During his three years in Berkeley, tailback Shane Vereen often played second-fiddle to eventual first-round pick Jahvid Best. Taken in the same recruiting class, the two were lightning and thunder, with Vereen always coming second.
But the affable, good-natured tailback always had a smile on his face and a hard-nosed, unquenchable thirst for hard work that made him a beloved team leader both on the field and in the locker room. Now, the heart and soul of the California football team will get to take that cold-blooded competitiveness into one of the most successful organizations in recent NFL history: the New England Patriots.
The 5-foot-10, 204-pound tailback out of Valencia (Calif.) High was taken 56th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Pats, but Vereen almost didn't get the call as he sat on his parents' couch in Southern California. Good thing Mom decided to pick up the phone.
"I was sitting on the couch, and they actually called the house phone," Vereen laughs. "It was an unknown number, and my mom almost didn't even answer the phone. But then she decided to answer it at the last second and they asked for me. The rest is history, I guess."
On the other end of the line was Pats head coach Bill Belichick, telling Vereen that the dynastic organization had made him their choice in the second round as the third tailback off the board.
"It was Bill Belichick, and then I talked to Mr. Kraft, the owner," Vereen said. "It was a humbling experience. I'm just looking forward to the opportunity. I can't say enough. The emotions, the day, it's just crazy."
Belichick didn't reveal too much to Vereen about his role, but after doing a little bit of everything in his three years in Strawberry Canyon, he's open to anything.
"I haven't gotten that far yet, but whatever they need from me, I'll be more than willing to do," Vereen said. "My goal is just to make the team, at this point. That's the No. 1 thing on my mind, and that's my No. 1 goal."
Vereen's work ethic will be put to the test as the league and the players continue to battle at the negotiating table with no end in sight to the labor unrest.
"It was looking pretty good a couple of days ago, but then today the news came that it was back to a lockout," Vereen said. "I have a lot of confidence that they're going to figure it out. When? Who knows. I just know that I have to keep myself prepared."
Despite coming out early, Vereen graduated from Cal in December with a Bachelor's Degree in Media Studies, and he'll be taking handoffs from a man who knows a lot about the media in two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady, an experience that is sure to be a reality check.
"I think it's going to be a great experience," Vereen said. "I think I'll be learning from the best coaching staff, and the best players. I just think that I'm going to be able to open my football IQ up tremendously."
After getting a lot of early attention from the San Francisco 49ers, Vereen was a bit surprised that it ended up being the Patriots plucking him out of the Bay Area.
"I had talked to the Patriots twice: once at the Combine and once during a workout that I did with them in Southern California," Vereen said. "We connected, and I didn't really talk to them much after that. They seemed interested when I was meeting with them, but I didn't hear anything else from them after."
Soon after the fateful call, Vereen rushed to the airport to make his first visit out to chilly New England. A born-and-bred Californian, Vereen laughed at the prospect of making a drastic change to his wardrobe.
"Yeah, I'm going to have to," Vereen laughed. "I got to show my toughness a little bit, though. I can't wear too many warm clothes."
Vereen and Best have remained close over the years, from their battles on the high school track scene to their time in Berkeley, and the former first-round pick of the Detroit Lions has provided some valuable guidance since he got to the League. The pair represent the seventh and eighth running backs that coach Ron Gould has sent to the NFL in his 14 years in Berkeley.
"He's given me the experience of everything he's gone through," Vereen said. "I haven't talked to him in the past week, really, but I'll give him a call in the next couple days. (He's said) it is a business, and you're more on your own with coaching, instead of it being real hands-on like we've been used to. The way that we prepare, though, thanks to Coach G at Cal, it puts us in a pretty good position."
Vereen etched his name all over the Bears' career and single-season record books during his three seasons in Berkeley from 2008-10 after redshirting as a true freshman in 2007. The tough-as-nails back played in all 38 games possible during his career at Cal, making 19 starts.
"I've talked to Coach Gould and I've talked to Coach Tedford," Vereen said. "They said that they were just happy, proud and I just gave them all my thanks."
He finished his career among the school's all-time leaders in rushing touchdowns (T3 with 29), total TDs (T4 with 35), all-purpose yards (fifth, with 4,069), rushing yards (seventh, with 2,834), 100-yard rushing games (seventh, with 11) and scoring (T9 with 210 points).
"It's great," Vereen said, searching for words. "I mean, it's a huge night for me and my family, it's a testament to Cal running backs, it's a testament to the University of California and I'm just looking forward to this opportunity that I've always dreamed of."
Vereen expected to be taken at some point during the second day of the draft, and paid no heed to analyst's projections. All he knows is that now, he is officially a professional football player.
"I tried to not pay too much attention to the mock drafts and all that type of stuff," Vereen said. "I was expecting second or third round, and as the second round was going on, they kept going and I started thinking more the third round teams, and the call came out of nowhere, really."
After 556 career carries, Vereen posted a 5.1-yard average per rushing attempt, 74.6 yards per game and a career-long 81-yard run against Michigan State in 2008.
Vereen will bring more than just a hard-nosed running style to the Patriots, as he also recorded 74 receptions for 674 yards and six TD catches, with a long of 59, a per-game reception average of 1.9, a per-catch reception average of 9.1 yards and a per-game receiving yards average of 17.7 yards.
For good measure, Vereen also had 551 kickoff return yards on 24 attempts and 10 punt return yards on two attempts, all in his 2009 sophomore season. Despite being in Best's shadow for much of his career, Vereen has proven that he possesses some plus speed of his own, something he knows he can prove en route to being an elite back.
"That's one of the reasons why I didn't try and pay too much attention to what all the media was saying," Vereen said, referring to knocks on his top-end speed. "I'm just going to go and play the way that I know how to play and play the way I've been playing since I've played football. Speed has always been a big part of my game, and I hope that I can get stronger."
Vereen scored multiple TDs in 10 games and at least one reception in 37 of his 38 contests, including his first 33 which was the longest run by a FBS running back when it was snapped. He recorded 100 or more all-purpose yards 20 times, which included four 200-plus yard all-purpose contests.
In the single-season record books, Vereen's 1,757 all-purpose yards in 2009 ranks sixth, the 13 rushing touchdowns he scored in 2010 are tied for sixth, the 12 rushing touchdowns he posted in 2008 are tied for eighth, and his 1,167 rushing yards and 96 points in 2010 are ninth and tied for ninth.