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Some Thoughts Before The Northwestern Game

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In which I work through some feelings about the new Bears.

Nam Le

Putting on my fan hat for this one.

It's always around this time that I write a pre-season column that...well, I'm not always really sure what I'm trying to accomplish when I write it. I think it's just one of the things I have to do before the season feels real - sitting down and reflecting on where I stand seems to be as much of the ritual as receiving my tickets and following recruiting.

Well, whatever the purpose of writing all this is, I am clearly not letting redundancy stop me, because here I am writing it again. Last season - posted here if you should feel like reading it - the big thing on my mind was what it meant to finally step foot into Memorial Stadium for the first time. This year, it's something else altogether.

The last few days before kickoff are always the worst - they are the final, dragging moments before another fall of my life is consumed by the quest for a Rose Bowl.

For most teams, kicking off the season just means another chance for a championship, a trophy, a title, where months of optimism finally meet the cold reality of wins and losses.

All those things will be true of Cal's season opener too. Saturday night marks a 55th attempt to spend New Year's in Pasadena.

In that way, August 31st figures to be decidedly repetitive. I mean, I already know what I'll be doing.

I'll eat a little before the game, but nothing too heavy, since nerves will have seized hold of my appetite. No alcohol either - I usually have work to do immediately afterwards.

I'll take the long walk up Bancroft and arrive far, far too early for the 7:30PM kickoff, gulping down some energy drink on the way to the stadium - and if last year is any indication, I'll probably be the first one there, waiting impatiently for them to unlock the gates, my insides churning wildly as I stand in line.

I'll travel down the treacherous concrete steps to find my new seat in QQ, only to ignore it and pace around for the next two hours, all while a carefully selected "game day" playlist thumps through my blue earbuds...and when the ball goes up, I'll begin to scream, yell, cheer, clap and chant with an intensity that often leaves me hoarse for days.

But that will be about it for familiarity and repetition.

Save for my ridiculous pre-game routine and the always beautiful sight of Memorial Stadium, pretty much everything else will be different.

In the 10 months since I watched my last game in Berkeley, the program has become nearly unrecognizable, its changes so deep that words like "overhaul" are only mild understatement.

Everywhere I look, not much resembles the Bears of childhood.

Gone is longtime head coach Jeff Tedford, bought out after a disastrous 3-9 campaign in which the team was horrendous, and their academic performance even worse. On the sidelines in his place will be Sonny Dykes, who arrived from Louisiana Tech last December, high-powered spread offense in tow. Gone also is the team's 3-4 defense, which Clancy Pendergast used to great effect early on.

Familiar faces on this roster have dwindled down to just a few. With a new quarterback, new corners, new running backs, and three new offensive linemen, only a handful of returning starters will take the field against Northwestern. The rest of the two-deep is packed with underclassmen, young cubs that the team is banking on for break out years, especially now that their last established star bolted to the NFL.

Even the uniforms are different; a sleek Nike re-design is set to premiere Saturday. The jury is still out on how attractive those are, but they'll be new too.

And those changes aren't even the important ones. As numerous and substantial as they may be, listing all the new starters and scheme changes and coaches will only give a glimpse into these Bears.

A different energy surrounds the team now - that is to say, an actual energy, a stark contrast to the languid, lifeless squad that took slumped off the field against Oregon State to close 2012. Coach Dykes and the new staff have done wonders in the short time they've been here, installing a new culture of accountability and work, and building a chemistry rarely seen toward the end of Tedford's tenure. That's something I've not only heard from the players themselves, but from people who know and work with the players, as well.

Perhaps this is typical after coaching changes. I don't know, seeing as I've never really experienced one with this team, the one dearer to me than any other.

In truth, though, all of this transition has managed to excite, sadden, and terrify me at the same time.

In the darkest days of 2011 and 2012, I talked up and dreamed about 2013 many times, thinking that it would begin the turnaround, the awakening from a half-decade of hibernation. But in those dreams, I always thought that that resurgence would be led by Zach Kline and Jeff Tedford, not Jared Goff and Sonny Dykes. Don't get me wrong - I am all in on Coach Dykes and his QB of choice, and my feelings on our Rosy future remain unchanged. It's just taken a bit of adjustment to accept the faces of that future will not be the ones I expected they would be.

Most of the anxiety, though, stems from the fact that my life post-graduation looks a lot like these Bears do right now - I'm going through some massive changes of my own, having moved back in with my parents to get ready for graduate school next fall. I am only partially employed and have no idea what to expect in the months to come, just as I have no idea how the Bears will do this season, even after months and months of observation. With so much youth on the field, I wish I could get a better read on how successful they'll be this year, but that much is impossible to project, especially with this gauntlet of a schedule that lies before them.

All I am sure of is that the best is yet to come, and a return to prominence just ahead.

Perhaps I should think the same about myself, as well. After all, I've watched enough sports to know - the present is often rough, and the future always full of promise.

Changes, transitions, as scary as they may be, are all made with that future as the endpoint, that future as the destination - and while there are no guarantees at ever arriving there, to do the opposite, to never evolve or deviate or adjust or grow, is essentially a guarantee to miss it entirely.

Three days from now, those changes will become real for the first time, when Sonny Dykes leads Bears out under the lights of Memorial Stadium.

They will look very little like the Cal football I grew up with.

That's a good thing.