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The Courage to Succeed -- Junior Tailback Jahvid Best
Courtesy: Cal Athletics  
Release:  10/05/2009
This story originally appeared in the Cal football game day magazine, Kickoff, Oct. 3, 2009.

The words were scrawled in red ink, written on a folded piece of paper shoved in Cal running back coach Ron Gould's pocket.

He'd been meaning to impart them to his players, said they'd been on his heart for a while. Maybe during those trying two-a-days when he noticed their sprits growing weary under the hot Berkeley sun. Maybe prior to the start of the football season when he felt they needed an extra jolt.

Then, on a recent afternoon, the timing was finally right. Gould reached for the crinkled paper and began reading aloud:

To dream anything that you want to dream, that is the beauty of the human mind. To do anything that you want to do, that is the strength of the human will. To trust yourself, to test your limits, that is the courage to succeed.

The words, borrowed from writer Bernard Edmonds, weren't directed solely at junior tailback Jahvid Best, but Gould knew, ultimately, they would resonate with him.

"He's a big dreamer. He's a guy that trusts himself to test his limits," Gould said. "He's going to give me everything he has. Jahvid knows never to put limits on yourself because if you do, you never achieve greatness."

Greatness. It's a hefty tag to associate with a 20-year-old college kid, but already that is the term floating around Best. He is a human highlight reel capable of making would-be tacklers long for better days and, four games into the 2009 season, Best is one of nation's top Heisman Trophy candidates and arguably the trendiest.

Best ranks among the nation's per game leaders in scoring, rushing and all-purpose yardage. He is rapidly climbing up both all-time Cal charts in rushing touchdowns and rushing yards.

All this coming on the heels of a banner sophomore season in 2008 when he tied the school record with 15 rushing touchdowns, finished second in the NCAA in all-purpose yardage (187.3 ypg) and rushed for 1,580 yards to rank second on Cal's all-time single-season list.

There is talk of a possible 2,000-yard rushing season and even more serious banter of Best taking home the Heisman Trophy, something that has never happened around Strawberry Canyon.

Indeed, the Washington Post calls Best "the most electrifying player in the country." USA Today says he is "the closest thing the (Pac-10) has seen to Reggie Bush since Bush won the Heisman Trophy at USC in 2005," and Sports Illustrated believes he is "faster and much more elusive" than other top-rated running backs across the country.

All of which means, well, very little to the subject of all the chatter.

"I don't have time to pay attention to that," Best said with a smile. "I have too much school and too much football."

Clearly, he's come a long way from the days of running routes behind the couch inside his old family home in Richmond and diving for passes thrown by his father, David. A long way from the high school athlete who thought his true calling was out on the track, or the gifted teenager who arrived in Berkeley wondering if he'd have to redshirt his freshman season before getting an opportunity to play.

"He's a guy that's worth the price of admission and one of the most talented players in the country," Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said. "He's got electric speed. Jahvid's tough and he's a great kid. He works hard and he's a team player. All of those things put together make him very special."

That special nature sprouted from rather modest beginnings that initially didn't include football. Track was Best's first passion. As a youth, he ran for various clubs throughout the East Bay, a welcomed diversion considering Best's mother, Lisa, forbade her son from playing football until he was a freshman at Salesian High School in nearby Richmond.

"I wanted to play Pee Wee since I was a little kid, but my mom said I was too small," Best recalled. "The anticipation was tough. I was waiting since I was a fourth-grader. When I finally got out there, it was the best feeling in the world."

Salesian coach Chad Nightingale liked what he saw in Best, then a 5-foot-7, 135-pound project. He had solid speed and ability but was a bit green. Nightingale had Best spend one year on the junior varsity team, knowing full well that was just a temporary stop. One year later, he was calling Best a "one-man wrecking crew."

Best gained 1,444 yards as a junior, and as a senior set a Bay Area single-season record with 3,325 yards and 48 touchdowns. He finished his All-American prep career with 6,428 rushing yards and 91 TDs.

"What he has is vision and balance. That's a rare combo," Nightingale said. "Explosive speed, those things are deadly to a defense. What he does with that, there's nothing you can do. Once he gives you the move, you're off balance. You're done."

Despite his success on the gridiron, Best continued to thrive on the track. He competed at a host of high-profile meets, including the 2005 USTAF Junior Olympics, and in the spring of 2007, he won the 100 meters at the California state meet in 10.31 seconds.

"Running taught me how to deal with pressure," Best said. "In track, everyone is watching you. It's just about focusing and executing. Now at Cal, there is a lot of focus on me on the field. Everyone's watching to see you run. Track helped me understand how to block it out."

These days, it's easy to see why people are watching. Even some of Best's teammates can't help themselves.

"It's incredible what he can do," junior quarterback Kevin Riley said. "I get caught looking at him sometimes. He gets a little hole, and he'll turn it into an 80-yard touchdown. If we can continue to keep giving him that little hole, it will just continue to happen."

So far, it has.

It may have served as his widespread introduction, but Cal receiver Michael Calvin, one of Best's closest friends on the team, saw it coming long ago. Growing up in nearby San Lorenzo, Calvin, a former track and football star at San Lorenzo High, received a hint every time he picked up the local paper.

"I knew it was going to happen," Calvin said. "When he gets the ball in his hands, big things will happen. There's no pressure on him at all. He's just out here having fun. He's never too serious, always really humble. He's going to always get better. He's never satisfied."

That insatiable desire to get better now has Best mentioned in the same breath as Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Texas signal caller Colt McCoy as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. Still, if you ask Best what his goal is for the season, the coveted award isn't the first thing that escapes his lips.

"The Pac-10 championship," he said. "That's our goal, and that's what I want. If the Heisman comes with that, great. If not, oh well."

For the past seven years, the Pac-10 title has run through Trojan Country, but ESPN pundits recently branded Cal as the one team capable of knocking USC off its Pac-10 perch this season. All of which led Nightingale, himself a former Bear, to make a bold prediction.

"If Cal wins and beats USC," he said, "Jahvid will win the Heisman."

In a career that already has historic overtones, just how good can Best become?

Gould didn't need to glance at that folded piece of paper to find a fitting response.

"As good as he wants to be. The sky is the limit for him."


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