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August 5, 2012
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BERKELEY -- Back in 2010, when Khairi Fortt was deciding on which school he would attend, he was just 17, and, by his own admission, a bit immature. He was scared. He didn't want to go too far from home, even though his mother wanted him to play his college football at California.
"The nature of human beings is that they don't like change," says Fortt. "It's uncomfortable and new. Just the unknown factor, is what plays a part in fear. For me, coming 3,000 miles away from my house on the West Coast, a different time zone and everything, it was pretty hard."
Fortt was set to graduate high school early. He didn't want to leave home - his parents, his family, his friends, his comfort zone.
"At that time, I was graduating high school early," Fortt says. "I was ready to enroll in the spring of 2010. When I took my visit out here, at first, I loved it. It was my No. 1 school. My mom really wanted me to go, but I was 17. I was a little immature. Coming out of high school, I didn't want to be that far away from home."
Two and a half years later, Fortt is a different man -- which is to say, he's a man now, not a boy. He knew who he was. He knew what he wanted. What he wanted was not at Penn State, and he knew that even before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke.
[Read more about Fortt: Bears Add Penn State Linebacker | Q&A With BlueWhiteIllustrated]
"Over these past couple weeks, it's been crazy. I felt, for me, that I needed a change," says Fortt. "I wasn't happy with my situation at Penn State, and it has nothing to do with the current coaches that are there right now, because they did a wonderful job of improving the program over these past seven months that they've been there. I just had to make a change for myself, and I felt like it was needed. It was on-the-field issues, but also off-the-field. Me and my family came to the consensus that this was the best fit for me."
When NCAA president Mark Emmert handed down sanctions against the Nittany Lions program in the wake of the Sandusky trial, Fortt realized that he had an easier path. That path led him back to the Bears.
"The atmosphere of the people, it seems like everybody's free-spirited," Fortt says. "It is very diverse, everyone's happy. Everybody's cool about life."
In his first crack at the Cal media on Tuesday, Fortt sat upright, leaning forward, but at the same time, the rest of his body language said, 'I'm at home. I'm comfortable.'
"It's a beautiful campus, obviously, with the Bay Area, the palm trees," says Fortt, who described his home in Stamford, Conn., as a more suburban New York City. "Everything is rushed over there. Over here, it's a bit more laid back."
'Laid back' is the last phrase to describe what the past few weeks have been for Fortt and the rest of the Nittany Lions.
"Facebook, twitter, call parents, at work, me, everywhere," Fortt says of the ways schools have tried to contact him and his former teammates. "About 36 schools (contacted me). I'm 20-years old now, so I kind of get the game and everything, so I was basically looking for schools that were true and real, to me and weren't just trying to sell me and recruit me like I'm in high school again. It was actually weird. It was a little weird. I actually didn't like it. It was just too much. I'm glad it's over, and now, I'm a Cal Bear."
Linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Kenwick Thompson got in touch with Fortt -- who he recruited out of high school -- and all of the sudden, that sense of unfamiliarity -- that fear of change -- evaporated.
"They contacted me, because there had been a couple times when I was just thinking about leaving, and they've always put in our ears that I was welcome here, when I was thinking about transferring," Fortt says.
The decision -- though in retrospect, an easy one -- was far from clear when the sanctions were handed down.
"It was pretty difficult," says Fortt. "I felt that I've got to do what's best for me and for my future and my family ... The circumstances came up, and I guess the timing, I could do it without penalty, without sitting out a year or losing a year."
What's best is to join a defense that has been the best in the Pac-12 two years running - a defense that has seen two inside linebackers drafted into the NFL in the past two years in Mychal Kendricks and Mike Mohamed.
"I did look at that, a little bit," says Fortt. "I feel like, if you are a player and you're great at what you do, I feel like anywhere you go, you can be able to have that chance to play. You just have to have the opportunity, and I feel like Cal presents that opportunity."
Fortt's opportunity, though, will have to wait, at least for a bit.
"We'll bring him along, depending on how his knee feels," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "He had a knee procedure on April 20 or 21. He's excited to be here. He's excited as anyone can be who was on a plane until three o'clock in the morning."
This past spring, Fortt finally had surgery to repair his medial patellofemoral ligament, which he tore back in ninth grade and had caused chronic problems in his right knee. Fortt was held out of spring camp after a subluxation of his right kneecap. The surgery he underwent during the spring was supposed to correct the issue in time for fall camp, but while the rest of his body may be physically ready, the knee isn't quite there.
"It was a chronic thing for him and it was time to get it fixed, so he got it fixed, and the prognosis is - at least, the early stages - is that he's cleared by the season, but we have to bring him along slowly and see what our doctors think of it," said Tedford. "Now, we turn it over to our doctors and kind of monitor his progress."
Fortt won't take any contact as it stands. His progress will be monitored throughout camp, because, "the last thing we want to do -- and I made it clear to him -- is that he doesn't have to come in there and try to prove something and put himself in harm's way and coming back before he's ready to play," Tedford said.
Fortt was at ease in his first session with the Cal media, showing a practiced hand at interviews, speaking clearly and honestly. The former Nittany Lion -- who plans on majoring in Criminal Justice, as he did at Penn State -- is indeed one cool cat.
"He's a smart guy," Tedford said. "He's a smart guy and he's a veteran, so he understands the process and how important rehab is. I think he's confident enough in his abilities that he doesn't feel like he needs to do something before he's ready, to set himself back."
"If I wanted to play in the National Football League, this needed to be done as soon as possible," says Fortt.
Fortt most certainly has an NFL-ready body. Aside from the tuft of bleach-blond hair on the back of his head, his upper body is a bowling ball set atop to hulking shoulders. Had he not been wearing a short-sleeved practice jersey on Tuesday, one would have had a thought to report him to the Idaho Potato Commission for smuggling a whole crop of spuds across state lines.
At 6-foot-2, 234 pounds, Fortt is a Sherman tank on legs.
"I've talked to team doctors, I'd like to talk to the surgeon and the doctors tomorrow to come up with a game plan and a time frame on how well my knee's going to get back in rehab," says Fortt. "Right now, I'm accelerating, and I just want to get back to working it out, get back into football shape so I can go out and compete."
After a round of laughter thanks to his decidedly in-shape physique, Fortt clarified.
"I mean cardio shape," he smiles. "I haven't run since March."
Since he made his decision, though, life has been non-stop for Fortt. He flew into the Bay Area at 2 AM on Sunday, and was at Bowles Hall checking in, signing forms and undergoing physicals by the afternoon.
"It was a little early for me on the East Coast, so I'm just getting used to it a little bit," he chuckles. "I checked into the dorms that we're staying at, and just was basically getting caught up on everything, a couple forms, talked to the team doctor about my knee, just introduced myself to all the coaches and got to know a couple of the players."
While he's getting to know his new teammates, he already has a strong relationship with a conference opponent -- tailback Silas Redd -- who transferred to USC the same week Fortt decided to transfer to Cal.
"My good friend Silas, yeah, he's back from Connecticut," says Fortt. "He lives about three minutes away from me. I've known him and his family since sixth grade."
Though the two didn't talk about their impending transfers, the main language they'll be communicating in from here on out will be in the form of teeth-rattling hits, starting when the Bears face the Trojans in Los Angeles on Sept. 22, a prospect at which Fortt could only grin. As he said, he's a Bear now. He's home.