Sept. 18, 2006
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) -When Mike Tepper took the field with California's starting offensive line Saturday, the few dozen fans wearing "Tepper Time #79" T-shirts cheered loudly - and nobody else really noticed.
That's just how the Golden Bears sophomore wants it this season. After getting plenty of attention last year for a heroic act that left him with a severely broken leg, Tepper simply wants to play.
In June 2005, Tepper stood up to a group of convicted felons taunting a female friend from a car - and they ran him over twice. Tepper doesn't shy away from talking about what he calls "the accident," but says it's "completely behind me."
"He has made so much progress from where he was," coach Jeff Tedford said. "That broken leg was terrible, but I've always said he's the kind of guy you want in your program. We're glad he's at a point where he can contribute on the field, because we need him."
Tepper got his first career start against Portland State in place of left tackle Andrew Cameron, who missed the game with a sprained ankle. He could get another starting assignment next week after right tackle Scott Smith injured his knee during the 42-16 victory.
"Starting a game and going through the whole thing, I know better what my tempo has to be to get through a whole game again," Tepper said. "I thought I did all right, but I've got a lot of work to do."
Cal (2-1) dropped to No. 22 in the latest poll, falling one voting point behind Arizona State and Boston College. The Bears host the 20th-ranked Sun Devils on Saturday in their Pac-10 opener.
Tepper was a prized recruit from Orange County in 2003, a 300-pound all-state lineman with 4.9-second speed in the 40-yard dash and a slew of weightlifting records in the Garden Grove school district.
But he was walking on Berkeley's famed Telegraph Avenue with a group of friends when a car full of men began taunting and leering at one of his female companions, a former Cal volleyball player.
Tepper got involved, stepping between the car and his friend - and the men twice backed over the 6-foot-6 lineman while he threw his friend out of the way. The attack broke Tepper's leg badly enough to require nine screws and a plate along with repair for torn ankle ligaments.
Doctors considered amputating his foot, but managed to fix the damage. Two convicted felons were arrested in the attack, but Tepper's freshman season was over.
The team rallied around Tepper during his steady rehab - and so did Cal's fans. Tepper's girlfriend and her sorority created the T-shirts that appear throughout the stands at Memorial Stadium: They read "Tepper Time #79" on the front, with a mildly naughty pun on Tepper's nickname on the back.
"It's great to see that, but it's more about supporting the team," Tepper said with an embarrassed smile.
Cal's offensive line was expected to be the team's weakest point this season after 2005 stalwarts Ryan O'Callaghan, Aaron Merz and Marvin Philip all graduated to the NFL. The line has been hit hard by injuries this season as well.
Starting right guard Bryan Deemer missed the last two games with a knee injury, forcing Noris Malele into service. Cameron - who had three surgeries last season - was hurt again in a 42-17 victory over Minnesota, though he's expected to return against Arizona State.
And even with Tedford limiting his starters' playing time, the Bears picked up another injury against the Division I-AA Vikings.
Smith, the Bears' veteran right tackle, hobbled to the sideline Saturday with what could be a serious knee injury. Tedford said Smith sprained a ligament, but won't know the injury's full extent until later.
So there will be plenty of playing time available for Tepper, who could move across the line to compete with junior Mike Gibson if Smith can't play next week.
"Those guys are doing a great job with a lot of adversity," said quarterback Nate Longshore said of his line, which has yielded just two sacks in its last two games. "We've got a lot of linemen who are going to be great players. One gets knocked down, and another one just gets up."