it was, to the land of green and splendor, with old money to the north and west and new money to the south and east. There was no damn way he was going to let these people know that he had been living on his own, a half-inch from the streets, pothead brother in tow. Many of these people were kids of presidents and CEOs, whose biggest problem in high school had been deciding which car to take to school. No, if he had let them know where he came from, he'd stick out like a pimple on prom night.

Billed as the Harvard of the West, Stanford is a prestigious university, its students excelling in academics and athletics. Stanford went 20-something years in a row when it won at least one national championship. The Cardinal kills in volleyball and cross country and water polo. The women's basketball team has won a national crown, and the men have been to the Final Four. But football has been iffy. After Jim Plunkett took the then-Indians to the Rose Bowl in 1970, Stanford fell on hard times. Even having All-American QB John Elway on The Farm didn't boost Stanford much higher than the middle of the Pac.

But this was Stanford, and Steelers dream or no, Volpe was going to get a first-class education, and whatever happened on the football field was gravy. Well, the gravy came early, and it tasted even better than the stuff one dips the chicken strips in at Whataburger. All he did was lead the Pac-10 in rushing his sophomore year. That's better than the kid they had lugging the ball at Tailback U in Southern California, or the guy up in Seattle, where the Huskies were heading toward a national championship a couple years later.

He was the leading rusher in the Pac-10, a conference full of flashy athletes. And, as star running backs go, he was a walking contradiction: maybe 5 foot 7 and 200 pounds, short and thick and industrial-strength, and only a sophomore. At Stanford.

The future looked bright, but he knew better than to count on things getting better on their own--or, for that matter, even staying at a level of good. Early in his junior year, he hurt his knee. Nothing big; just a torn meniscus. Any halfway-decent doctor could go in with the scope, cut off and suck out the damaged cartilage, and things would be fine in three, four weeks. And the way Volpe worked at everything, he might just set a record for rehabbing.

But something wasn't quite right, and the doctor had to go in again, and then again. It was basically a lost season for Volpe, but the knee finally felt better, and he looked forward to his senior year. Stanford had a new coach coming in, a hotshot named Dennis Green, who was one of the first African Americans ever to coach Division I NCAA football. He had breathed life into the moribund Northwestern program, and now he was looking to do the same at Stanford.

"He called me into his office and gave me the 'We're starting at square one and all positions are wide open' speech. That was fine with me. All I ever wanted was a chance to prove myself."

Volpe ran well in scrimmages during the spring, and Green took him aside told him that he had seen all he needed to see; things were fine and he was going to give some other guys a look.

But then when the spring game came along, Volpe played maybe one minute--and even then, it was with the scrubs. It was about that time that he had declared a co-term, meaning that he was planning to work on a master's degree in industrial engineering at the same time he was finishing up his bachelor's. Sure, this was Stanford, but football is football and, according to Dennis Green, Jon Volpe apparently had his priorities all mixed up. Yeah, having your all-conference running back earn GTE Academic All-American honors and being named a Rhodes Scholar nominee is a black mark on any football program.

By the time the season rolled around, if Volpe had been any farther down the bench, he would have had to pay to get into the stadium. He got into a few games, but even then, it was as a blocking back for (Touchdown) Tommy Vardell, Green's chosen one who was taller, bigger and much slower than Volpe. That year, a national TV audience saw the unselfish Volpe lay a crushing block on a Notre Dame linebacker to allow Vardell to score the big TD. By the end of the season, however, Green didn't even get Volpe in for a snap in the season-ending Big Game against California.

The college career was over, but he still had the fire, and the Steelers still played in Pittsburgh. He tried to wrangle an invitation to the Combine, the pre-draft meat market run by the NFL where prospects are poked and prodded, tested and timed. But no invitation was forthcoming; Green had put out the word that Volpe wasn't serious about football.

As he shifts uncomfortably on the stool, his feelings about Dennis Green are abundantly clear. Even now, after all these years, when he talks about Green, it's in clipped tones. "The Phoenix fans," he bites off, "who think that Green is going to deliver the Cardinals to the Promised Land are in for some surprises. And not good surprises."

VOLPE EVENTUALLY TALKED the Steelers into giving him a tryout. One of the standard drills that prospects go through is to bench press 225 pounds as many times in a row as one can. The average running back might do it three or four times; a strong lineman might manage a dozen or so reps.

Volpe did it 32 times.

Nobody could remember anybody ever having done more than 20. His average time in several 40s was a blazing 4.34. In a series of drills, he ran the ball and caught the ball and did everything perfectly, and the Steelers fell in love. But it was late in the preseason cycle, and Pittsburgh's 80-man roster was set. They promised to keep him in mind for the next year.

The strength coach at Stanford got him a tryout with the British Columbia Lions in the Canadian Football League. It wasn't the NFL, but it was football, and they actually paid people to play it. Volpe signed a two-year contract, with the club having an option on a third year. As it turned out, the Canadian government kept about half the pay, and the exchange rate blew, but he threw himself into it. Doug Flutie was his quarterback, and Volpe absolutely ran wild. He was named CFL Rookie of the Year, ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. The next year, Volpe was the CFL's Western Division Most Valuable Player, breaking five CFL rushing records.

After fulfilling the Canadian contract (including the option year, which the club gladly picked up), Volpe went back to the Steelers, who offered him a contract. With his dream in hand, that inner fire which had sustained him all those years suddenly turned on him.

Not one to do things less than 100 percent, Volpe never learned the fine art of running out of bounds at the end of a run to avoid needless collisions. And so it was, at the end of an unimportant run in an unimportant preseason game, he took a vicious hit that separated his shoulder--and ended his career.

Something prompted Volpe to return to Tucson to rehab the shoulder, and it was then that he met Ray Desmond, founder and president of something called Nova Financial & Investments, Inc. Volpe started working for Desmond and then with him (they're now co-owners of the company); eventually, Volpe even suggested changing the name to Nova Home Loan, so as not to confuse potential customers.

"I had known Jon since he was in high school," explains Desmond. "I used to have tailgate parties at UA football games, and Jon and his friends would drop by. I followed his career at Stanford and in Canada, and one day, I saw him at a basketball game and asked him what he was doing. He told me he was injured and I told him to stop by my office.

"He had his degree in engineering and was thinking of going that route, but I explained that the sky was the limit (in our business), so he took me up on my offer. The first six months, he just studied the business. He started slowly, got a little frustrated, but then things just took off. I was skeptical when he told me he wanted to be No. 1, but now I don't think there's anything he can't do."

Early on, Desmond told Volpe that a really good mortgage loan originator might do 10 contracts in a month. In December of his first year, Volpe did 29. He set goals for himself, then raced past them. He wanted to be the top producer at Nova one year and then ended up doing it seven years in a row. When he said he wanted to be in the top 1,000 in the country, he landed in the top 100, then the top 10, then, in 2001, he became No. 1 in the entire nation. That year, he closed nearly 2,000 residential loans totaling nearly $300 million.

VOLPE HAD ONCE TOLD VERN Friedli that he'd be a millionaire by the time he was 30. He missed by only a few months. He's now chairman and CEO of Nova Home Loans.

"I read somewhere that many of the top business success stories involved people who had returned to their hometowns to make their fortunes," he says. "Tucson's my home, and I'm happy to be here."

Volpe lives quite comfortably with wife Heather and children: daughter Kaylie, 7, and son Trevor, 5.

After taking nearly a year to train the staff to do things the way he wants them done, he recently opened a new office on the southside in an effort to provide decent and fair mortgage opportunities to the largely Hispanic population.

Meanwhile, his reputation as a charitable man grows geometrically. Word has it that he's donated six figures to groups including The Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson, Toys for Tots and his own charity, Miracle on 16th Avenue.

"I remember how (local car dealer) Jim Click used to pay so I could attend football camps in high school. I always said that someday, I wanted to be in a position to do the same for others. It's a good feeling to be able to do that."

Still, as he sits in the lounge of Sullivan's Steak House on East River Road, recounting his past and sketching out his future, one can't help but wonder if he has an "off" switch. He fidgets in his stool, his energy palpable and his focus somewhat disconcerting.

He has overcome every obstacle, conquered every world. But, can he ever relax a little, take a break, slow down a bit? Can he ever be anything other than 100 percent Jon Volpe, all the time?

No, he can't.