SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 05: The California Golden Bears run on to the field for their game against the Washington State Cougars at AT&T Park on November 5, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
It's easy to appreciate a good team. A good team makes you want to buy expensive jerseys, organize road tailgates, build your life around Saturdays and enjoy the winning. So much winning, so much drinking, so much revelry. You take winning for granted when you're doing it all the time, but those moments stand out years after you've lived them.
It's harder to muster the same feelings about a not-so-good team. Which is what our California Golden Bears have been for the past few years.
In many ways, this season has been more meh even than last year. By now we've seen the same patterns emerge--beat bad teams, lose to good games, and occasionally mix it up with something that either illuminates or scars your fandom all the further. It didn't help we were away from beloved Memorial, where the calls for churros were even louder than the cheers for sacks.
Yet at the end of a season that many of us will be happy to forget, these are our imperfect Bears. These Bears that are leaving won't know anything about competing for conference titles or playing in front of raucous, adoring crowds. They played spoiler once or twice, but for the most part it was lunchpail drudgery.
Still, in their own imperfect way, they were endearing.
These were the Bears that committed to Cal when the team started tumbling out of the top 25 and stuck with us when it was clear the team wasn't quite as spectacular as it once was These are the Bears that'll never get to use those grand facilities their predecessors helped build, the Bears who had to play among withering support and conflicting feelings of investment from many of their fans, the Bears who spent their last season in virtual exile across the Bay. They saw the loonies in the trees and decided they wanted to be the Bears that shit on their woods. They stayed loyal and kept the program floating when it could have drowned in the angst and the relative apathy that surrounded these teams.
They're the bridge between the old age of Cal football and the new. While they might not be as appreciated as their predecessors or their replacements, they deserve their moment. Hopefully it comes on the Farm Saturday night.
The starting senior portraits seem to provide their own narratives of perseverance.
Marvin Jones: He had to become an adult around the same time most of us were looking for fake IDs. He was happy to become the second option behind Keenan Allen when his quarterback struggled and needed a safety valve to throw to. And he's dedicated himself to being both a parent and a great adjustment receiver. It's an impossible duty for most players, but there was Jones using his athleticism to haul in big throws others couldn't haul in to help keep drives alive.
Mitchell Schwartz: A strong right tackle who's had to play most of his career at left tackle, he's filled into duty at a spot where he had to constantly pass protect and get a little more agile. He's done his best to handle his side of the line. He's a thinking man who handled these responsibilities as well as anyone could.
Anthony Miller: Despite having soft hands that are perfect for hauling in footballs and breaking things down the seam, he's spent most of his time in pass protection to make sure his quarterback could even get throws off, plus run blocking to ensure the more successful run game trudges forward. I know Miller wishes he could've been part of a stronger offense, but he did what he could with his opportunities and is on pace for a season almost as productive as 2009.
Justin Cheadle: No one's been harder on Cheadle than me, but Coach M reclaimed him with a solid and sturdy season. Nothing glamorous or fantastic, but Cheadle's playing with an edge we haven't seen from him since we converted him defensive tackle. Took him years of inconsistency.
Will Kapp: Son of the legend, he had to slide in for Eric Stevens at fullback and gave a yeoman's effort (we haven't complained about the run much this season). And based on the touchdown reaction, it's clear he's a team favorite.
Michael Calvin: He looked promising. He got injured. He spent the next three years trying to regain his confidence. And he finally seems to have regained his form this season. He got his first touchdown last week as a Bear, three games away from the end of his Bear days.
Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu: Almost indistinguishable from every starting Tosh Lupoi defensive end combo, turns out these two seniors replacing Cameron Jordan wasn't a problem at all. All issues with the run defense started with the second line of the defense, as the two filled in and contained their gaps. And Guyton and Owusu are also the two leading sackers on the team.
Mychal Kendricks: Pulled from inside to outside back to inside, Kendricks had to fit into Mike Mohamed's shoes this season as the leader of this squad. He's done his best to file in the lunchpail duty, even if it's meant giving up the far more glamorous role of pass rusher. Kendricks has drawn a lot of the difficult assignments, and has grown into his role as the season went on.
D.J. Holt: The Worrell Williams Corollary: A player who's so solid and consistent at his job that you barely notice he's there. Stare at the statsheet for D.J. Holt and you'll see another inglorious six-ten tackles amassed almost every game, as Holt happily cleaned up the messes the D-linemen in front of him helped create.
Sean Cattouse: Probably one of the best symbols of inconsistency for these teams, expectations were too high for him after he laid out Eric Decker. He still struggles with those expectations, but he also has gotten better at recognizing where he has to be on the field and when.
D.J. Campbell: Had to play inside linebacker when they needed him there, had to replace an NFL starter in Chris Conte. But he still could flash the talent and generally did a good job most of the year.
Bryan Anger: It's usually never a good sign that the punter is one part of the football team you love watching the most. But man can they be pretty.
Giorgio Tavecchio: Walked onto the football team as a freshman and somehow became a solid-enough kicker much of the year. Earned his schollie. He still has trouble nailing an extra point, yet booted eight straight field goals through the uprights to start the season and has been one of the better kickers in the country this season. And he's one of the greatest guys you'll ever know.
Many of these seniors will be leaving us soon, but they can go out in a big way if they muster the spirit and fortitude to recapture what was once rightfully theirs. Many of those seniors were competing in Palo Alto two years before on a season of lost dreams, and they beat up the Furd lines on both sides of the ball and took away one of the greatest Big Game victories ever. Those Bears have an even more formidable task this week, facing an angry and methodical Cardinal side that just lost their chance at immortality.
As Joe Kapp would tell his son, "The barefoot hunter will eat his meal, bones and all." If there'd be any way to assuage the nothingness of this season's results, a team with nothing to lose like the Bears hunting down and denying Big Red their shot at greatness would be a perfect way to correct all the turbulence this season has produced. It'd provide fans with the perfect appreciation of the effort this team can put in, warts and all, and give us hope that good times will return soon enough.
Get back the Axe. Their Axe.