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March 15, 2010

Ready to Roar, Part 8: Trajuan Briggs

Publisher's Note: This is Part 8 of a series going in-depth with Cal's 2010 recruits, allowing fans a look into the lives of their future Golden Bears.

"Everything happens for a reason."

That's how freshman Trajuan Briggs ends his interview after the Cal football team's second spring practice.

For Briggs, that saying may as well be hanging on his dorm room wall. It's who he is. It's how he got here. Everything from Hurricane Katrina to his uniform number. It all happens for a reason.

Briggs lists his hometown as Pacoima, Calif. He went to Van Nuys (Calif.) Birmingham High. His cousin Matthew Clark matriculated from UCLA. So Cal through and through, right?

Not even close. Try almost 2,000 miles east.

Briggs' family has, for generations, called Louisiana home. His lineage includes French, African and Native American bloodlines. And to think, all it took was asking what his favorite food was to get it out of him.

"I sort of keep it under the radar," says Briggs. "When they ask me originally where I'm from, I say I'm from New Orleans, but since I came out of Southern California, I put Van Nuys."

That favorite food, by the way?

"Mmm, one thing that I'll miss from home is gumbo," Briggs says, a smile crawling across his face as if he can almost taste it. "I am from Louisiana. I moved out in 2005, after the hurricane."

The storm he's talking about is, of course, Hurricane Katrina, which cut a swath of devastation across the entire Gulf Coast Region, and scattered Briggs' family across the country back in 2005.

"I wasn't out there when it happened. I was actually at a Raiders game when they were playing their preseason game, because my uncle went as a free agent to play for the Saints, so we were out here when it happened," says Briggs.

After the storm hit, Briggs stayed with his grandmother in Southern California while his family was cast to the four winds, winding up in Lancaster, Sacramento and even in Alaska. The family had lived in Louisiana and Sugarland, Tex., for generations.

"It's been Louisiana and Texas since, well, since," says Briggs. "Patterson, La., Sugarland, Tex., and New Orleans, we've always been there, pretty much. Southern California was new to me in all different aspects. I'm still getting used to it. Still getting used to this weather."

When Briggs and his mother, Nikywa Prevost, came out to California permanently, it was not completely unfamiliar to the young running back. He had lived in the Golden State intermittently through the years. But his heart-and his tongue-were still in the Big Easy.

"English class had to be the worst because it was so hard to pronounce words," Briggs recalls. Growing up around the linguistic stew that is southern Louisiana will do that. "Even now, everybody's like, 'Where's your accent?' I tell them I had to get rid of it just for the teachers. Spanish class in high school was the worst because of the different accent. I really started focusing and overcame all that. I used to get made fun of because of that, but I didn't really let it hit me. At first, I was frustrated, because now I'm not around people that are used to this (language and accent), and they would laugh at it instead of thinking it was interesting. They were going to be ignorant about it. At the end of the day, I learned a lot, about myself and about my surroundings."

And those surroundings were markedly different.

"I wasn't used to seeing the melting pot of folks. I was just used to it being predominantly African-Americans and Creole and everything," says Briggs. "From the food to the people to the personalities, everything was just different. But I never forgot where I came from. It's always just been me and my mother, so wherever we went, she really got me tuned in, let me know about the things I should do and should not do, and she really kept me focused."

Briggs would need all the focus he could muster when, right before his senior year for the Patriots, he suffered a severe freak injury that sidelined him just before what could have been his breakout season.

The league had recently ruled to allow the use of the horse-collar tackle, and before Birmingham's final preseason intra-squad tune-up, the referee made sure to go over the new ground rules, using Briggs as an example. During the course of play, things got a bit too real when one of his teammates employed the newly-legal maneuver on Briggs up along the far sideline.

"It was a nightmare," says Briggs. "It twisted one way, and right before I went down, somebody came in with a helmet, and it pretty much split in half. When the break happened, honestly, it felt like I rolled my ankle pretty bad, so I was on one sideline and I got up and walked to the other sideline like it was nothing. After a minute, I felt the pain higher and higher. I tried to run, I tried to stretch, I couldn't stand up or anything. We still didn't know what it was."

As soon as the ice was taken off by the time Briggs made it to the hospital, his leg ballooned. Just before a set of fateful X-rays.

"The doctor came in and was just like, 'You have a fractured tibia,' with just a blank face," says Briggs. "He just came in, got it done and went out. He just said that 'You're going to be out for such-and-such long, and you're not going to play this year.' I had never missed a game. The last game I missed was my ninth grade year. It was really difficult, especially because it was my senior year, my last year to work on so many things to get better, and all that was taken from me on just one play by another teammate."

He had to endure a family scattered by a hurricane, and now, on the brink of stardom, a crack in his tibia less than an inch from his knee. Briggs just couldn't catch a break, pardon the pun.

But then, he met Dr. George Kosmides, who instituted an innovative and unique therapy regimen specifically tailored to rehab Briggs' injury. The rehab was taped and eventually made its way to Youtube.

"Originally, I didn't even know about the video. I didn't even know it was out until somebody told me about it," says Briggs. "The very first day that I did it, it was just difficult. It honestly felt like, 'How am I going to overcome this?' I felt like I couldn't do anything. It felt even worse because it was in sand. We're in a soft area and I can't even lift my leg up. I can't run without limping. I can't even do a simple carioca."

After months of early mornings struggling through the soft sands of Venice Beach, Briggs went from looking like a newborn giraffe to finally looking like his old self again. Every day, his steps got quicker, his leg got stronger and his mobility increased. But it was far from easy.

"It took me down to an all-time low. I was so impatient with it. It took so long for us to decide to do the correct rehab, and then it just showed that I had a whole lot more work to do," Briggs says of the early goings. "After doing it month after month, week after week, I just kept my head down there in the trenches and just kept working hard at it. I could have easily given up, and I would not be here right now. I had a future that I'm relying on, so I just told myself mentally that I had to be prepared and ready for the next level, so I just kept working hard."

Part of that preparation came in the classroom. Briggs finished his second semester of his junior year with a 2.8 GPA. Without football and the preconceptions of himself that went with it, Briggs saw a remarkable turnaround. In his last semester at Birmingham-this fall-he posted a 3.8 GPA. Maybe there was something to this school thing after all.

"My mother keeps me focused. Before I got out of the car, she just told me that I have no excuse now, and it really hit me right there that I need to be focused, I need to be on top of my game. This is my time to get things correct. Even if I'm not going to play this football season, I can still shine in a better place," says Briggs. "At the end of the day, it was not difficult. I had this big mental block, that if I studied too much, I'm going to be bored and I'm not going to be focused and I'm still not going to do well."

And when that first report card came in, let's just say it was refrigerator-door material.

"When I first saw no C's on my first report card, I even had to look twice, and my mother, she had to triple-take. She was like, 'Where has this been?' It's been there all along. I just wasn't trying to dig deep enough," says Briggs. "That drive, it took me to a whole 'nother level."

Getting up at 5:30 in the morning every day for rehab certainly didn't hurt.

"I was waking up at 5:30 in the morning, getting down there at 6:30 to Venice Beach, working out, and then going to school, and all that blood is pumping and everything, and I felt alive," Briggs says. "It was just like, 'Let's learn!' Everything happens for a reason."

And now, here he is, getting yelled at on a football field, getting hit in no-pads practices, feeling frustrated and mad, but loving every single minute of it. Even after practice, tired and bruised, it's nearly impossible to wipe the smile off of Briggs' face.

Getting back on the field for the first time since August, and the Cal defense didn't let him forget it, mobbing him on his first carry from scrimmage.

"It was a little 'Welcome to the Cal Bear Territory,'" Briggs laughs. Thanks for the plug, Trajuan.

"It was a little nerve-wracking. Once I came down the field, I prayed about it, and just getting the feel back out here, I mean, the adrenaline and everything, it was really exciting," he says, almost running out of breath with excitement. "I saw a lot of things from a different perspective, what to work on. When we did our second-team, I worked on it and got a whole lot better.

"It felt great. They were up in there, getting on me and everything, trying to strip the ball out, and it was just like, 'Hey, I just got to lower this shoulder the whole way through and break off.' It was exciting playing with everybody. These are my boys and everything, they've welcomed me in, but it's ruthless. I love it that way."

Of course, being the only early-enrollee in the Bears' 2010 recruiting class, Briggs is the low man on the totem pole for spring practices, and with that comes a bit of rookie hazing.

"They've been warning me this whole week, like, 'Hey, it's coming. You know it is,' and I'm just like, 'Maaaan.' This is hazing in a whole different way than I expected, but I like it," said Briggs after the first day of practice. "I felt like I was in pads today. You've got other people coming in and just coming right at you, because they're doing their job as well. The way we're taught here, you go hard on every single play. I played with frustration today for the first time ever. I've really never played with frustration before, and today I played with a lot of it. Just, missing that last season, I want to show why I came here early, and I'm trying to make an impact. I'm going to make an impact."

As if getting the business on the field isn't enough, he also was treated to another rite of spring: running backs coach Ron Gould breaking in the Cal backfield.

"He hit my hand (in drills), and for a split second, I was so mad. I wanted to hit him back," says Briggs. "Then the other running backs saw, and they told me that it always happens. So I just said, 'OK, calm down, Tray.' It's exciting. It's like, 'Welcome back.' I'm seeing Coach Gould at his fullest, and he's working on me, getting me better, and it's fun. He's yelling, 'C'mon! Go back and do it again, Rook! Go back and do it again, youngsters!' It's really helping me out, and I'm the baby, pretty much."

A big baby, at that. Briggs now checks in at 5-foot-11, 217 pounds, up from the 200 pounds he weighed in at this summer. And exactly the same size as the man from who Briggs gains his nickname, "Baby Marshawn."

Seeing Briggs' poofball of hair coming out the back of his helmet, above a white No. 24 jersey definitely merits a double-take. During the press conference following National Signing Day, Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, in a moment of levity, asked the assembled press, "You look at his tape and you tell me who he looks like."

With the same stomping, powerful gait as his namesake, Briggs is certainly wearing the right shirt.

"I wanted No. 24 at first, and one of our players had it already, so I wasn't going to take it, but they ended up giving it to me," Briggs says. "Then, Coach Gould ended up showing me (Lynch's) first freshman video, and I said, 'I thought Marshawn was 10,' and he said, 'No, he wore 24 his freshman year.' I didn't even know, so I was psyched. Now, I got to keep it going."

Now, he has to make 24 his own, and he's well on his way to doing it. Briggs has made great strides in the weight room, and when asked about his latest numbers, his eyes go wide. Has he gotten stronger?

"Yeah, yeah, about that, haha," Briggs laughs when asked about how much strength he's gained from Cal workouts. "I remember the first time I came in to do inclined press, and I couldn't hit one (hundred). I couldn't even hit one. So I was feeling really weak. Now, I hit 185 six times. Clean, I'm at 264, squat I'm at about 315. And dips with the 25s, I'm at seven (reps) right now. When I came in, I couldn't even hit one."

That strong, and he still has a Sideshow Bob haircut. The man has confidence, no question about it. But then again, he's always been a joker.

When asked the spelling of his mother's name, he chortles: "I just learned in my 10th-grade year."

Any hobbies outside of football?

"I sing a lot, I listen to a lot of reggae music and just sing and clown around," says Briggs. "I dance on my spare time. I can just be in a room listening to music, and if it gets me in that mood to dance, I'll just dance. I do a lot of thinking, imagining cartoons and stuff, everything in my head. I'm still a little kid inside. Some of us take (singing) seriously, and me, I just clown around, trying to hit a high note knowing that I can't get there."

So maybe the Bears should leave the singing to Gabe King. But what he may lack in the concert hall, Briggs makes up for in pure heart and soul. Given the knocks he's taken from a storm and a teammate's helmet, the Cal welcome wagon can only make him stronger. Just being on the field, between those lines, learning every second of every day, is enough to smile about. So even if he is the new kid on the block, he takes it all in one plowing, crushing stride. His time will come soon.

"I need to start from the bottom, just like everybody else," says Briggs. "If that means starting on that kickoff and getting blasted, it's worth it, because I'm going to make something happen."

Ready to Roar, Part 7: Chris Martin

Ready to Roar, Part 6: Alex Crosthwaite

Ready to Roar, Part 5: Cecil Whiteside



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