Oct. 9, 2003
By Brian White
They lined up at the 35-yard line, with the ball resting ever so gently on the tee. The kicker took his usually three steps back and then two to the left, while the rest of the team waited in frantic anticipation. The whistle blew, and the ball was sent sailing 60 yards down field.
It was the start of the 2002 season for the Bears. They had new uniforms, a new coach and more importantly, a fresh attitude.
The eleven men ran down in unison, destined for a head-on collision with the ball carrier. As they drew closer, Cal defensive back Mike McGrath, faked out one potential blocker, then juked another, until he had broken through the wall. Now it was just him and the ball carrier. He broke down for the tackle, reached to one side, but the runner went to the other. McGrath fell to the turf in embarrassment.
That was the first play of the 2002 season for McGrath, and that was when he came to the realization that opportunities are scarce in college football and he would have to take full advantage of them, no matter how small a role it may seem. But by season's end, what seemed to be a support role turned into an award winning performance, as the junior from Watsonville became a difference-maker on special teams.
"I think that was the defining play of my career," explains the 5-11 rover. "Even though I missed the tackle, it's been my biggest motivation. From that play on I promised myself that I would become a playmaker no matter what my role was on the team."
McGrath stayed true to his word. The walk-on finished the year with an amazing 21 tackles on special teams, which earned him second team All Pac-10 honors as a sophomore. His accomplishments in 2002 warranted the coaches to offer him a scholarship in the spring, and have granted him the chance to contribute on the defensive side of the ball as a safety this season.
"I always felt I could contribute something to this team," says McGrath. "I just did not know when my opportunity would come." . McGrath's opportunity has finally arrived. He has carried his big play ability from special teams over to the defensive backfield, where he has been maximized his chances through the first five games. McGrath has tallied 14 tackles in 2003 and returned an interception 15 yards to set up a Cal score against Southern Mississippi, in week two.
But things have not always come so easy for the Palma High School graduate, who once had a dream of playing baseball, but passed up on several Division II scholarships to walk-on at Cal.
"Many of my friends coaches and relatives pushed me to play baseball because they did not think I had a shot in football," explains McGrath. "But I love the game and that was enough to give it a shot."
His love for the game was definitely tested over the next two years at Cal, where he came in with limited physical abilities, compared to his peers, but a heart and work ethic that very few could match.
"I was in shock the first time I stepped foot in the locker room," McGrath says. "I was in awe. I thought to myself; maybe those people back home were right. I am just a walk-on from a small town. Did I truly belong here?"
Trying times followed McGrath, as he found himself on the scout team in his inaugural season, and a spectator from the sidelines for most of his second year.
"That had to hurt the most," explains McGrath. "Going 1-10, and not even getting the chance to help your teammates, was hard on me. I really felt like giving up, like my opportunity would never come. It got so bad that I came home one day and packed my belongings, then called my parents to come and get me."
Thankfully, McGrath's parents were able to comfort their son and restore his confidence.
"My parents have really been my backbone and have kept me strong through some tough times. They told me that they would support whatever decision I made, but if I left I would be selling myself short."
Since then, McGrath has gone from last to be summoned off the bench, to the first one to the ball carrier, and everyone's taking notice. Even the local media is beginning to refer to him by his correct name, Mike, instead of Mark, which they continuously dubbed him throughout the early part of the 2002 season.
"People actually know my name and recognize my effort, which is very gratifying to me," says McGrath. "When a parent comes up to me and says that they love the way I play and hope that their child will one day play with the type of passion that they see in me, it makes me feel good-like I'm serving a greater purpose."
A mechanical engineering major, McGrath's passions go beyond the football field. He was an All Pac-10 Academic selection in 2002, and looks to be well on his way to repeating that honor this fall.
"You have to be a balanced person," stressed McGrath. "You have to be a winner in the classroom as well as on the field."
McGrath has two more years to continue the winning tradition that head coach Jeff Tedford has restored at Cal.
"This coaching staff has come in and has filled this place with confidence," he says. "Now it's our job to go out there, play hard, have fun, and win."
"McGrath is one of those players that will give you all he has for the whole sixty minutes," explains secondary coach J.D. Williams.
McGrath came to call listed at 180 pounds, but admits he may have weighed less than that, and was looked past because of his stature and for what the coaches felt was a lack of athleticism. But McGrath, again, thanks to the support of his parents, was able to block out the negative and focus on what he could control-his attitude.
"You can't teach heart and you can't teach hard work," says Williams. "That is the beauty of football. He is such an intense guy that it makes up for a lot of the other things he lacks. He is a big hitter and really has a nose for the ball. But I think his biggest asset is his work ethic. The man doesn't get tired. He may only run 4.6, but he will run 4.6 the first play of the game and the last play of the game, while others who can run 4.3 will get tired and end up as 4.8 sprinters by the end of the game."
McGrath's hunger and love for the sport carries over to the weight room as well, where he has added 15 pounds, while increasing his speed over the years.
"The strength and conditioning coaches have done a good job preparing us for the season," says McGrath. "Under Coach Tedford we have placed an added emphasis on preparation and it is paying off. "
As the young Bears improve throughout the 2003 season, fans better begin to prepare themselves for some amazing things in Strawberry Canyon, including the possibility of Cal's first bowl appearance in seven years.
"Those are our goals, winning each week and getting to a bowl game," explains McGrath. "Winning a bowl game will make my playing career at call all the more sweeter."
Knowing McGrath when he does get a chance to play in a bowl game, he'll make the most of it.