Aug. 13, 2002
BERKELEY - Monte Parson knows that now is the time to take advantage of the opportunities before him.
After missing the chance to play in college right out of high school, Parson has endured a path that has taken him nearly around the world before arriving at Cal this summer, a process that delayed his introduction to Division IA football a full eight years.
As a two-time first team all-city defensive end at Carson High School in southern California, Parson appeared set to accept a scholarship to play on the next level at Kansas. However, he didn't qualify academically and instead tried to become a walk-on at the U.S. Naval Academy. That effort didn't pan out either, so Parson enlisted in the Navy as a fresh recruit.
For the next six years, Parson, who was originally stationed in Alameda for two years before later moving to a base north of Seattle, traveled to much of the globe aboard the carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, going to Pacific ports as Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong. But his most intense stretch came in 1996 when he served more than 100 days in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Strike as part of a U.S. presence in the region when Iraq threatened to re-invade Kuwait.
"Living on the ship was rough," Parson said. "You're kind of closed in. When you're out on the ocean, the people on your ship are the only family you have. It gives you a chance to really look at yourself in the mirror and ask, 'What do I want to do when I get out?'"
The answer proved to be: give football one last try.
So when Parson's stint in the Navy was up, he contacted his old high school coach, who was now at L.A. Harbor Junior College. The pairing immediately clicked.
"I graduated from high school in 1994, and it was like picking up the next season with the same coach," said Parson.
Parson had a solid first season, but last year, he blossomed into one of the top linemen in the country. A first team JC All-American in 2001, he pummeled opponents for 57 tackles, seven sacks and 19 quarterback hurries. That performance gained the attention of recruiters from all over the country. However, the chance to join a new program at Cal was the deciding factor to signing with the Golden Bears.
"I wanted to go to a program where I could help get the wagon rolling and be part of something that's up and coming," he said. "That's why I'm here, and I'm dedicated to helping this team win."
At 6-3, 270 pounds, up from 225 pounds as a high schooler, Parson finds himself in a tough battle at defensive end. Among those competing alongside him for the two starting spots are four seniors - Tully Banta-Cain, Jamaal Cherry, Josh Gustaveson and Tom Canada. The fact that those players were around in the spring to learn Cal's new defensive schemes has put Parson slightly behind the veterans. But defensive line coach Ken Delgado believes that Parson is already making a big impact.
"From a physical standpoint, he's lived up to all of the accolades in terms of strength and quickness," Delgado said. "The competition is fierce. His only disadvantage is his knowledge of the defense. He has absorbed and produced more than any other JC player I've had. He's a very good learner and very studious. It's helped him get to where he's at at camp."
Parson agreed that he has a lot to learn, especially with all the assignments given to defensive linemen.
"I've never played on this level, but I've never known d-linemen who had so many responsibilities," Parson said. "I'm going as fast as I can and hit as hard as I can. If I make mistakes, just let the chips fall where they may. The bottom line is they recruited me to play football. Slowly, but surely, I think I'm making progress."
As a 25-year-old junior, Parson knows that he doesn't have much time left. Yet despite the late start to his collegiate career, he knows that he is in the best position of his life to succeed.
"I feel like I'm in better shape than when I was 18. I'm stronger, I'm heavier, and I'm running without even getting winded," Parson said. "If I had gone to college directly out of high school, I probably wouldn't have done as well academically and appreciated the opportunity as much as I do now."