WALLA WALLA - Growing up in Walla Walla in the 1960s, Rich Abajian never thought of himself as a football player.
Baseball was his first love, and he dreamed of one day playing in the majors.
And even though his father, John Abajian, was for many years a partner in Teague Motor Company, one of Walla Walla's most successful auto dealerships, and even though older brother Jim and younger brother Scott would follow their father into the business, there was no way Rich ever imagined himself selling cars for a living.
Isn't it funny how things work out?
Today, at the age of 57, Rich Abajian is general manager and 20 percent owner of Findlay Toyota of Las Vegas, annually one of the top-selling Toyota dealerships in the country. And he is the chief operating officer of the entire Findlay Automotive Group, which includes 25 stores throughout Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Nevada.
Abajian broke into the automobile business in the early 1980s "because I had to figure out how to pay the rent," he said, after his intended career path in coaching hit a dead end following the 1981 season. Coaching football, he explained, had been a logical transition after a successful playing career at three levels.
His success in the automobile business, Abajian believes, is directly related to what he learned and achieved on the gridiron as a player and a coach. And what he learned from football is equally connected to a hot August afternoon in 1969 when he got up off his back and discovered that he had the right stuff.
"I never turned out for football until my junior year," recollected Abajian, a 1971 Wa-Hi graduate. "And during that first day in pads, I had already made the decision that I was going to quit.
"I had arrived for practice late, we were running around the field and all I could think was I could be swimming at the country club. And when it came to the final drill of the day, where you laid on your back, jumped up and hit someone, I said to myself, ‘I don't need to do that,' and I conveniently stayed in the back of the line."
Which, as it turned out, didn't go unnoticed by Don Wilkins, who was the Blue Devils' junior varsity coach at the time.
"Wilkins pointed to me and said, ‘You haven't gone yet,'" Abajian recalled.
The next thing Abajian knew, he was on his back. And when Wilkins blew his whistle, Abajian leaped to his feet and delivered a hart hit to a practice partner.
"I hit this guy, and he just crumbled," Abajian remembered. "And the coach said, ‘That's what I'm looking for. Do it again.'
"So I did, and after that he used me as an example whenever someone didn't tackle well. And he took me aside and told me that I would be playing a lot of football for the Blue Devils.
"And to think I was five minutes from being done."
Abajian's playing career at Wa-Hi was hardly remarkable, however. He spent most of his junior year on the JV team and didn't start a single varsity game as a senior. But he did become a third-down specialist in the Blue Devils' defensive secondary during Felix Fletcher's final year as head coach.
"I played a lot in certain games and not so much in others," Abajian said. "I remember Kennewick had this really good running back, and I was the monster back. It was my job to tackle him wherever he went. I was there on every play to meet him at the line.
"But because I had never played football, my aptitude wasn't up to speed. And we had a very good team with a lot of very good players. I wasn't ready to start."
But he was always ready to hit.
"I was always health conscious growing up, watching Jack LaLanne on TV and doing pushups," Abajian said. "I had a good physique and was well-built naturally."
He was also fast, and that combination of foot speed and toughness caught the attention of coaches at Walla Walla Community College, who recruited him to play cornerback for the Warriors. Playing under Gene Bates as a freshman and Jerry Anhorn as a sophomore, Abajian started every game and played well enough to earn a scholarship at the University of Nevada-Reno.
"I had a great experience at WWCC," Abajian said. "It was there that I got the confidence and the information - the mental aspect of the game - that helped me go on to the four-year college level."
He entertained four-year offers from the University of Montana, Colorado State and Nevada-Las Vegas as well as several smaller schools before deciding on Reno.
"I just liked their non-pressure way of recruiting," Abajian said of then-Wolfpack head coach Jerry Scattini and his assistant coaches. "Some of the others were more pressure, and I really appreciated how (Nevada-Reno) treated me."
Although he was recruited to Reno as a cornerback, he was switched to safety four games into his junior year.
"Safety was actually easier for me," Abajian said. "It enabled me to fly around the field more. We played a lot of bump-and-run, and that wasn't my specialty. What I was great at was floating on the field, floating and reading the quarterback and the receivers and being able to break up the pass or make the interception.
"Safety was a more natural position for me."
Abajian wasn't ready give up on playing when he graduated from Nevada-Reno in 1975 with a degree in education. He and former Wa-Hi teammate Dave Bateman, who had just graduated from the University of California, signed with the Portland Thunder of the World Football League.
"Neither of us made it through the physical," Abajian remembered. "They didn't tell us why, they just released us on the same day."
A couple of days later their agent, Leigh Steinberg, called to tell them he could get them tryouts with the San Francisco 49ers.
"Dave and I looked at each other and we both shook our heads," Abajian said. "We said no. We both decided to move on with our lives."
For Abajian, that meant coaching.
"All I knew was to be an athlete," he said. "So I figured I had to be a coach."
To get his start, he returned to Walla Walla and spent two seasons coaching defensive backs at the community college, the first year for Jerry Anhorn and the second under Gary Knecht. Sandwiched between those two falls, he spent the spring of 1976 helping Chris Ault, who had just taken over the Nevada-Reno program.
It was Knecht, Abajian said, who opened his eyes to the complexities of coaching football.
"The first thing he did was put the players on a chalk board and showed me how to look at it as an offensive coach as well as from the defensive side," Abajian said of Knecht. "He broke it down exactly where before I only knew generally.
"He taught me so many things that would have made me a great player, and he sure taught me a lot as a coach."
Then, in 1977, Abajian jumped at the opportunity to join legendary coach Tony Knap's staff at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Knap was beginning his third season in charge of the Rebels' program after coaching Boise State to a 71-19-1 record in its first eight seasons as a four-year college.
"Tony Knap was certainly a person who helped mould my life," Abajian said. "He taught me not only about football but about life."
Abajian spent five seasons at Nevada-Las Vegas, the first two as a graduate assistant and the final three as a full-time coach. By all indications, he was on his way.
Then, at the conclusion of the 1981 season, Knap announced his retirement and Harvey Hyde was brought in to run the Rebels program.
"We all thought we would be retained," Abajian said of Knap's assistant coaches. "That didn't prove to be true. Coach Hyde replaced the entire staff."
With a year remaining on his contract, Abajian had a cushion. But he didn't have the contacts to find another coaching job.
"I didn't know coaching was so much into connections," he said. "While I spent my time helping players improve, other coaches spent a lot of time talking to other staffs and lining up their next jobs. I didn't have those connections."
Besides, Abajian was being motivated by an even higher priority at the time. He had just met Jo Ann Schneider, his wife-to-be, and jumping back on the coaching carousel wasn't as palatable as it once might have been.
"I was still pursuing my relationship with my wife at the time," Abajian said. "So I figured maybe I needed to stay in Vegas and find a job."
But what to do?
"My dad said I needed to go find a job selling cars," Abajian recalled. "But that was the last thing on my mind. It was as if I heard the Devil talk when he said ‘Go sell cars.'"
Then one afternoon Abajian found himself in a handball game with a man named Cliff Findlay, whose father happened to own Pete Findlay Oldsmobile. And he decided to bite the bullet.
"I asked him if he had any job openings," Abajian said. "It was desperation. I needed to pay the rent. My dad was all over me. And I figured it would only be a month or two anyway before I found somebody who would hire me as a coach.
"I could do anything for a month or two."
He started out as a used car salesman, worked his way up to used car sales manager and then to general manager. And as the business expanded over the years, so did Abajian's responsibilities.
"And I found out I liked it," he said of his new newfound career. "I was stunned by it. But it has been a great career for me."
But he didn't discard his football background.
"Right from the start, I ran it like a sports team," Abajian said of his management technique. "We don't look at ourselves as managers but as coaches. Our sales meetings are like locker room meetings. We are a team, and we help people improve by teaching and coaching on a daily basis.
"I know so much more about sports than I do about the car business. And everything I have learned coaching and playing has helped me develop this business. Everything is relative."
And like all astute athletes and coaches, Abajian was aware from the start that the off-the-field image was just as important as what happens on the field. Or in the showroom.
So Abajian got involved in the Las Vegas community. And one of his most notable achievements was to spearhead the creation of the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 to honor outstanding athletes, coaches and teams from that part of the country.
Las Vegas native David Humm, who quarterbacked the University of Nebraska for three years and played professionally in the NFL from 1975 to 1984, was the inspiration for the hall of fame and its first inductee. Humm developed multiple sclerosis at the age of 36 and lost the use of his legs in 1997.
"David was very sick, and I wanted to do something for him," Abajian said. "So I got a group together, and (the hall of fame) has become the most prestigious organization in town."
Abajian was inducted in 2008.
"Mine was more for community service," he explained. "Helping schools and kids, helping people in the community by trying to make their lives better."
With his parents, John and Mary Lou, still living in Walla Walla as well as both of his brothers and an older sister, Kelly, Rich has plenty of reasons to visit his hometown. But he is content with the niche he has built for himself in Las Vegas.
"Las Vegas is a great place," Abajian said. "There were 250,000 people living here when I first came, now it's close to two million. There are a lot of people who have grown with it, and I know a lot of good people who have helped me with business and have helped me with life."
Still and all, Abajian hasn't forgotten his roots.
"I still look at Walla Walla as home," he said. "And whenever I go back, it feels so special.
"First of all," he added, "I never wanted to leave Walla Walla. That's another thing I said I would never do."
Yes it is funny how things work out.