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November 2, 2010
Riley reflects on his career and looks to the future
BERKELEY-There comes a time for every athlete where the Men in Black option runs through one's mind: Just turn the dial on the neuralizer, and forget it ever happened. Go on with life unburdened by the weight of personal history. But, as Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K told Will Smith's Agent J: Always face it forward.
For Kevin Riley, that's all he can do now that his career as a Cal quarterback is over: face forward.
"It would have been nice to complete that game, see how it turned out, just anything, really, just playing those last few games, see how I could have done, see how the team could have done," Riley says. "Obviously, I'm going to miss it, but there's nothing I can do now."
The hit by Oregon State defensive tackle Brennan Olander just seven minutes into the Bears' 35-7 loss to the Beavers looked as brutal as a career-ending play can, as the 6-foot-1, 276-pound defender rolled into Riley's left leg in the end zone on a third-and-15 from the Bears' five-yard line.
MRI testing early this week indicated that Riley suffered a mild sprain of the anterior cruciate ligament, Grade 2 sprains of his lateral collateral ligament and his medial collateral ligament and a 60% tear of his left gastrocnemius muscle.
The gastrocnemius is a very powerful superficial pinnate muscle located in the back part of the lower leg. It runs from its two heads just above the knee to the heel, and is involved in standing, walking, running and jumping. Along with the soleus muscle, it forms the calf.
The primary function of the muscle is plantar flexing the foot at the ankle joint and flexing the leg at the knee joint. Its most important role, though, is plantar flexing in large contractions and rapid development of tension-actions crucial not just in football, but in such simple activities as walking and running. Rehab time: three months.
"They're saying I'll probably have to do nothing for five weeks to let it heal. And then, we'll go from there," Riley says. "A lot of times, when it's just your knee, just sprains, you can start doing stuff with your legs, but a lot of the leg work has to do with your calves, so they're a little worried about that because my calf's the biggest problem."
Team doctors took one look at the footage of the play and thought-like many Cal fans-that Riley's knee was completely gone.
"They thought everything was gone, pretty much," says the man who sits at No. 5 on the Bears' all-time touchdown passes list. "They thought that my PCL was going to be torn, and my PCL is actually fine. They kept on telling me how lucky I am."
Lucky. Certainly not the word one would use to describe Riley's final play-or the nearly five years that preceded it. Despite being the Pac-10's active leader in wins with a career 19-12 record, Riley's career has been full of ups and downs, plaudits and criticism. For every superlative, it seems, there has been a corresponding criticism.
In his first career start, Riley went 20-of-34 for 294 yards and two touchdowns for the then-No. 2 Bears, but his stellar performance was marred by 12 seconds of indecision three years ago against those same Beavers.
"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?'"
Riley would not see action again for another month and a half, when he relieved embattled starter Nate Longshore in the Armed Forces Bowl, leading Cal back from a 21-point deficit with a 16-of-19, 269-yard, three-TD performance to fuel a 42-36 win.
The very next season, Riley and Longshore split time as the starting quarterback as the Bears posted a 9-4 mark, ending in an Emerald Bowl victory.
Riley was too inconsistent, some said, and Longshore was far too prone to throwing interceptions at inopportune times.
The next season, Cal went 8-5 with Riley as the primary starter. Despite completing 54.7% of his passes (209-for-382) while throwing for 2,850 yards, questions about Riley's consistency remained. His completion percentage oscillated between as low as 37.5% and as high as 65.4%.
But one thing that no one-not his teammates, not his coaches, not fans-ever questioned was Riley's spirit. Every time he got knocked down, he pulled himself back up. No matter how loud any criticism got, that bristled mug still wore a smile, no matter how much the heart beneath it may have been breaking. Even with his knee in shambles, his career likely over, he still heaved himself up on the Reser Stadium sideline, trying, with every ounce of strength born of countless trials, to get back in the game.
"I tried to walk again and say, 'Hey, I can walk fine, just wrap me up,'" he says. "I tried to go back in, but obviously, I couldn't stand up. Anytime I put my leg straight, it just crumbled because of the calf."
But, at some level, even as he lay on the turf, he knew it was the end.
"I've broken some collarbones before, but when it happened, I knew something wasn't right, obviously, with the instant pain, but you just start thinking every different thought," Riley says. "Lying there, I thought, 'Crap, this is my last play of football.' That's the first thing that popped into my head. A wave of emotion came over me, just thinking, 'I'm done.' I kind of knew it. I knew it wasn't just your regular thing, especially coming off. I was like, 'Let me walk, I can walk, I'm fine, I'll go back in the game.' Then, I put a little pressure on it and I was like, 'Oh yeah, no way.'"
He laughs that easy laugh that so many of us in the media have come to know so well-that youthful, carefree chuckle that seems to find expression even in the dimmest of hours. He smiles as he considers his final play as a Bear, a 32-yard heat-seeking missile to junior wide receiver Marvin Jones.
"I had a good sense it was over," says Riley. "I didn't really think too much about it. It was a dime throw, that last one, though."
As much as Riley learned about football in his time at Cal, he learned more about growing up, and he certainly has done his fair share of that.
"Kevin's a leader for this team," says head coach Jeff Tedford. "Once he feels like he can be around and get around OK, I'm sure he'll be here very day and giving everybody encouragement and trying to help with the preparation."
Even before the injury, Riley had already grown into a mentor for the Bears' stable of quarterbacks, including his successor: junior Brock Mansion.
"I continually learn from him every day," says Cal's new starting signal-caller. "Since he's been down, I've tried to be a sponge and absorb everything I can from him, because experience kills."
Riley has been full of praise for Mansion, and will provide a strong sounding board as the Dallas, Tex., native warms up for what could be a starting gig in his senior season, when the Bears will play their home games at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
"I think Brock can play. Going in last week, I thought he composed himself pretty well, and that's a tough situation to go into," says Riley. "Just with the experience last week, and having all the reps this week, you have a different demeanor going into the game knowing that you're starting. I'll be here helping him out. He already asked me if he could watch film with me (Tuesday night), and I'm just here to help out the team now."
Asked if he would now take his place as an additional quarterbacks coach, Riley's smile once again challenged that bright November sun.
"Yeah, pretty much," he laughs. "Just one that they can relate to. I've been there, been through everything. Since I'm down, all I can do is help this team win as many games as possible."
From the brash, young gunslinger that first stepped onto campus, Riley has matured into a thoughtful, confident and upright young man. And, as he hung on his crutches on Tuesday, speaking with the press for the first time since the injury, he put his life here into perspective.
"I've done a good job overall, and obviously there are things that I'm not happy about," he says, pensively. "I wish I would have had a couple more games to play. But, it happens, and you got to look at it in a positive light. The doctor said that I was super lucky, and it could have been way worse than it is. It's only three months."
Looking at Riley's body of work, he indeed has very little to regret. He ends his collegiate career with 6,136 all-purpose yards (No. 6 on the Bears' all-time rolls), a 131.55 passer rating (No. 7 all-time), 6,182 passing yards (No. 8), two 300-yard passing games (tied for ninth), seven 250-yard passing games (No. 10), a 55.5 completion percentage, 50 touchdowns to 21 interceptions and five rushing touchdowns.
Over the past several seasons, no one in the Cal program has endured more questions or criticism than Riley and Tedford, and, as Riley sat on the bench last Saturday, facing the end of his career eye-to-eye, his mentor of five years came by, kissed him on the forehead and embraced him.
"I appreciate everything that Coach has done. He's been hard on me, but, who hasn't, quarterback-wise? He expected the most of me and I expected the most out of him and me together," says Riley. "We've been through a lot, and he's defended me when people criticized me, and a lot of people don't know what goes on inside the game besides the people playing it.
"When I came off, I knew I was probably done, and that's why I got pretty emotional, and I think he knows that I'm a pretty tough kid, and I think he knew when he saw me, I think he knew that I knew that I was done. I felt like it was a kind-of thank-you. It felt good, but at the time, I was hoping to get back in the game, but I knew I was done."
Riley went home that night, not to Berkeley, but to his family. He spent the night surrounded by the love and support of the people that mean the most in his life.
"My entire family was there. I went back to Portland on Saturday night. I didn't want to be away from family that night," he says. "I just drove home, watched the end of the football games like it was any other night, and people just made it normal. It was nice because I was with my girlfriend there, her family came up and my family and all my cousins and some of my good friends from home. They were very supportive, and it definitely helped through that first night, that I wasn't by myself."
On Tuesday, as Riley speaks to reporters, Mansion walks past and pats Riley on the shoulder, a small gesture to be sure, but one of thanks and support.
"He's taught me a lot of things," says Mansion. "Just little things, like little mechanical things, like, today, he was telling me my shoulder plane looked really good, and a couple balls during the game, when I threw them high, it was because my front shoulder was a little higher on the run. Little things, like the depth of the middle backer from a Tampa-2 look, or the depth and the width of the Sam and the Mike and the cross dog-little things like that-are really, really influential, and help so much."
All those little things, while seemingly inconsequential, can mean the difference between an incompletion and a 45-yard touchdown, which Mansion threw on the Bears' last play of the game in Corvallis.
When asked about any possibility of trying to play in the NFL, with his wealth of experience, Riley is hopeful, but realistic.
"I always thought of giving the NFL a chance, I mean, you see everybody give it a chance, really," he says. "I've played enough where I'll get a look, hopefully, if people see me throw or something like that, and they like what they see. I have a lot of footage of a lot of good work in the pocket. I'll just rehab it and I'll get a good shot, probably."
For now, Riley will bring his five mercurial years of experience to bear as he helps to prepare Mansion for the weeks and months to come. His one piece of advice? Just play the game. Because football-even at this level, in the pressure cooker that is the Pac-10-is still just that: a game. One that Riley has played with joy, ever with a smile on his face.
"Just play. Don't think at all. Go out there and play," says Riley. "Brock's super talented, and, I think like most QBs, once you start thinking too much, that's when you start to question your game. Brock went into the game last week, and I was watching the second half, and I was proud of the way he played, because he was composed, and, honestly, he looked better in the game last week than he had in practice the past few, so I expect great things. He looked comfortable, and then today in practice, he looked comfortable, threw the ball really well. He was throwing the ball better today than he has in the past few weeks, and I think he'll be fine. He's just got to be sure he knows the game plan and understands the situations."
It's still up in the air as to whether Riley will make the trip up to Pullman, Wash., this weekend for the Bears' final road game, but, even if he doesn't, his heart and soul will be on the field.
"I'm trying to make most of the meetings, but I'll be at every practice and whatever they want me to do, I'm going to do it," he says. "If they ask me to, I will go for sure. If not, I'll be watching, for sure, and calling people, maybe to say, (in a whisper) 'Hey, Brock, don't do that; do this.'"
Another smile. Another joke. The words of Cal legend Joe Kapp have never found a fuller expression than in the indomitable spirit of Kevin Riley. This Bear will not quit. This Bear will not die. He will persevere. He will go on. And this spring, he will traverse the stage at Hearst Greek Theater and take his diploma.
"I was going to finish it off in the summer, but now that I have to rehab, I'll probably just stay in the spring to take a class or two. I had decided to take one online class anyway, so I'll just take the class here, rehab and train here," says Riley, who will graduate with a degree in American Studies, with an emphasis in business organization. "It's kind of choose-your-own-adventure. I like it. You get to take classes you're interested in. I should be done with all my requirements except for one math class, but now I can just take classes and learn. I'll take a stat class and probably one other one."
And when he's done, those crutches will be gone, the bulky brace relegated to the back of some closet. And, for one last time, No. 13 will take the center stage, and walk across it.
Riley smiles at the thought, and says, proudly and confidently, "I will."