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September 19, 2011

The Big Deal



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BERKELEY -- On Sunday, California true freshman Brendan Bigelow was named the Kickoff Performer of the Week by the College Football Performance Awards, following his electric debut during the Bears' 63-12 thrashing of Presbyterian, the first award bestowed on a Cal player this season.

After a walk-through, a workout, conditioning and his main-lining adrenaline experience on Saturday, Bigelow comes out of the locker room on Sunday at the Cal football surge facility adjacent to Witter Rugby Field and offers to do his interview sitting down, because, you know, I did so much walking thanks to the paucity of Berkeley parking.

"You want to sit down?" he asks with a smile. "I know you were walking."

So I've put on a few. As if looking at the young man's shredded arms isn't making me already painfully aware of that fact. We kibitz for a bit, recalling that June in 2010 when he stood dutifully on the California Memorial Stadium sideline, watching summer camp, itching to play, chomping at the bit to put the pads on. He was still recovering from his first ACL surgery, and put on a painful smile as he watched high school teammate Tee Shepard work out with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

At that point, Bigelow was still committed to play for Steve Sarkisian and his Washington Huskies, but the whispers had already started rising, whispers that said he wasn't exactly planning on wearing the purple and gold so much as the blue and gold. Playfully, he tittered and threw his head back when asked about that particular switch.

"I can't say nothing," Bigelow grinned at the time, turning away just a bit with a laugh. "We'll see. We'll see. I'm having a good time. It's a great place, a great place."

On Saturday, Bigelow had quite the coming out party for the Bears, tallying 137 all-purpose yards, including a second-quarter 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Turns out that good time and great place were all of his own making, as he brought the crowd to its feet.

"I mean, I wish I could have had a little bit more," Bigelow smiles on Sunday. "I feel fine right now. Pretty much, yeah, I'm fine."

Despite the burns on his arms from hitting the practice chute with such ferocity over the past several weeks, Bigelow is still a ball of energy, just like he was in the first quarter on Saturday the moment before he got his first touch, a play designed to get the ball to the speedster with space to run.

"Yes," he responds, when asked if he knew he was getting the ball on that play. What was in his belly at that moment? Butterflies? Tigers? "It was more of, I hadn't played football in a long time, I'm finally getting the rock, make the best of it. I was basically a little nervous, but I knew that I needed to do what I needed to do, to prove that I could run the rock a little bit."

Bigelow got a little bit of everything on Saturday, catching one pass for 11 yards, rushing twice for 15 yards and returning two kickoffs for 23 yards and 88 yards, with the second being a straight-line touchdown up the left sideline.

About two weeks before Bigelow saw the field, he began to turn up the intensity during practice, running harder, bobbing and weaving with his old quickness and moving with the elusiveness and body control of a champion middleweight.

"I guess, after the Fresno State game, I was just so pumped for that game," says Bigelow. "I was just like, 'Man, I love football,' and it started to click, started to come back, like, 'Man, Brendan, come on, kick it back in gear. Start working hard, now.' I just kicked that in and started working."

As soon as he was able to turn that corner, he was able to break down that mental block that had prevented him from going full-force on his twice-operated-on right knee.

"It's a mental thing, because I hadn't played for so long and just getting out there in camp and stuff, playing with the guys, it was pretty tough, because I had never put my body through that kind of experience before," says Bigelow. "It's brand new, the college experience."

Not only was the grind new, but so was the training. Strength and conditioning coach Mike Blasquez had one directive when it came to the dynamic playmaker: get him ready to play. And, looking at Bigelow now, he certainly looks ready. His biceps pop. His shoulders undulate when he gestures with his hands. His forearms ripple. And his legs, well, everyone in attendance on Saturday could see what his legs can do.

"A lot of punishment," he laughs. "It's paying off. I'm loving it. My body's starting to mature, I'm getting used to getting hit like that in practice, and it's been just a blessing, too, because my knee's holding up great."

After two ACL surgeries on the same knee, that one joint was the source of much concern during the offseason for both fans and coaches alike.

"I plant and it's good," Bigelow says. "My plant is not the way I want it to be yet, but it's coming along just fine. It's that brace. I can plant this leg, but it's the brace. It's not allowing me to cut the way I want to cut, so me, I really have just got to be one with the brace."

When Bigelow injured his knee the second time around -- during a preseason scrimmage before his senior season -- he was not wearing the brace. Now, though, it's become as much a part of him as his giggle. Last time he failed to wear that thing, he heard another pop.

As soon as the Huskies are broached, he gets a look on his face that must come close to the look he had when he injured his knee again. There is some history there, after all. When asked if he's gotten any messages from his former recruiting classmates, he simply -- and oddly enough, silently -- shakes his head.

"No, no I haven't," he says. "I'm still young. I'm learning. I'm growing. The preparation part of it, I'm still just taking it one day at a time. I can't stress that enough. I've got to take it one day at a time, and that's about it."

One thing he won't have to pack on his first Pac-12 road trip will be the excitement of the Cal fanbase, which held its collective breath as he streaked towards the end zone on his kickoff return -- and the student section -- on Saturday at AT&T Park. Running toward that expanse of screaming students was all the juice he needed.

"Oh my, I was just like, 'Did I just score? And why is it so loud in my ears?'" Bigelow laughs. "It was really, really loud, and just feeling that feeling, it just motivated me. It was pretty nice, and I have to thank Coleman [Edmond] though, because Coleman, he really helped me out on that. He threw a really good block, the main block. Then, my whole team, I appreciate them blocking, too."

Now, he will take all of that excitement, all of that motivation, up north, as the Bears prepare to get back at the Huskies for the loss that ended their season in the rain at Memorial Stadium last season. And, instead of ominous clouds, the forecast calls for sunny skies. Almost as sunny, in fact, as the disposition of Cal's newest star.


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