Aug. 17, 1999
TURLOCK, CA - Four years after preparing himself for college football stardom, Damian Marzett is finally getting his shot at the big time.
After serving as a backup last year to third-round NFL draft choice Marquis Smith, Marzett is slotted into the Golden Bears' starting spot at free safety in 1999. And although he isn't surprised to be where he is today, Marzett's road to a starting role in one of the nation's best defenses has taken some unpredictable turns.
Marzett earned all-city and all-state honors as a senior at Locke High School in Los Angeles in 1995. His exploits landed him a scholarship with Texas A&M, where he intended to play with his good friend and high school teammate, Sirr Parker.
"We were like brothers growing up. We're real close," Marzett said of Parker, who now plays for the San Diego Chargers after a standout career with the Aggies. "Playing with him would have been nice. We always talked about playing college ball together."
As he was preparing to head to Texas however, Marzett's mother suffered a mild heart attack, and plans changed quickly. He enrolled at Southwest Community College, temporarily shunning the bright lights so he could stay close to her.
"I wasn't that disappointed, because my main purpose was to stay home for my mom," said the 6-foot, 210-pound senior. "And I know of a lot of guys who played JC and then had a successful career at the next level, so it was just like a little pit stop. It was also good because I got all my core classes out of the way, so when I got here, I just worked on my major (American studies). And I'm on schedule to graduate this spring."
When it came time to look at colleges again, Marzett was impressed with Cal defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich and a hungry defense. "That's one reason why I came here - because I saw the team was young and they had potential," Marzett said.
But having just learned the system and playing behind standouts Smith and Pete Destefano last season, Marzett didn't figure to get a lot of playing time. That changed quickly, though, when Destefano suffered a knee injury early in the third week at Oklahoma.
"That's the week I was kind of disappointed because I hadn't played that much," Marzett recalls. "So then, the first play of the game Pete (Destefano) got hurt. The next thing I know I'm looking straight into the eyes of De'Mond Parker, who I watched on TV when he ran for something like 200 yards against Syracuse. They ran right at me, and I missed the tackle. That was just a reality check. It was like, 'this is college football, this is what you've been dreaming about. That was my very first play, and I didn't like being embarrassed."
Marzett recovered against the Sooners, helping the defense hold on for a 13-12 win. And with Destefano sidelined for two more games, Marzett got a chance to show what he could do as a starter against Washington State and USC.
"I was kind of expecting that they were going to come after me, because they knew it was my first Pac-10 game," he said of the Cougars. And he responded with an interception, a forced fumble and a couple of pass deflections in the 24-14 win. "The pick felt so good," he said. "It felt like I really did something for the defense, not just being out there. It showed that everybody can rely on me - I'm a big-play person."
The USC game was like a homecoming for Marzett, who said about 200 friends and family showed up. They weren't disappointed when he scooped up a Trojan fumble and returned it 37 yards to set up a touchdown in Cal's 32-31 come-from-behind win. "Now when I go home, I can put my chin up because we beat 'em," Marzett jokes.
But for as well as he played in '98 as a backup, Marzett's twice as excited about his starting role after having outstanding spring and fall camps.
"Last year around this time, I was still trying to figure out the defense. The coaches said I picked it up real fast, but I didn't feel like I knew it well enough where I could go out and make plays," he said. "I was just doing what they were telling me to do. But this year I feel like I've been in the system all my life, and I feel like I'm going to have a real big year - a lot of picks, a lot of hits, and show everybody what I can do. Right now I think a lot of people are sleeping on me, not really knowing about me because Marquis and Pete have been playing for a long time. I have to show a lot of people what I can do."
--By Nate Sagan