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August 31, 2010Freelance reporter Fernando Gallo covered Kevin Riley throughout the Bears' tumultuous 2009 season.
Opening night for any football team is a reason for celebration. Every team is undefeated, every fan filled with optimism. But in Berkeley, every season begins with one target in mind: the Rose Bowl.
For the throng of Cal faithful who will fill Memorial Stadium on Sept. 4, their dreams will likely depend on just one person - the dark-haired young man wearing the blue and gold No. 13 jersey: quarterback Kevin Riley.
He of such great promise and such a checkered collegiate career; nothing has ever seemed to go quite as-planned for Riley. He was thrust into action too early, forced to lead a nationally-ranked team in his career debut. He started that game against Oregon State, and then had to fight for nearly two years to get the starting job back.
But now, Riley is the undisputed signal-caller for this team, and many believe it is Riley alone who is the key to the Bears' success. Riley has abundant talent and potential, just like the Cal football team itself, but can he fulfill that promise? The team never has - at least, not in the last 50 years. And now, generations of Bears fans are hoping that this young man will accomplish something that so many others have failed to do. This team has enough playmakers and talent to finally break the Rose Bowl drought, but it lacks a strong and effective leader. There is little doubt that Riley can be that leader But will he?
To call Cal fans a different breed is to make an egregious understatement. Although few fan bases have endured the type of heartbreak the Bears faithful have, these fans are still exceptionally and irrationally passionate. But aside from their unrelenting love for their football team, Cal fans share one other common trait: A collective, inescapable, crippling sense of dread. Because they know that regardless of how much talent the Golden Bears may have, or how weak their conference may be, it is a given that they will fail to reach the Rose Bowl every year.
Some way, somehow, the annual bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., will elude them when January rolls around.
Every. Single. Year.
Joe Starkey - Cal's radio play-by-play man since 1975 - knows all too well how much a Rose Bowl would mean to the Cal community.
"It would be something that would just electrify the fans enormously, and honestly get an enormous burden off the coaches, the administrators, the players - no one wants to have that hanging over their heads forever," Starkey says.
But every year since 1959 - before head coach Jeff Tedford was even born - the Bears have failed.
"Generation after generation after generation of Cal fans want to go to the Rose Bowl," says Sandy Barbour, Cal's athletic director since 2004. "That's a hundred-some-odd years of tradition."
It's 108 years of tradition, actually. And that century of pageantry, as well as Cal's half-century of frustration, now rests on the success of one Kevin McDevitt Riley. Surely, the pressure must be excruciating for a 23-year-old to deal with.
During one of Tedford's weekly press conferences last season, as reporters lobbed questions at the head coach, Riley ambled into the room, looking calmly disinterested. He's a big kid, like many quarterbacks - 6-foot-3 and of sturdy build. When he's not wearing his helmet, he always looks relaxed, the perpetual stubble he sports doing nothing to refute that assertion.
Riley walks over to a table of leftover snacks and grabs a sandwich with one of his massive hands. A handful of cameras and multiple tape recorders are about to be thrust at the young quarterback. Most people would be nervous. Riley simply grabs a copy of the team's media guide and sits down with his sandwich.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; Riley is nothing if not media - savvy. He's been dealing with media scrutiny for a long time - ever since his very first collegiate game. Because, of all the near - misses Cal has had with the Rose Bowl, it was Riley who was behind the most excruciating of them all. It was 2007, and the Bears were not only set up for a Rose Bowl run - they were just a few plays away from being the No. 1 team in the country.
It's Oct. 13, 2007. Memorial Stadium. The Oregon State Beavers lead the No. 2-ranked Bears 31-28, with 14 seconds on the clock. Cal has the ball just 12 yards from the end zone, with no time-outs left. The crowd of 63,000 is roaring, because the fans know the magnitude of this game: No. 1 LSU has already lost to Kentucky, so a Cal win means that the Bears will start the next week as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Riley lines up five yards behind his offensive line in the shotgun formation. The 20-year-old has played magnificently in this game, his college debut. An ankle injury to starter Nate Longshore put him in this position, and Riley is the reason that Cal is in position to at least force overtime. Tedford is acknowledging Riley's stellar play by giving him the chance to win the game right now.
Riley has to get the ball into the end zone, or leave enough time for a field goal attempt to tie the game - the Bears cannot be stopped in-bounds, or the game will be over. The next 14 seconds will decide whether Cal is a national title contender, or on the outside looking in.
The ball is snapped. Riley waits for a moment before stepping up into the pocket, shuffling his feet as he frantically scans the field.
12 seconds left. There is nowhere for the ball to go. Riley sees some open space in front of him, so he sprints past the line of scrimmage. He can no longer throw the ball legally, so he'll have to make a play on foot.
Nine seconds left. The play goes terribly, terribly wrong.
The huge expanse of green Riley saw just a moment before is now shrinking rapidly, as two defenders close in. One grabs the young quarterback and spins him to the ground.
Seven seconds. Riley springs to his feet and runs to the sideline, still clutching the football.
Four seconds. The field goal team scrambles to get onto the field as the last second ticks away.
The field goal squad never had time to set up a kick.
The Bears and their fans in the stands are in disbelief as the Beavers celebrate. Tedford slams his play-calling sheet to the ground, followed quickly by his headset.
The Cinderella story is over, but without the happy ending. Riley stares blankly into space, crestfallen and defeated. Cal offensive tackle Mike Tepper walks up and throws his arm around Riley's back.
"You played a great game," he says.
He looks at Riley and offers more words of encouragement as other teammates walk over to console the young quarterback. But the damage is done. Just as the Bears were about to slide into that glass slipper, it shattered. Riley's first career start has ended in defeat.
Tedford said after the Oregon State game that Riley couldn't be blamed for the loss, and that he "played his heart out." Riley finished with 294 passing yards, after all, and three touchdowns. But it was Riley's lapse in judgment on the final play that ended the game, and it's all anyone remembers about that heart-wrenching Saturday.
"Kevin is remembered for that game," says Tepper. "That's so much to put on a kid who's never played before I guarantee that kid went home and cried that night, because he thought he ruined our No. 1 season."
That play has indeed dogged Riley for his entire career. Just last November, when the Beavers visited Cal for the first time since 2007, the first questions reporters asked that week were about that final play.
Riley downplays the significance of the game's ending now, but remembers how terrible he felt in the aftermath.
"I was so down on myself," Riley says. "I was just like, 'Oh man, I just lost this for our whole team. What the hell did I do?'"
He recalls how quiet everyone would get when replays of that moment would be shown on locker room TVs. After a while, Riley began to poke fun at it. If the play would be shown on TV in front of his teammates, Riley would declare proudly, "Hey dudes, I was just on ESPN!"
In many ways, Kevin Riley was destined to be a quarterback. His father, Faustin, has been a high school football coach for more than 30 years, and since Riley was a boy growing up in Beaverton, Ore., he has loved football. When his father would watch game film in preparation for upcoming games, young Kevin would regularly watch with him.
"As far back as I can remember," Faustin recalls. "A lot of times I wasn't even aware he was there."
As the youngest of three brothers, Kevin was picked on regularly. He was also undersized in his early teens; it took a while for him to reach his current altitude. So, naturally, he developed a chip on his shoulder, his father says, which still fuels him today. He always had a good arm, and was always very athletic - a great basketball player, even when he was still small.
Riley has also always possessed confidence that bordered on hubris, something the quarterback struggled with in his early years. As his offensive coordinator in high school, Riley's father often made sure to "clip his wings" when Kevin got carried away.
"If he made what I thought was an irresponsible decision (throwing the football) early in the year," Faustin says, "I just wouldn't let him throw."
That confidence would end up haunting Riley years later at Cal, as he languished in the backup role behind Longshore. It was a Longshore injury that led to Riley getting the start in that fateful Oregon State game, but once the incumbent returned, Riley was forced back to the bench. Longshore remained the quarterback for the remainder of the season, much to Riley's chagrin. He felt he was the better quarterback, and made no secret about his feelings. His trademark confidence was beginning to resemble cockiness. His rival noticed.
Faustin Riley recalls standing behind Longshore and backup quarterback Kyle Reed as they chatted during one practice, oblivious to his presence. As Riley walked by them, Longshore snickered to Reed, "Here's our star quarterback right here."
"I'm sure Nate thought Kevin was a pain in the ass when he first got (to Cal)," Faustin says. "He was immature. He was brash. He was saying in the paper that he wanted to be the guy."
After a great performance by Riley in the second half of the 2007 Armed Forces Bowl, a full-blown quarterback competition occurred during the spring of 2008. Riley began the season as the starter, but was often replaced by Longshore in the second halves of games. Although Riley got more than twice as many starts (nine) as his rival (four), Longshore saw significant playing time nearly every game.
The competition was tough on Riley, who says he lost some confidence in himself as a result. It also affected his play, he says, knowing that if he made a few bad throws in a row, he might be pulled.
"I was trying really hard just not to make mistakes instead of trying to make plays," Riley says.
Although Riley says he and Longshore were friendly with each other, a burden was undoubtedly lifted off his shoulders when the season ended and his competition graduated. Going into the 2009 season, Riley was the most experienced quarterback by a long shot, and there was little doubt that he would be the undisputed starter.
All athletes seem to have superstitions, although Riley claims he really doesn't. He does eat the same thing before every game: lasagna, a piece of chicken and a baked potato.
"Every time, since I've been here," he says.
But no, he's not superstitious.
The same can't be said for his girlfriend Carly, though.
"She's got her own thing - she always wears this stupid bow in her hair (to every game)," he says with a laugh, before quickly professing his affection for the hair accessory. "It's a good luck bow, and I love it, but it's funny."
One of the surprising things I learn about Riley is that he's a nerd. He grew up a big Harry Potter fan, and has not only read all of the Lord of the Rings books, but seen all of the movies as well.
"I liked (the books) even more after the movies, so I read them again," Riley says. "I love my little fantasy worlds."
I grew up dreaming of being the quarterback of a football team, and apparently I'm cooler than he is.
I also learn that Riley signals to Carly sometimes during a game, with a wave or even a little dance. Yes, a dance.
I told you I was cooler.
The main thing that comes across from my conversations with Riley, though, is that he is a guy who is truly enjoying life. Is he going to be drafted into the NFL? Barring a superb senior season, probably not. Will Bears fans ever cheer him as hard as they've booed him? Doubtful. But Riley seems fine with both of these facts, because he's having fun. That's part of why his father loves his son's school so much.
"He's an athlete, but it's not like some places where athletes are deified and given preferential treatment," Faustin says. "He can be a kid here."
College football pundits had fallen in love with Cal in the 2009 preseason, and many were predicting that the Bears would finally end the half-century-long Rose Bowl drought.
"This year is different," Tepper said early in the season. "The chemistry is different. It feels like the stars are aligned."
Barbour had higher goals. Heading into the season, she called the team "national championship caliber."
Through the season's first three weeks, Cal had legitimized those expectations by scoring points in bunches and demolishing the competition. Riley also played well, with the sixth-best quarterback rating in the country and not a single interception.
But during the team's fourth game, chinks began to appear in the armor. The Bears were No. 6 in the nation when they went on the road for the first conference game of the year at Oregon on Sept. 26, but left humbled after a 42-3 thumping. No one on the offense played particularly well, but Riley especially struggled. Was the bottom about to drop out yet again?
No, the team insisted, everything is fine.
"We got dinged last week and we had never been dinged like that, but we can overcome that," Tedford said.
But one of Cal's greatest nemeses - USC - was up next on the schedule, and the Trojans had no intention of letting the Bears off the ropes. USC moved the ball almost at-will in a 30-3 rout, effectively ending the Rose Bowl campaign just five games into the season. For many fans, the season was already over.
It's four days since the USC debacle, in which Cal's Pasadena dreams were essentially dashed for the 50th year in a row. It's also the team's bye week. But, at practice, no one appears to be ready to jump off any ledges. There's no screaming, no extra running drills - no one appears despondent or depressed.
In fact, quite the opposite is true of Tedford - he's upbeat. Practice has been great this week, he says, and the team has been very enthusiastic.
Practice ends and the players disperse; soon only Riley is left. A large passing net with three, square targets is rolled onto the 10-yard line, and Riley begins heaving passes toward it. Football after football flies through the air as Riley takes shots from 15 yards away, throwing hard and with impressive accuracy: He's not trying to throw to the targets - he's trying to throw through them. He is not smiling. He doesn't look happy. He wears the determined gaze of a player who wants to silence the boos that rained down on him just four days before. Sweat drips down his face and the balls continue to whistle through the air.
Tedford, who has been watching from afar, walks over to offer advice, demonstrating and pantomiming throws as the quarterback watches. Now Riley drops back before every pass, as he would during a game. He still fires lasers, nearly every single ball on-target. Tedford watches closely, and after a series of volleys he again offers his critique. This is what Tedford is famous for - being the quarterback guru.
Tedford believes Riley has the tools to get the job done, and can get back on track. But what about his psyche? The boos came down hard and often on Riley during the USC game. How could it not affect him?
"It's a pretty shitty feeling," Riley says of getting booed by his own crowd. "You put in so much work it's just fans who honestly don't understand what you put into it."
But, as much as they hurt, Riley accepts the boos. Longshore was booed at Memorial Stadium before, too. It's all part of playing quarterback, he says. You get an unfair amount of the credit when you win, and too much blame when you lose.
Retired NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer - a former Tedford pupil - is certainly familiar with criticism; he may be the most maligned Super Bowl-winning quarterback in NFL history. But Dilfer played in the NFL until 2008, when he retired at age 37. He believes confidence - or something like it - is the most important thing a quarterback can possess. It's what kept him going in his career, and it's what will serve Riley well going forward.
"People use the word 'confidence,' but it's bigger than confidence," says Dilfer, who has mentored Riley throughout his career. "If you have a true inner belief in what you're doing, who you are, where you're going that'll carry you through the hard times."
And if there's something Riley definitely has, it's confidence.
"Having confidence in yourself is the number one thing about being a football player, and that's something that I'm carrying with myself right now," Riley says.
He may sound full of himself, but Riley's not the cocky quarterback he was when he first stepped onto campus in 2006. Age and experience will do that to you.
His first two games at Cal, save for that awful blunder against Oregon State, were spectacular, by any measure. But that was in fact a detriment to Riley, because it gave him the impression that playing quarterback in college was easy.
And why shouldn't it have been? That 2007 team was loaded with offensive talent: Seven of the offense's 11 starters went to the NFL.
"I thought it was a lot easier than football should be," Riley says now. "The team was amazing."
With most of those players gone in 2008, life suddenly got a lot harder for Riley.
Riley says he's adjusted now, and understands how difficult this game is, how you never truly figure it out. As Tepper tells me one day, "When you feel like you've got the hang of it, that's when you've lost it."
Riley has also grown into the leadership role, and there is no question that this 2010 squad is his team. And no one in the program doubts him for a second.
"He's the field general," says Tepper. "He knows when it's time to play and when it's time to work."
In his father's mind, though, Riley's biggest changes have been off the football field. He always was a good-hearted kid, Faustin says, but he still had some maturing left to do.
"He could be selfish, and he could be thoughtless, but he's grown past that," says Faustin. "The world isn't about Kevin anymore."
Riley played relatively well throughout the rest of the 2009 season, especially in a come-from-behind victory at Arizona State, but not well enough to overcome Cal's early-season struggles. The Bears won five of their final seven games, compiling an 8-4 record, and were awarded a trip to the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
The Bears arrived in San Diego to play Utah, which was having a slightly down year after stunning some tough opponents in seasons past. Cal had the luxury of a heavily-partisan crowd; of the 32,665 in attendance, the majority was clad in blue and gold.
The stage was set for the Bears to finish their substandard season with a respectable 9-4 record, and head into the offseason with some confidence and momentum.
But the Utes proved too much for Cal to handle, and despite the advantage in the stands, none of the Bears' units played very well in a 37-27 loss. The meltdown was truly a team effort.
The loss was a hard one to swallow, and the discontent on the faces of the players after the game was undeniable.
As the final seconds ticked away, players and coaches met at midfield for postgame civilities and reporters approached players for some quick comments. But no one spoke to Riley, who shook a few hands and then solemnly began to walk towards the locker room.
Tight end Garry Graffort, one of Riley's roommates, walked beside him, and the senior threw an arm around his quarterback as they left the field behind them. It was an image I'd seen before: a veteran player consoling his quarterback after a crushing loss. Tepper had tried to lift Riley's spirits that day years ago, when the freshman had cost his team a chance at glory against Oregon State; no doubt Graffort was trying to do the same.
But that Riley from 2007 was so different from the one who was leaving the Poinsettia Bowl behind him now. This Riley has seen so much. This Riley has heard the boos and the criticism many times before. He knows the bitter taste of defeat - and he knows how to deal with it now. Because this Riley is confident, and this Riley is defiant.
He's got one more year to try to end the now-51-year Rose Bowl drought. Who knows if he'll play well enough? His father thinks he will, and so does his mentor Dilfer, but nobody really knows. But one thing is for sure.
He'll be ready.