Oct. 28, 2009
Marcus Ezeff, a hard-hitting, grizzled veteran of Cal's secondary, is a self-proclaimed mama's boy.
"He's my baby," said his mother, Kathryn Jones.
He's no infant on the football field. A reliable fifth-year senior in his third season as a starter, Ezeff is an elder statesman on Cal's team.
"I feel like an old man among a bunch of young guys," said Ezeff, whose full name is Marcus Damond Ezeff-Jones.
Teammates kid him because he doesn't participate much in the nightlife scene, Ezeff claiming he's too tired at night for such adolescent activity anymore. And Ezeff demonstrated his maturity when he spoke up rather pointedly during an August practice, telling his teammates exactly what is and is not acceptable in their off-field activity. It came as a surprise to some who regarded the low-key Ezeff as more of a listener than a talker.
"I'm accepting my role in leadership," he said. "It's not hard for me, but I've been a quiet dude and I only speak up when things need to be addressed."
He acts like a veteran during football meetings, gaining a reputation as a meticulous note-taker. ("He's real detailed," Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "I wish all the guys were like that.") And despite some early misgivings about college life, the 22-year-old Ezeff has persevered and is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in African American studies.
"It's great to see a guy mature like he has," Gregory said.
Ezeff certainly looks like an adult. He packs 219 pounds on his 5-11 frame, and plays the rugged position of strong safety, ranking among the team leaders in tackles.
However, he is still a kid when it comes to his mother, whom he calls at least once day, sometimes more.
"I know his ring tone," Jones said. "Usually he calls in the morning or right after practice or sometimes in the middle of the day when he's chillin', as he calls it. If he doesn't call one day, he makes up for it with a couple calls the next. He can talk to me about anything."
"I'm a big-time mama's boy," Ezeff said. "Family is important to me and my mother has been there for me since day one."
Ezeff makes the 45-minute trip home to Santa Rosa, where he was a prep standout at Montgomery High School, about once a week.
"He even tells his girlfriend he's a mama's boy," Jones said.
It's always been that way. Ezeff is the youngest of three children and the only boy. Jones says his older sisters complain that not as many demands were made of Marcus.
"They have always said I baby him," Jones said. "He's such a kind young man, you can't help it. He was always helpful when it came to anything except when it came time to clean up his room. And he's so respectful."
Ezeff is also close to his grandmother and great-grandmother, Rosie Cooper, 87, who has a poster of the Bears 2008 football team in her living room by the TV so she can see Marcus' picture while she watches his games.
So it is not altogether surprising that when he was faced with choosing a college from among Utah, Oregon and Cal, Ezeff opted for the school closest to home.
"Then if ever things got tough, I figured I could go home," Ezeff said.
Things did get tough, and Ezeff seriously considered leaving Cal his first year away from home. One of the reasons he chose Cal was that Ezeff thought he could play as a freshman, but when he was redshirted his first year at Cal and the transition to college life began to overwhelm him, Ezeff wanted to leave and go home.
"I remember I told coach (Jeff) Tedford, I didn't want to play and that maybe I should go to a JC (junior college)," Ezeff said. "I talked to coach Gregory too, and he told me, `You're going to be a great player.'"
Gregory remembers the conversation well.
"It certainly wasn't the first time I had faced that kind of thing with freshmen, because it's such a totally different deal at college. It's a shock," Gregory said. "I told him if he left it would be a big mistake not to get a Cal degree when you have the opportunity."
The notion of leaving Cal never got past the talking stage, because when Ezeff's father, Leroy, caught wind of his son's thoughts of leaving, he came to Berkeley and told Marcus he was staying Cal, and that was that.
Leroy Ezeff was Marcus' Pop Warner coach and was the one who had started Ezeff watching televised sports when he was just a tyke, a habit that has become almost an addiction.
"On Sundays, he'd make me sit down and watch the [Kansas City] Chiefs with him, and I guess I just got used to it," Ezeff said.
His mother started to notice that from about the age of 5, Marcus would roll out of bed and not watch cartoons like most kids but turn on ESPN instead.
"He was infatuated with it," she said. "He would explain this or that to me. He could talk about sports all day long."
Ezeff still watches sports at all hours.
"I go to sleep with it," he said.
It has been clear for some time sports were going to be a major part of Ezeff's life. And it's been clear from Day One, his family would be watching.
The family comes to Berkeley to see Cal's home games and packs the house in Santa Rosa with 15 to 20 friends and relatives to watch Cal road games on television. It created a bit of an uproar in the Ezeff-Jones house in 2007 when Ezeff made the defining play of his career, a hit on Oregon wide receiver Cameron Colvin in Eugene, Ore., causing Colvin to fumble just before he scored the tying touchdown in the closing moments of the game.
When the Ezeff-Jones household realized it was Marcus who had made the tackle, the place erupted.
"The whole house lit up," she said. "We were coming outside running."
Ezeff is less enthralled with the memory of that moment. Friends and the media have reminded Ezeff of that play so often in the past two years, he would just as soon forget it.
"It's old," he said. "It was not any bigger than any other play I made in my Cal career. I don't like to think about it. I mean, I will answer questions about it if I'm asked and I appreciate it, but life goes on."
Flair and hyperbole are not part of Ezeff's personality. He did intercept two passes against UCLA last season, returning one 69 for a touchdown that gave Cal a 17-7 lead. But Ezeff's dependability is the reason he has started 23 games at Cal, including the last 19 in a row.
"He's just a solid player, consistent," Gregory said. "There's not a lot of flash, but he's where he's supposed to be and you know you're going to get seven or eight tackles from him."
Whether Ezeff is good enough to play professionally is an open question, but he plans to find out. He would like to carve out a career as a mentor or counselor for youngsters, but first will give the NFL a shot.
Professional football is a distinct possibility, according to Kathryn Jones, who could see her son playing in some NFL city. "And," she said, "with his mama somewhere nearby."
Jake Curtis writes about Bay Area college football and basketball at jakestakeonsports.com.